Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 03 January 2007
Source MGM DVD
Reviews: That’s Entertainment!
Although The Barkleys of Broadway marked the tenth and final collaboration between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it feels less like an Astaire-Rogers movie than a bittersweet Technicolor coda to the delightfully far-fetched musical comedy-romances they appeared in during the 1930s. Reunited after a ten-year hiatus from working with each other, the pair appears here as Josh and Dinah Barkley, a wildly successful husband-and-wife dance team whose offstage tension threatens to ruin their Broadway success. In a plot that uncannily mirrors the widely reported off-screen personalities and ambitions of its stars, Josh’s perfectionism and unwillingness to cede much credit to his wife drives Dinah, in a bid to be taken seriously, to accept the role of a young Sarah Bernhardt in a play written by a handsome young Frenchman.
This decision initially drives the two apart, but after secretly observing a rehearsal in which Dinah bumbles her way through the role, flustered by the playwright’s conflicting directions, Josh adopts a French accent and begins coaching her over the phone (in the guise of the playwright), finally realizing that his wife thrives when she is being built up rather than torn down. Just as Rogers went on to win an Oscar for a dramatic role (1940’s Kitty Foyle), Dinah ultimately triumphs in the Bernhardt play (though it’s difficult to gauge whether Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who co-wrote the movie’s script, meant for Dinah’s pivotal dramatic scene – as Sarah reciting the words to “Le Marseillaise” – to come off as patently ridiculous as it does), but it soon dawns on her that Josh was an integral part of that success. Needless to say, the two swiftly reunite with the promise to appear in more musical comedies together (a rebuff to “serious” roles that slyly echoes Joel McCrea’s epiphany in Sullivan’s Travels).
Although it boasts some memorable dance sequences, most notably Josh and Dinah’s dance to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (which Astaire sang to Rogers but never danced to in 1937’s Swing Time), The Barkleys of Broadway lacks the screwball sparkle of Astaire and Rogers’ earlier pairings. It has been widely noted that the plots of the films they appeared in together (with the exception of the 1939 biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) were essentially interchangeable, but for many (myself included), that was part of the charm. Absent here are the glorious art deco sets, the stunning ballgowns, the stock of reliably wacky supporting characters (memorably played by Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, and Edward Everett Horton, among others), and the specter of a young, lovesick Astaire furiously pursuing Rogers through a web of mistaken identities and misunderstandings (Barkleys is more of a comedy of remarriage).
Still, the movie remains notable for its fusion of the new and the old. Made under the supervision of Arthur Freed at MGM, it in many ways heralds the changes the musical genre would undergo during the 1950s (Astaire’s “Shoes with Wings” routine in particular calls to mind Gene Kelly’s more athletic dance style), but it also allows fans to savor one last glimpse of one of the screen’s most memorable pairings, dancing off into the sunset together.