When discussing famous dynamic duos of yesteryear, there are a number of different couples that spring to mind; Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are more than enough to satisfy anyone’s movie watching sensibilities.
Perhaps one of the more popular and sexier pairings is the timeless coupling of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Filming 10 movies in the span of 17 years (9 with RKO and just 1 with MGM) Rogers and Astaire were truly a force to be reckoned with. If you’ve ever heard the saying “She gave him sex, while he gave her class” more often than not that quote can be attributed to their relationship.
From Top Hat to The Gay Divorcee, everyone and their mother (whether they like to admit or not) has a favorite Rogers and Astaire film. One picture that doesn’t nearly that get enough recognition and love is their musical swan-song, The Barkleys of Broadway.
Released in 1949, The Barkleys of Broadway is a comedic look at the hardships of being a Broadway star and the unintentional consequences and stresses of working with your significant other.
In the film, Rogers and Astaire play married couple Josh and Dinah Barkley. It’s the opening night of their new play in downtown Manhattan, and despite getting a standing ovation from the audience, behind the scenes tells a much different story.
As as the Barkleys step behind the satin curtain, quickly deafening the roar of the crowd the veneer of stability is tarnished when we find out that Josh is irate at his wife’s brazen flirtation with French playwright Jacques Pierre Barredout (played by Jacques François.)
Naturally being a red-blooded, American male, Josh doesn’t take too kindly to some foreigner ogling his very attractive wife. In retaliation, he confronts Dinah – and not her French boy toy – about the debacle, which only fans the flames even further.
In actuality, Dinah was speaking with Jacques after he made an off the cuff remark about her lack of dramatic roles. Tensions increase further when later that night at an art gallery, another artist compares Josh to Svengali and that Dinah’s entire career hinged on Josh’s command.
After a couple of days of contemplation, Dinah found herself agreeing with the Frenchmen and secretly began shopping scripts with the hope of starring in one.
One weekend, Dinah would get her wish when she and Josh are invited up to Jacques’ bungalow in the cozy fictional town of Danbridge, where he’s celebrating the completion of his new script.
While Josh meanders out into the garden, Dinah questions Jacques’ judgment when she learns that actress Pamela Driscoll (who she’s not very fond of) is cast in the starring role. Jacques agrees with her sentiments and smoothly asks Dinah if she would like the role instead; guilt-ridden, she accepts his offer.
A couple days later after the twosome returns to New York after their weekend getaway, Josh discovers his wife’s secret when he accidentally sees her rehearsing lines from a script that obviously didn’t pertain to their stage act.
Jumping to a conclusion faster than Wile E. Coyote plots to catch Road Runner, Josh accuses Dinah of having an affair. She scoffs at this accusation and promptly walks out on not only Josh but everything they’ve worked for.
With the freedom to be an independent woman and a chip on her shoulder, Dinah scurries back to Jacques, cementing her place as the new leading actress in his latest play.
Josh attempts to perform the next batch of “Barkley” shows alone, while Dinah spends her newfound freedom rehearsing for Jacques’ upcoming play. Seeing as though Dinah spent the majority of her career as a comedic actress, the transition to more serious roles proved to be a challenge.
Things for the Barkleys get worse when their sardonic family friend Ezra Miller (played by Oscar Levant) deceives them into performing together again at a hospital benefit.
Being the iconic duo that they were, their performance receives a standing ovation. Josh suggests that they get back together, feeling a bit nostalgic about their past accomplishments. Dinah rejects his offer, claiming that he’s, “taken her services for granted for too long.”
But, that doesn’t stop Josh from being a doting husband.
When Dinah isn’t paying attention during rehearsals, Josh has a habit of watching her practice through a small window hidden behind various curtains and props. When he sees her struggling with some of the lines one day, he takes the initiative to call her using a very fake French accent disguised as Barredout using a nearby payphone.
A few days and many painstaking practices later, Jacques’ play finally premieres. With Josh watching from behind the curtain, he stands in awe of his wife as she pours her heart out on stage.
The play ends and Dinah’s performance passes with flying colors. While tears are being shed and champagne is getting popped backstage, Dinah finds out that it was, in fact, her husband who was giving her the tips that she initially believed were from Barredout.
What Josh thought would be a pleasant surprise for his wife turned out to be one of disgust. Dinah is “shocked and annoyed” at Josh’s harmless ‘prank’ and she admits to him that she was, indeed, having an affair with her director.
Naturally, this leaves Josh absolutely devasted and on the verge tears, until Dinah relents and quickly retracts her statement revealing to her husband that this was just, as he would put it, a ‘harmless prank.’
In the end, the Barkleys reconcile not only as a musical duo but as a couple, thus forgetting all hardships they went through for the past couple of months.
Conclusion and Some Interesting Behind The Scenes Information
The Barkleys of Broadway is a very good musical. It’s not the best, nor is it the worst Astaire/Rogers collaboration, but it holds its own.
Many classic movie fans may not consider it to be on par with some of their other films, but it can still be considered a picture worthy of praise.
The film is impeccably directed and flawlessly paced; there was never a dull moment in this movie. Bringing together Ginger and Fred again for what I thought was an unnecessary nostalgia trip is a decision that should be lauded.
The intriguing thing about this is that the role of Dinah almost went to MGM’s resident musical expert Judy Garland.
In 1948, Astaire and Garland gained raved reviews for their performances in the musical comedy Easter Parade. This prompted producer Arthur Freed to give the ‘go ahead’ to the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to begin a new screenplay that would reunite Judy and Fred in another musical.
The title? The Barkleys of Broadway.
Things were all going to plan for Freed and Garland until her long battle with depression started to catch up with her, forcing her to drop out of the project. The stars finally aligned when a couple of days later after the first reviews were released for Easter Parade, Rogers sent Freed a telegram congratulating him on his success.
Fully aware that he needs a replacement for his film – and fast, Freed reached out to Ginger again and delicately asked her if she’d care to work again with her former dance partner.
Apparently, Ginger was rather irritated the question but it was a necessary evil for Freed. Out of a leading actress for his upcoming movie, desperate times called for desperate measures, right?
Luckily for Freed (and the movie watching public for that matter), Ginger accepted the offer making The Barkleys of Broadway their 10th and final movie together.
As far as musicals go, The Barkleys of Broadway is certainly not the best, but for what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for it in the chemistry between Astaire and Rogers.
I supposed that’s the biggest appeal of this movie.
It isn’t something you watch to enjoy with friends, it’s a movie you keep hidden away in your personal collection, only bringing it out when you’ve finished binge-watching the rest of the Rogers and Astaire‘s filmography.
A perfect ending to 10 years of cinematic excellence.