Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Barkleys of Broadway: It Takes Two to Tango -- or Tap Dance

I once had the bizarre experience of seeing an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical in the middle of the night while on a flight to Europe. While the other passengers slumbered in their seats, I watched 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. This sentimental confection about a real-life ballroom dance team from the early 20th century is moderately entertaining, but it climaxes with a moment that certainly gave me pause. (It’s one that that the airline folks clearly overlooked when choosing programming for their seatback entertainment systems.) Near the end of the film, with World War I raging, Irene Castle gets a message regarding her beloved husband, who has enlisted in the British flying corps. It’s bad news, both for her and for airline passengers who like old musicals: Vernon Castle has just died in a plane crash.

 No such real-world shock mars Astaire and Rogers’ very last film, 1949’s  The Barkleys of Broadway. Still, it does reflect, just a bit, on the history of the Astaire-Rogers teaming. They had shot 9 musicals together at RKO, starting with 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, in which both were featured players. Then, as Astaire looked for other partners as well as solo opportunities, Rogers segued into non-musical roles. Some were comedies, but her dramatic portrayal of a young career gal tempted by money and love won her an Oscar for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, subtitled The Natural History of a Woman. I’m especially fond of her hilarious role as a grown woman masquerading as a precocious kid in the first American film directed by Billy Wilder, 1942’s The Major and the Minor.

 So the Astaire-Rogers partnership seemed done for, until it became clear that an emotionally fragile Judy Garland was not up to the role of Astaire’s wife and performance partner in an MGM full-color extravaganza, The Barkleys of Broadway.  I’m unclear how much rewriting was done to accommodate the return of Rogers into Astaire’s musical orbit, but the predictably witty Betty Comden/Adolph Green screenplay seems to pick up on the duo’s real-life relationship, including Astaire’s perfectionism as well as Rogers’ turn toward drama. They play a married couple who are at the height of their Broadway success as a song-and-dance team. Mere moments after they’re praising one another to the skies for their latest stage success, they’re once again bickering about his nitpicking ways and her quickness to take offense. When a handsome French director tells Dinah Barkley (Rogers, of course) that she’s a born dramatic actress, and proceeds to star her in a new play about the young Sarah Bernhardt, the marriage seems kaput. Nor does her dramatic debut look particularly promising, since her new director seems unable to coax from her the histrionic dynamism that the play requires. But Astaire’s Josh Barkley, alerted to his wife’s floundering by one of the era’s popular movie sidekicks, acerbic pianist Oscar Levant, finds a clever way to secretly coax from Dinah a stellar performance. Of course the marital partnership is saved, and everyone lives happily ever after.

 Although I thrill to the best of the swoony Astaire/Rogers ballroom duets, my particular favorites are the novelty numbers. Fred Astaire seemed to revel in choreographies that placed his dance skills against unlikely backdrops and gave him eccentric props. See, for instance “Drum Crazy” from Easter Parade, and the  Royal Wedding number where he dances on the ceiling. In The Barkleys of Broadway he outdoes himself (the number is called “Shoes With Wings On”) by portraying a cobbler nearly overwhelmed by pairs of shoes with minds of their own. Brilliant!


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