“You’d be hard to replace”? Damn near impossible!
How hard is it to lose those last ten pounds, eh? Well, pretty damn hard, but if Ginger Rogers had been able to sweat off that last trace of a double chin in preparation for The Barkleys of Broadway, she might have been able to boost her swan song with Fred Astaire from a B- to a B+.
There were other problems with The Barkleys, notably a second-rate score and the tragically non-ignorable presence of one-man self-pity factory Oscar Levant,1 but if Ginger had been as lithe as she had been in Top Hat and Swing Time, I wonder if anyone would have noticed. The choreography, unsurprisingly, isn’t on a par with the earlier classics, but Ginger handles herself quite well, for the most part. If only we could ignore the round face and chubby shoulders and arms!
After the massive success of Easter Parade in 1948, MGM was naturally pumped about pairing Fred with Judy Garland for a second go-round, with Alan Freed again as director. But poor Judy’s temperament was flaring increasingly out of control, and when she bailed at the last minute Ginger was, rather surprisingly, ready to step in. Ginger had won an Oscar for performance in Kitty Foyle in 1940 and was still a big star, but apparently felt her career needed a bit of a boost.2 It must have cost her something to put herself through another round of Fred’s endless rehearsals, but when the camera’s rolling she looks like she’s enjoying herself.
The script for The Barkleys of Broadway was written by quintessential Broadway babes Betty Comden and Adolph Green, for whom show business was not just everything, but the only thing.3 Working on a story originally intended for Fred and Judy, they came up with a near sequel of Easter Parade — the happy couple ten years after, with Fred still acting as a bit of a Svengali4 for his protégé. They also seem to have filched a page from Kiss Me Kate, then very big on Broadway, portraying the leads as a husband-and-wife song-and-dance team who shine when they’re on-stage but snap and snarl when they’re off.
Alan Freed hired old pro Harry Warren5 to write the songs for the film, but made a serious error when he chose Ira Gershwin to do the lyrics. The composer, after all, is supposed to be the senior partner in any “words and music” duo, but there was no way that Warren could give the lead to “the great Ira Gershwin,” as Warren sourly referred to his lyricist.6
Because The Barkleys was conceived as a Fred & Judy picture rather than a Fred & Ginger picture, there’s no attempt to recapture the art deco/art moderne look of the RKO classics. The film is set in the present, and though the Barkleys’ lifestyle is thoroughly deluxe, the sets lack the attention to detail that added so much to Easter Parade. Unlike both Easter Parade and the RKO films, the sets don’t separate us from real life.
The film starts in a maddening manner: Fred and Ginger dancing while the opening credits obscure fifty percent of their act. Brilliant, Mr. Freed, brilliant!7
When the number’s over we learn that Fred and Ginger are Josh and Dinah Barkley, the toast of Broadway, wowing the crowd at the opening night of their latest smash, with a score from their favorite composer, Ezra Miller (Levant). They seem to be walking on air, but as soon as the applause dies they’re at it like dogs and cats, Fred taking all the credit and Ginger wishing she could prove herself on her own. And, at an elegant after-theatre party, Ginger meets an elegant Gallic snake-in-the-grass, “Jacques François” (Jacques Pierre Barredout), who’s got just the apple she’s been looking for, the lead in his new play, based on the life of the young Sarah Bernhardt.8
Few things are more aesthetically stimulating to an actress of a certain age than the attentions of an attractive, talented, “passionate” young man, and Ginger is definitely stimulated. Fred’s efforts to confine her to good old-fashioned, mindless American entertainment naturally backfire, and Ginger leaps the fence. Broadway’s happiest couple seems headed for splitsville. Fred, ever suspicious, slips into the rehearsal of “Young Sarah” just in time to see Jacques being rude to Ginger. Shocked, he calls Ginger after the rehearsal, and, pretending to be Jacques, gives her all the praise he knows she needs to deliver a great performance, which, ultimately, she does, reciting the words of “La Marseillaise” in a manner that, if you actually are French, must be close to unendurable.9
“Young Sarah” is a smash, and Jacques is so overwhelmed that he starts seriously coming on to Ginger — she’s so beautiful, so talented — which naturally makes Ginger realize that there’s no one like Fred. Back to America for her!
There are times when the plot of The Barkleys of Broadway achieves lift-off but it never stays airborne for long. Although Comden and Green’s script is drenched in Broadway and show biz attitude, it’s too tame for real laughs. Presenting Fred and Ginger as real theatrical egomaniacs would be entertaining, but, as Richard Nixon liked to say, “it would be wrong.” Ginger wouldn’t really cheat on Fred, would she? Fred wouldn’t really jump into bed with those cheap southern floozies the script keeps tossing his way, would he? Comedy, as Aristotle liked to say, shows us people who are worse than we are — vainer, shallower, more selfish, and more lecherous — and there’s no way that Fred and Ginger would let themselves stoop so low.
Despite the low voltage supplied by Harry Warren’s music, most of the dances are quite entertaining, if you have even the slightest affection for Fred and Ginger’s history. The elusive opener, “Swing Trot,” may be the best, but it’s also the most frustrating, because you can’t get past the damn words.
“Bouncin’ the Blues,” a high-velocity tap number accompanied largely by some nice drum and cymbal work, seems intended to recall the classic “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” from Roberta. Ginger wears a black and white outfit quite similar to the one she wore in Roberta, but she’s fifteen pounds heavier and fifteen years older to boot. Ouch! Fred, for his part, wears a dashingly knotted white scarf that’s more than a bit too fabulous. “Bouncin’ the Blues” lacks the flirtatious byplay and one-upmanship that made “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” such classics. Still, it’s a fun number, and you shouldn’t let my grouchiness spoil it for you.
“My One and Only Highland Fling,” a Scottish dialect bit, finds both Fred and Ginger in kilts and gives Ira Gershwin his only real opportunity to demonstrate his way with a rhyme. Ginger is awfully cute in this one.
“Shoes with Wings On,” Fred’s big solo, has Fred dancing with “magic” shoes. There’s some good tapping, of course, but, again, it suffers in comparison with what Fred had done before. In fact, Fred’s greatest “magic” number, the “dancing on the ceiling” number from Royal Wedding, was yet to come.
Fred introduced the Gershwin classic, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in the last “real” Fred & Ginger, Shall We Dance back in 1937. Apparently, it was Ginger who suggested that they dance to it this time around.10 The choreography here is reminiscent of the “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” number from Roberta. It’s certainly a fact that in 1949 Ginger couldn’t dance the way she had in 1935-37, but I think it’s her physique rather than her technique that really slows this one down. She’s as bulky as Fred, if not more so, and that throws off the whole balance.11
“Manhattan Downbeat,” the closer, is pretty perfunctory, and leaves us feeling a bit depleted. If only the songs had been great, the script decent, and Ginger ten pounds lighter! If only!
The Barkleys of Broadway is part of a five-film Fred & Ginger set, finally letting us see Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance? in digital restoration. Unless you’re totally compulsive (like me), they look great, and even I will confess that the Silver Sandal (the nightclub in Swing Time) looks fantastic. In addition, the sound is much better than ever before. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next year for Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, and Roberta.12 I’ve written reviews for all these films for Bright Lights,here. The Barkleys did not do well at the box office, and reports from the set suggest that neither Fred nor Ginger found the reunion invigorating. Unsurprisingly, they never worked together again. Ginger mostly worked in black-and-white films after The Barkleys, while Fred continued in glossy color musicals. By 1953, Ginger was playing over-the-hill actresses, in Forever Female and Black Widow. She retired from pictures in 1957, the same year Fred stopped making musicals, though she came back for a few “mature” roles in the early sixties. 1957 was a bit of a watershed year in American culture — the year Hollywood gave up trying to hold onto the mass audience that was flowing to television, and the year that rock and roll overwhelmed popular music.13
- Levant had a remarkable career in the thirties, forties, and fifties, as a Broadway wit and man about town, a sardonic Sardi’s habitué who spent a great deal of time publicly bemoaning the fact that he had abandoned a career as a “great” concert pianist in pursuit of cheap popularity. He had a popular TV talk show in the early fifties, broadcast live, which came to an abrupt end when, remarking on Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism prior to marrying Arthur Miller, he said that “now that Marilyn’s kosher Arthur can eat her.” [↩]
- It’s hard to believe that Ginger felt sentimental about appearing with Fred again. Although she worked steadily in pictures through the forties, and well into the fifties, none of her films after Kitty Foyle had much buzz. Still, in 1945 she was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, with earnings of almost $300,000. [↩]
- I’ve never understood the Thomistic distinction propounded by Coach Lombardi. What are we talking here, denumerable versus non-denumerable infinities, the absolute versus the manifold, natura naturans versus natura naturata? No wonder I never made the cut at Notre Dame! [↩]
- Svengali, referred to in the film, is a bit recherché for anyone under seventy. Back in 1931, John Barrymore played the lead in Svengali, based on George Du Maurier’s once-famous novel Trilby,using hypnosis to turn Marian Marsh into a great singer. I recall James Thurber writing a bit about how one of his family’s maids became hypnotized while watching the film and for a while the Thurbers thought they would have to hire Barrymore to dress up as Svengali and un-hypnotize her. Trilby has been the source of close to a dozen films, starting in 1896 (not a typo). In 1983 Peter O’Toole and Jodie Foster starred in a version made for television. [↩]
- Warren wrote the music for both 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (when Ginger sang “We’re in the Money” in pig Latin). [↩]
- According to John Mueller in Astaire Dancing, Freed compounded the offense by inviting Gershwin, but not Warren, to lunch with the big shots during the shoot. [↩]
- And an additional “Bravo!” for the idiot restorers who, when putting this film on DVD, didn’t bother to give us the opener with the credits stripped out. Instead, they fill out the disc with a sappy “Making of The Barkleys of Broadway” documentary that, naturally, tells us virtually nothing about what really took place when the film was being shot. [↩]
- With Ginger replacing Judy, the role seems almost too much of a fit. Not only did Ginger want to leave Fred and musicals for straight dramatic roles back in the thirties, but in the forties she began to show a tendency to “work young.” In The Major and the Minor (1942), she plays a young woman trying to pass herself off as a twelve-year-old so that she can get a reduced price on a train fare. Four years later in Heartbeat she played “Arlette Lafron,” an eighteen-year-old escapee from a French reform school. Comden and Green might have reworked Francois’s masterpiece to make it more accommodating for an actress in her late thirties. [↩]
- This strange shtick was possibly inspired by the scene in Casablanca where the Frenchies express their patriotic hatred of the Nazis by singing “La Marseillaise.” The film helped make the song a symbol of European resistance to Hitler Germany. [↩]
- Harry Warren couldn’t have been happy about this, but there’s no denying that the score could stand some punching up. [↩]
- Also, as Mueller points out, she holds her torso quite stiffly and, unsurprisingly, can’t do the sort of back bends she did in their earlier films. [↩]
- Also Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. [↩]
- Fred’s last musical, Silk Stockings, contains the seriously awkward “The Ritz Rock and Roll,” the last number he ever performed. [↩]