The Barkleys of Broadway
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The pairing of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948) was so dynamic that even before the film was finished, producer Arthur Freed put the screenwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to work on an original musical which would reunite Astaire and Garland. But rehearsals had barely begun on The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) when it became clear that Garland was in much too fragile an emotional state to do the film.
Coincidentally (or maybe not - Garland's emotional problems were an open secret), Ginger Rogers had sent Freed a congratulatory telegram after a preview screening of Easter Parade. Freed remembered that, and called Rogers to ask her, tentatively, if she'd have any problem working with Fred Astaire. Although Rogers was annoyed at the question, there was reason to ask. Astaire and Rogers had not worked together in ten years, since The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The popular partnership had ended after nine films together because Rogers wanted to be a dramatic actress. There were rumors that the Astaire-Rogers working relationship had been frosty, rumors that both denied in their memoirs. Rogers characterized it as "cordial, if distant." Astaire said, "Gin and I had often discussed the possibility of getting together for a rematch and here it was out of a clear sky." So Ginger Rogers replaced Garland opposite Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway. It was their tenth and final film together.
About the only hostility, in fact, came from Judy Garland. It was well known that it was difficult to light Rogers' face because it was covered with fine, downy hair. Garland sent Rogers a congratulatory bouquet...in a huge shaving mug. Soon after production began, Garland showed up on the set while Rogers was working, and began schmoozing with the cast and crew, causing a commotion. Rogers retreated to her dressing room, and director Charles Walters had Garland physically removed from the set.
If not outright hostility, there were tensions. As they had in the past, Astaire and Rogers disagreed on the height of her heels, and the use of weights in her sleeves. The songs, by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin, were not particularly memorable. In fact, the best song in the score was an old George and Ira Gershwin number, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," which had been written for another Astaire-Rogers film, Shall We Dance? (1937). In that film, Astaire had sung it to Rogers, but they had never danced to it. Rogers claimed it was her idea to use the song, which worked well in the context of the story, but Arthur Freed took the credit for that brainstorm. The Barkleys of Broadway was the first (and, as it turns out, the only) Astaire-Rogers film in Technicolor, and that too caused problems. Technicolor was still relatively new, and the blinding lights were uncomfortable to work under.
When The Barkleys of Broadway opened, critics bemoaned the mediocre score, and the fact that Rogers - who had done little dancing in the intervening years - had gained some weight, and lost some of the fluidity she'd had as a younger dancer. And they thought Rogers' dramatic rendering of the "Marseillaise" was ridiculous. But overall, there was joy from critics and fans alike at the reunion. In her book about the Astaire-Rogers films, dance critic Arlene Croce states, "No musical ever got off to a better start." The number is the up-tempo "Swing Trot," and according to Croce, "it's the best thing in the movie." Unfortunately it has to be watched through the opening credits. Unobstructed by titles, that number was finally seen in all its glory in That's Entertainment III (1994). Among other delights are Astaire's solo, "Shoes with Wings On," the Astaire-Rogers duets, "Bouncin' the Blues" and "My One and Only Highland Fling," and the witty Comden and Green script.
While The Barkleys of Broadway was in production, Fred Astaire received an honorary Academy Award "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." The Oscar was presented to him by Ginger Rogers.
Director: Charles Walters
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Editor: Albert Akst
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Costume Design: Irene, Valles
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno
Music: Lennie Hayton; songs by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Josh Barkley), Ginger Rogers (Dinah Barkley), Oscar Levant (Ezra Miller), Billie Burke (Mrs. Belney), Gale Robbins (Shirlene May), George Zucco (The Judge), Jacques Francois (Jacques), Clinton Sundberg (Bert Felsher).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri