Saturday, October 23, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Ten years after their historic partnership ended, Fred and Ginger teamed up for one last dance in MGM's The Barkleys of Broadway. A lot of people really like this movie because of the verisimilitude and the fact that it was shot in Technicolor, but I personally find it insipid. The dances are fairly good, and Fred and Ginger have four together, which is more than the usual three, but that doesn't make it one of their best. In my previous review, I stated that The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle reminded us of everything we lost with the dissolution of the Astaire/Rogers partnership. This film, however, only seems to intensify that feeling because we see Fred and Ginger when they're older, and because of the lack of quality in the other aspects of the film. MGM as usual makes a lavish production of it, complete with interludes of classical piano by Oscar Levant, but it rings hollow in our ears. In the end it feels like "a tale told by an idiot, full or sound an fury, signifying nothing," to quote the Bard.

Speaking of bards, the real reason this movie falls flat is the movie. Even though they composed several new tunes for this production, the only one that's worth a dime is the reprise they do of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from from their previous film Shall We Dance. I'm sorry to say this, but even great dancers can't be at the top of their game unless the music is worthy of their talent. I mean, Singin' in the Rain features some of the best dance sequences ever recorded on film, but it wouldn't have been remembered if those dances weren't to a score of hit songs from the '20s and '30s. That being said, the music in Barkleys is still palatable; it just isn't memorable the way songs from other Astaire/Rogers films are.

I also have to say that despite the fact that the plot line is art imitating life, I don't find it to be that good. Yes, I appreciate the irony of  Ginger playing the song-and-dance girl who yearns to be a dramatic actress--Rogers would win a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1941--and Fred playing the one who gets all the credit for being the genius in the duo, their relationship just isn't enjoyable. I realized while watching the movie again for this review that I don't want to see Fred and Ginger playing a bickering married couple. I want to see Fred as the ardent young lover pursuing his great flame Ginger. But the two of them were too old for that when this film came out--Fred was 50, Ginger was 38 but not aging well. Still, it's more enjoyable to see these two as lovers fighting to overcome misunderstandings and bad luck than an embittered couple ready to abandon their failing marriage. It's the difference between the optimism of young love versus the cynicism of experience. Fred and Ginger are far more suited to the former.

Now let me talk about the dances. Fred does a really nice solo number in "Shoes with Wings On," and the "They Can't Take That Away from Me" reprise is a solidly good routine as is a tap routine without lyrics that Fred and Ginger do, but they're not enough to make up for the badness of the other elements of the film.

So in the end MGM can't really recapture the magic that Astaire and Rogers had in the '30s. It's not a bad movie, but it can't help paling in comparison to its predecessors.

I give this film a 6.9, tied with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle for the lowest of the Astaire/Rogers films.

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