Coffee & Ginger: The Castles or The Barkleys?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Welcome to a brand new segment here at Saga of Ginger called "Coffee & Ginger." This is to be the space in which I will discuss random Ginger related topics that I will try my best to condense into short posts. The reason I have titled it "Coffee & Ginger" is because not only is that my literal aesthetic, but I want the vibe here to be composed but laid back, spontaneous coffee talk about whatever I feel like discussing at the time. But it is not just for show, I actually will be drinking, you guessed it, coffee while writing these posts. Staying true to the title!

Such is the case now as I sit up in bed with a nice blazing cup of decaf McCafe because the last thing I need today is more caffeine. Like I said, I am going into this spontaneously, as I haven't really spent much time pondering what topics I should discuss. So today we are going to go with a question of preference, and that is this: The Castles or The Barkleys?

Spoilers ahead. Released in 1939, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle seemed to mark the end of the screen partnership of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The movie is based off of real life influential dancing couple Vernon and Irene Castle, ultimately ending with the tragic death of Vernon in a flight training accident during the war. There is so much beauty in the story telling of the film. It is engaging, heart warming, and tragic. The death of Fred's character and this final collaboration between the two actors at RKO symbolized the end of an era. But all was not lost for audiences, for MGM eagerly swooped onto the scene 10 years later, reuniting Astaire and Rogers for one final send off in the form of a technicolor musical, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). For me, the mere typing out of the Barkleys title immediately sparks the catchy tune of "Swing Trot" to wiggle its way into my head where it will surely remain for the rest of the night. I absolutely adore this movie.

The Castles and The Barkleys may be two entirely different films, but there are similarities to be found if you look hard enough. Both musicals present the journey of two important couples over the course of a certain period of time, one based off of true events, and the other fictional. One team becoming highly influential in the dancing scene and the other taking Broadway by storm. And both serve as a farewell from the screen from the starring team. But happy stories can only be happy for so long before that inevitable element of calamity strikes. I was around 14 years old when I watched The Castles for the first time (I'm 23 now). It was even one of the first few classic films I watched outside of a few Marilyn Monroe pictures, who I was absolutely crazy about at the time. The poignant story of The Castles made something click in my teenage brain that I am so lucky to have figured out at such a young age: black and white films aren't half bad! I was hooked. Hooked on the team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and inspired to watch more films made during that time period. Fast forward almost 10 years later and here I dedicate my time to studying Ginger Rogers and telling her story. By now I have of course seen all of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, and can absorb them with a much more cultured perspective. 

However, even considering the heartbreaking conclusion to The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and speaking only on the partnership of Astaire-Rogers and not the actual real life Castles, The Barkleys of Broadway feels even more final to me. Rather than witness their story from the beginning, we are offered only a window into a segment of their lives. This segment is filled with emotional depths and scenarios that the original RKO musicals just could not have navigated on such a deep level. The 1930s films are about escapism and The Barkleys are about reality. You watch Ginger's characters run in circles with Fred's in most of the earlier musicals, adamant that she does not want anything to do with this smitten young man who insists on following her around like a puppy until she agrees to see him. But through all of it you know they will end up together eventually because that's how it always is. However, throughout The Barkleys you aren't so sure anymore. Where we once saw Ginger's characters slowly give in to a persistent but likable Fred, we now witness her growing increasingly frustrated and resentful of her husband's Svengali attitude in a very real way. For a while we aren't so sure that this musical will end with a whimsical melody and slow fade out. Their arguments are more personal in The Barkleys than in any other film. This is because unlike the previous movies, we immediately start out with Fred and Ginger's characters being a solid, married couple. They know each other inside and out, and know how to cut deep. But it does, however, eventually end on a happy note. Josh and Dinah Barkley reconcile and the film ends with the two of them back on the stage in a chorus of dancers to the tune of "Manhattan Downbeat." It ends with a bittersweet implication: that we know there will be much more performances to come, but we won't be able to ever see them, as this is the last time Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire will share the big screen. The Castles ends on a much more moving note. Irene Castle has just learned of the death of her husband Vernon, and stares out a window where we see the ghosts of what used to be a happy young couple delightfully dance off into the distance, slowly vanishing into thin air as the music grows louder. As far as endings go, this one gives a sense of closure for the original nine RKO musicals as a whole. But speaking specifically on Fred and Ginger as a unit and separate from the complete musicals themselves, I think Barkleys is more appropriate.

Personally, I just so appreciate the opportunity that The Barkleys gives for us to explore that chemistry in situations that are such a large departure from what we are used to with these two. I personally feel that if they had ended on The Castles, some curiosities may have been left untouched, and I might have craved more from them. And The Barkleys of Broadway provides those answers for me.

There is so much to be discovered in The Barkleys when you look deeper, and not just watch what is on the surface. As far as send offs go, which of the two, to you, feels more final? Which do you feel was the more appropriate farewell for the team? Should it have ended on The Castles or The Barkleys, or do you crave even more than that? Should they have reunited again even after the 1940s? For discussions on this post and more, visit me on Twitter.

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  1. First time commenter but couldn’t resist this topic!

    While I quite like The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and admit there’s some MGM-style hokiness in Barkleys, I too agree that it’s the better film and the better choice to end their partnership on. Much rather see them go out as a husband and wife dance team than with Fred blown to smithereens.

    But both are preferable to the idea of their last film being Royal Wedding. I’ve read once or twice that Ginger was one of many briefly considered before Jane Powell for that film. Don’t know if true or if script would have changed, but the idea of those two playing brother and sister, much less in their last film together, would have been just plain wrong.

    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion! I too agree that seeing them as brother and sister in their last film would have been odd and would hope that there would have been a script change if that were the case. I also agree that both The Barkleys and The Castles are preferable to the Royal Wedding thought. Jane Powell suits her role in Royal Wedding perfectly well and I'm glad that came to be.


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