Why Barkleys is My Favorite Fred and Ginger Film

Saturday, September 4, 2021

 


More often then not, people are surprised to learn that my personal favorite installment of all the Astaire-Rogers musicals happens the be The Barkleys of Broadway from 1949. Generally, I have observed that most Fred and Ginger fans tend to gravitate more towards the original nine musicals made at RKO in the 1930s. And for good reason: they inspire a great sense of nostalgia across multiple generations of classic movie fans. From the unforgettable dance numbers such as "Night and Day," "Pick Yourself Up," and "Never Gonna Dance," to the comedic talents of character actors Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, and Erik Rhodes, it is easy to see why these musicals have remained timeless and greatly celebrated. The Technicolor Barkleys of Broadway is set apart from all of these in many contrasting ways, but for me still holds the same sense of nostalgia and escapism as its predecessors. 


Barkleys stands out to me for lots of reasons, one of them being how often Josh and Dinah butt heads throughout the movie. In fact, this does sometimes turn audiences off because they are hoping to witness the same young love story from the older films that they are used to seeing. The RKO originals often involved Fred chasing Ginger with his persistent charm until she eventually gave in, with innocent spats peppered in. Barkleys is different. The actors have matured across the previous decade, and their characters' fights do not seem quite as harmless. In the black and white musicals, you know that no matter what happens, Fred and Ginger will come out strong. They will always end up together in the end, dancing alongside one another until the fade to black. But in The Barkleys of Broadway, we aren't so sure. That's honestly what I love about it. It gives me a feeling of urgency that the previous films cannot. The genuine wonder of, "is this going to be the film where they don't make it?"


Dinah Barkley seems to become defensive and hurt whenever it is brought up that she did not perform up to her true potential on stage, or whenever Josh makes a critique or suggestion. Obviously I did not know Ginger Rogers, but from what I have read before about her as a person, it seems that she would feel very hurt if she read a harsh review of one of her film performances, which is obviously a very human reaction. Ginger's friend, artist Edna Hibel, said in 1995: "Ginger was a vulnerable woman. She was very sensitive and she felt hurt when she got a bad review or when someone said something that wasn't nice." Perhaps Ginger herself did not display this as outwardly as her character Dinah Barkley, but perhaps it is a glimpse into how she may have felt on the inside.


"You're a song and dance girl," is what Josh tells Dinah during the bathroom argument scene. Soon after, he fires at her the idea that he is her Svengali. Svengali is a term that gets thrown around a lot when discussing Fred and Ginger's partnership. A lot of people have the same view about them in real life, that Fred was Ginger's Svengali, but here's what Ginger had to say about it in her 1991 autobiography: "Over the years, myths were built up about my relationship with Fred Astaire. The general public thought he was a Svengali, who snapped his fingers for his little Trilby to obey; in their eyes, my career was his creation." What those people seem to be unaware of is the fact that Ginger first rose to fame on stage as a young girl. After winning a Texas state Charleston competition as a young girl in late 1925, Ginger's star rapidly ascended. From there, she traveled across small stages of the United States, and it wasn't long before she made it to Broadway, appearing first in "Top Speed," followed by the famed Gershwin classic "Girl Crazy."


Ginger in the Gershwin musical “Girl Crazy,” 1930


Dinah Barkley is yearning to move on from musical comedy and to be seen as a more dramatic actress. This only becomes more apparent when she is told by Jacques Barredout (Jacques François) that her talents are wasted in musicals. This aspect aligned with Ginger's aspirations in real life. By the late 1930s, she was hoping to branch out from her films with Fred Astaire and move on to more dramatic roles that didn't involve dancing. Both Fred and Ginger wanted to be seen as separate artists, rather than as one unit all the time. They greatly enjoyed working together and became close friends, but every on screen partnership must come to an end at some point. With the release of their final RKO pairing in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), the dancing duo would part ways for a decade until their final film together (Barkleys) in 1949. During that decade, Ginger's creative focus was spent less on musical comedy and more on heavier roles. It wasn't long before her hard work paid off when she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1940 for her role in Kitty Foyle. Her portrayal of Dinah Barkley is a culmination of experience of a multitude of roles throughout her career up until that point. Her wisecracking insults towards Shirlene is reminiscent of  her character in 42nd Street (1933). Her expert comedic delivery and confidence in her dance steps are a joy to watch, and they make me think of her various characters form previous Astaire-Rogers musicals. And that longing look in her eyes during "They Can't Take That Away From Me" evoke memories of watching her in Kitty Foyle (1940) and Tender Comrade (1943).


Dinah Barkley signifies the end of an era for Ginger the same way The Barkleys of Broadway closes the final chapter of a timeless screen partnership. It was the last movie musical she completed in her career. Beginning in the mid 1950s, Ginger's film roles began to thin out as she focused more on stage work and summer stock. She made audiences laugh and sing as she took on the coveted role of Dolly Levi in Broadway's "Hello, Dolly!" in the mid 1960s. The role of Dinah Barkley was not made for Ginger, it was originally intended for Judy Garland, who was let go from the production and replaced by Ginger. And while I always wonder how the film would have turned out with Judy, I am grateful we got to see Ginger as Dinah, because I think that the role fits her like a glove. Of all ten Astaire-Rogers musicals, Barkleys is the one I find myself revisiting the most. The soundtrack is incredible, and there is a much deeper story to be unpacked than what's on the immediate surface. I hope that those who read this give The Barkleys of Broadway another watch with this in mind, and can appreciate Ginger's range as an actor, dancer, and vocalist even more.




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