The Barkleys of Broadway (Charles Walters, 1949) contains some expectedly poor-taste jokes, like one that men find it hard to tell women apart at parties, which is actually rather funny in the way the joke is executed through the film although I have a problem with it in principal – but, you know, showbiz. I suppose that Oscar Levant can pull of pretty much anything, including being a deadpan, womanising producer and a killer on the piano keys. And that a wife is always more submissive to a man’s mood than vice versa. But Billie Burke is superb as a party-maker, especially in the first scene where she wears a pink dress much like hers in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but without so much tulle.
While MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway is almost nothing compared to Astaire and Rogers’ 1930s musicals at RKO, it’s great to see them dancing together again. One of the non sequitur dance numbers in their show, “My One and Only Highland Fling”, is a hoot. But their tap dance rehearsal to “Bouncin’ the Blues”, when Rogers is wearing a marvellous pair of slacks, is just superb. In over two minutes, there are only two cuts, not including one after five seconds of intro music. The first cut takes us to a tighter medium close up of the couple during a spin move, and the second cuts to a crane shot that gives perspective on the stage space and then pans down to level with the dancers. It’s really a breathtaking scene, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off Rogers — not unusual, as I mostly watch her in their numbers, but she just so suits this relaxed tap feel. It’s my favourite moment in this film, when Rogers and Astaire never quite reach the same level of charm as in their earlier films.
Then there a ludicrous scene where an eccentric European artist reveals his impression of the Barkleys as…a pancake in a frying pan. The artist suggests that Josh (the pan, naturally) is in his impression like Svengali — “the man with the beard” he remembers, as he strokes an imaginary one on his own chin — but what it is really suggestive of is Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein’s, of course. Dinah is the pancake, because she’s shaped by her husband’s excessive talents or something as uninspiring as that.
Josh is a pig, telling Dinah that she’s talentless. They separate, they get lonely, and a plot of deceit begins which of course is ultimately forgiven. Astaire sings George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, and they dance it beautifully, repeating a musical union from Shall We Dance (1937) when they didn’t dance!
Josh gets all gallant at the end, and says that Dinah could be great in the part — any part at all — but that Jacques doesn’t know how to direct her. So he wants to help her, and so the final act begins. But see, he was the one being the arsehole to her about her talents in the first place, so I just don’t buy it. He never apologises, but they reach an understanding and fall in love again, which in the end, is the utopian goal of the musical that breeds such desire for its own ending. As entertainment, anyway, in the way Richard Dyer sees it. (In large part, in the sense that the film presents complex feelings “in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid,” apart from an intriguing attention to the fact that Dinah and Josh are merely separated and this is unpleasant for them both.) Earlier in the film, Jacques criticises Dinah’s acting ability and approach to her part, scowling, “This is not a musical comedy, it’s a legitimate play.” It’s the ultimate jerk move, because he has cruel intentions. But Rogers is not actually a great dramatic actress, or at least, not a great melodramatic actress — ie. when she is called on to make dramatic turns in comedies. Early in this film when she has to cry, I’m reminded of her joyous but somewhat pained stint as a “teenager” in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952), when all she really does is pout and whinge. In something like Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951), both Rogers and Doris Day are excellent.
In the end when there are multiple misunderstandings and pretending while the other person knows, and doesn’t know, and double pretending, and then one of those final killer lines when Ginger says she doesn’t want to do any more plays because “no more worrying about the plot” which could be easy to take offence to given the line listed above, but it’s all in good fun and yes, kind of true. Apologies to Richard Dyer for over-simplifying his argument. I was at a conference in the USA in October, and Brent Phillips presented work from his then-upcoming book on Walters, Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.