As it is with countless MGM musicals, “The Barkleys of Broadway” benefits from prestigious treatment at the hands of many: producer Arthur Freed, director Charles Walters, art directors Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno (charming background sketches and pantings, most notably for the “My One and Only Highland Fling” number) and set decorator Edwin B. Wallis, whose touch makes homes and stages nearly look like palaces. Such grand design from all sides and it’s regretfully wasted on a paltry Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairing which is no fault of the famous dancing partners. Brought together once more after Judy Garland dropped out, they recall through faint memory their own chemistry which lasted them many films, and dancing which still has their own unmistakable skills.
This is a weak reteaming, unfortunately, and it’s the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green which does that. As Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married musical comedy team making the Broadway lights brighter, Astaire and Rogers can still do conflict, especially when Josh criticizes part of Dinah’s performance, “especially in the subway scene”, and that’s what sets her off. While he believes that she couldn’t work without him because he molded her, she decides to look elsewhere while still trying to maintain a pleased public face. She finds a way out through Jacques Barredout (Jacques Francois), one of those eternally fallen-face playwrights, showing no emotion unless it’s desperately necessary. His play about a young Sarah Bernhardt strikes her interest, and she pursues her new desire. But within all this, so much makes it a chore to watch.
The producer of the Barkleys’ musical comedy show, Bert Felsher (Clinton Sundberg, who was used to better effect in “Easter Parade”), decides to bring on an understudy so that if Dinah decides not to show up one night on account of yet another fight, the show can still open. For a time, the new understudy, Shirlene May (Gale Robbins) tries to bring down Dinah. She wants to play the role, but is so darn irksome and obvious, that it doesn’t matter much anyway. It comes to a head at the end of the unusual “My One and Only Highland Fling” number (which features Fred Astaire in a kilt), when Dinah nearly trips over her prop cane used in the number, but Shirlene expresses outright disappointment at the obvious not happening. Oscar Levant makes good as Ezra Millar, the couple’s composer and mutual friend, whose biting cynical wit always makes good for any musical he’s in. He’s a welcome relief for when the story is too into itself, which is frequent in this one. When Shirlene walks away in a huff in one scene, Ezra comments, “You know, I find that girl completely resistible.”
The musical numbers are mild, and Oscar Levant has one piano number too many. In musicals featuring him, there’s got to be a piano handy and he plays one number at a post-show party held in honor of the Barkleys and one at a stage benefit for a hospital. It’s the second that, while Levant’s talents are considerable, causes fury for the movie not moving faster than it should. One of the famed numbers of Astaire’s career is here, Shoes with Wings On, in which dancing shoes on Astaire’s feet cause him to dance and other dancing shoes with seemingly no dancers in them, join him. It’s just a bunch of dancing shoes and nothing really engrossing. And of course, contrived plot devices are handy when Josh learns he can imitate the French playwright fairly well and calls Dinah, playing the playwright. This leads to a few moments throughout when he advises her on the phone for the better, as she isn’t doing so well in the rehearsals for her own play, in which Josh takes time to spy on her. Just let them dance and people will be happy. That was the whole point of the Astaire/Rogers legacy and more room should have been made for their dancing. While an MGM musical insists on at least a little more story for the talent involved, and just because Astaire and Rogers were back then in a different decade, away from their old films, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been able to keep being themselves. They were slaves to this script, and a better-written script would have sufficed.
Disappointingly as well, a brief set of interviews on this DVD, packaged as “Reunited: Astaire and Rogers Together Again”, makes good on discussing the history and circumstances on how Astaire and Rogers ended up together again, but makes too much of a hullabaloo about the appeal of both stars. No doubt they still appeal to our romantic, dancing, and fun-loving sides of our personalities to this day. Unfortunately, the entire opportunity is missed to discuss the technical side of the production, those background paintings and sketches for the stage-bound numbers for one. Surely MGM has attracted enough historians that those people with minds full of knowledge could have given information on one of the most important aspects of this production. As the years have proven, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could have danced against a blank background and people would have been entranced, but they always deserved and got the most artful backgrounds and stage designs. That’s what’s sorely missing here. A “Passing Parade” short film entitled “Annie Was a Wonder” looks briefly at the slew of immigrant women from various countries who were put to work as maids and tells the story of Annie Swenson, whom the narrator remembers as an incredible maid, with tireless devotion not only to the work at hand, but in studying to become a citizen of the U.S.
With these single-disc releases (All five Astaire & Rogers DVDs including “Follow the Fleet” and “Top Hat” are also together in a box set), they just aren’t complete without the required cartoon and a Droopy cartoon, “Wags to Riches” resides in this one, directed by Tex Avery, and finding Droopy as the inheritor of his former master’s wealthy manor, much to the anger of Spike who strives to get rid of Droopy after learning that the property reverts back to him if Droopy dies. But in joyous Tex Avery fashion, nothing ever goes as Spike wants it, and we are all the better for it. The disc also benefits from cover art, which is actually the film’s poster. There’s nothing like history right in hand, though better days are likely found on the other Astaire/Rogers selections.