Fred and Ginger’s RKO partnership ended after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939. It wasn’t that they hated each other, or had creative differences, or anything like that–they simply wanted to part ways. RKO’s money problems were a determining factor as well. Ten years later, however, the two were reunited at MGM for a big, plushy Technicolor musical, The Barkleys of Broadway.
The movie starts on Opening Night, with husband and wife team Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred and Ginger, of course) dancing in the finale of their new show, called, coincidentally enough, The Barkleys of Broadway. It’s a full house and full of applause, with the Barkleys and their conductor, Ezra (Oscar Levant) all coming out for the curtain call. The Barkleys spend two solid minutes thanking each other for making the production so wonderful, and for putting in fantastic performances, and so on. The love-fest goes on for so long that Ezra finally calls it, and it’s on to the cast party given by their friend, Mrs. Belney (Billie Burke).
During the car ride over, Josh mentions offhandedly that Dinah could have been funnier during the subway scene in the show, and Dinah takes offense. They’re still going at it when they arrive at the party, only they have to put it on hold because the press is waiting right outside.
Dinah and Josh patch things up and make plans to sneak some food out to the balcony. Dinah is busy loading up the plates when a handsome gentleman, Jacques (Jacques François) approaches her and tells her she has the makings of being a great tragic actress. He loved the subway scene. Dinah is entranced.
Later on at home, Josh and Dinah hit the play button on their argument when he starts asking questions about the mysterious Jacques. Dinah can’t deny that she’s intrigued by the idea of being a tragic actress, and hams her way around the bathroom a bit. Josh scoffs at the idea, and tells Dinah he made her. He’s her Svengali. Dinah is ticked off at this idea, and throws a lotion bottle at his head. She’s full of righteous indignation until Josh tells her she drew blood. Then she’s full of apologies.
The kerfuffel is far from over, though. Dinah and Josh go to an art exhibition at the Landreau Gallery, where they’re shown their portrait: A skillet in the shape of Josh’s face and Dinah as the pancake inside of it. Dinah is weirded out, and the artist explains to her that it portrays Josh as shaping her and making her what she is. Like Svengali. Oops.
Dinah makes a quick exit, only to run into Mrs. Belney and Jacques. Dinah goes from mad to dreamy, and when Jacques mentions he’s finished a play on Sarah Bernhard, she’s very interested. Josh hustles her out of there, but not before Mrs. Belney invites them to her country house. “We have to go. Time to strap on a feedbag,” Josh says. Jacques brings out the gangster in him.
Jacques lures Dinah into playing the lead in his new play when he just happens to leave it lying on the floor at Mrs. Belney’s country house, and then he just happens to find her reading it. Dinah was supposed to meet Josh out on the golf course, but instead she’s hypnotized by the idea of playing Sarah Bernhard. Josh comes in annoyed, only to find Dinah swooning on the couch. He’s too busy feeling sympathetic to realize he’s been had.
Dinah rehearses the Sarah Bernhard role in secret., and she makes the mistake of doing it when Josh comes home early for a Look Magazine photo shoot. He’s not too happy about it because he feels like Dinah’s been lying to him, and finding a note from Jacques complimenting her on her little couch performance just seals the deal. Dinah storms out and the headlines about the Barkleys’ split splash across front pages everywhere.
Rehearsals for Young Sarah commence, while Josh carries on with the current show, substituting a barnacle named Shirlene (Gale Robbins) in for Dinah’s part. She’s a little too cute, and she wants Josh to be her Svengali. He and Ezra are a bit freaked out by this woman, so Josh mostly goes it alone. This is when we get to see the brilliant “Shoes With Wings On” number, which utilized very early green screen technology.
Anyway, things aren’t going so well for Dinah. Josh can’t restrain his curiosity, so he sneaks over to the theater and is sorry to find Dinah floundering. Jacques may be able to write plays, but he’s a rubbish director. “It’s not musical comedy, it’s legitimate theater.” he keeps telling Dinah. Josh does a pretty fair impression of Jacques, though, and he calls Dinah during rehearsals and explains her character to her. The real Jacques can’t figure out why Dinah is suddenly nailing her part, but he doesn’t mind at all.
One of the major differences between The Barkleys of Broadway and Fred and Ginger’s RKO films, sublime as they are, is the plot of Barkleys is definitely meatier. Fred and Ginger’s chracters are married, they’re older, and it’s ten years after their last film together. Throughout this movie, it’s a toss-up as to who can do the best job of manipulation. Josh and Dinah understand each other so well that when one gets to the other, they really make an impression. Put simply, these two can’t live apart, and when they’re together, it’s electric.
MGM really pulled out all the stops with this film. It was produced by Arthur Freed. Adolph Comden and Betty Green wrote the screenplay, Roger Edens was a producer, Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren, Conrad Salinger, and Lennie Hayton did the music. Robert Alton, who was famous for busy choreography, developed the dance numbers. Ginger’s costumes were done by Irene, and they’re very distinctive (I love the gold lamé bubble dress she wears during the opening credits). Fred and Ginger couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.
This film is available on Amazon.