Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Barkleys of Broadway" Surrealistic Painting

In the final Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pairing, 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway, there is very little to note. It is neither beloved nor even generally remembered except for the fact that it is the famous dancing couple’s last pairing in film. Still, I have a small place in my heart for this Technicolor farce: despite the nonexistent (or at least, unoriginal) plot and the pointless bickering of the main characters. Let’s be honest, we don’t watch Fred and Ginger movies for the plot: we watch for the incredible music and dancing. The Barkleys, however, is not incredible, but it is enjoyable enough: especially the couple’s melancholy, lovely reprise of one of my favorite Gershwin tunes, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Still, ignoring this film would be a great folly. The first reason is for the funny little painting that I’ll describe. The second is because The Barkleys is a wonderfully astute period piece: poking fun at existing Hollywood issues and illustrating Hollywood’s delusional postwar mentality.

First: the painting. So, let me set up the “plot.” Josh and Dinah Barkley are a highly successful dancing act in New York. But they have their marital issues and Dinah feels underappreciated. Early on, these problems come to a climax when the couple attends the unveiling of their portrait. In a lighthearted stab at the new surrealistic art movement, established Hollywood really did a number with this portrait (completed by an unnamed artist). The painting is absolutely ridiculous: the profiles of Josh and Dinah are molded into a pan and pancake respectively. The idea is that Josh molds Dinah, who would be lost without him. Cue argument, breakup, and attempt at independence and of course a number of musical numbers that reunite the couple.

I love this painting because for me, it illustrates the major problem with the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers relationship, even as the film pokes fun at the problem. We all know that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were equally talented. Nowadays, Ginger usually receives her props for doing everything Fred did backwards and in high heels. Still, at the time critics usually scoffed at Ginger and gave Fred credit for the genius and success of the earlier, frolicking Art Deco-filled flicks.

This painting literally illustrates a key theme in both the film and in history’s viewing of the Fred and Ginger professional relationship: that one was an overlooked but equally talented partner. It is as ridiculous as the painting not to give Ginger (or, in the movie, Dinah) her credit.  An injustice, certainly, but a theme worthy of an entire movie: doubtful.

The Barkleys of Broadway is as out of touch as some of postwar Hollywood itself. Surrealism is now seen as vogue and musicals as passé, so the Barkleys appear on the wrong side of history: lauding the latter and mocking the former.

But are they?

In an overly-sentimental reuniting of Fred and Ginger, do we want Hollywood accepting the cynicism and even bizarreness of the modern world, so aptly illustrated in surrealist paintings? The answer is a resounding no. We want the fun, the joy and the music that Fred and Ginger originally gave us. We want to listen to a Gershwin tune in an Art Deco nightclub. I dare say we even want a pointless, silly plot. We’re looking for those feelings of prewar nostalgia and innocence: when Hollywood (and the world it reflects) wasn’t confronted and influenced with all that modern nonsense. Nonsense that doesn’t like musicals and that mocks Ginger Rogers in silly paintings of breakfast foods and cooking utensils. I think the makers of The Barkleys realized that, in the end, their vision of the world and the post-war, epic-Hollywood world would be defeated. So they take their nostalgia to the extreme: making a valiant effort at even defeating terrible modern art.

Sure, I’m on the wrong side of history too: guiltily liking this movie. But what do I care? If I can enjoy all the harmless fun in The Barkleys and appreciate its inclusion of a key issue in Fred and Ginger history through a nonsensical little painting- it is only to the discredit of the establishment. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I write this and listen to my Fred Astaire soundtrack recordings…

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