Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Berkleys of Broadway (1949)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers left an indelible mark on 1930s cinema with the nine films they did together, from their unforgettable second billing in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio" through "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939).  In fact Fred only appeared in one other movie during their six-year collaboration, 1937's rather jolly "A Damsel in Distress" (a far more entertaining confection than Whit Stillman's new "Damsels in Distress"). While rumours abounded that they didn't really get on together, they managed to create some truly magical moments still remembered by many.   The partnership broke up when Fred's financial demands were considered over-excessive by RKO and Ginger craved the opportunity to prove that she could make it as a 'serious' dramatic actress.  She actually won a best actress Oscar in 1940, but I have never been too keen on her in most of her subsequent roles, whereas Fred appeared in a variety of OK musicals with a selection of different partners, some memorable, some not.

By the mid 1940s, Fred was just about ready to retire from the film business when he was asked to replace an ailing Gene Kelly in "Easter Parade" with Judy Garland in 1948.  That pairing was so successful that plans were made for them to star together again in the above movie.  However, as luck would have it, her own health problems precluded her taking the role of Mrs. Berkley, and Fred and Ginger ended up together again, their tenth and final film together, after a gap of ten years.  Produced by the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, it was their first film in colour and proved an enormous hit with the public, largely because of their accrued good will.  However I must disagree with the movie's many fans and mark it as something of a disaster -- or perhaps something of a 'Parson's Egg', with a few tasty bits outweighed by some embarrassing business.

In an occasionally witty script from ace writers Comden and Greene, they begin the film as a rather mature and highly successful married couple (something they never were initially in their 30s' films) top of the pecking order in their musical comedy stardom.  However Dinah Berkley always feels that Josh Berkley is too much of a perfectionist and occasionally too critical of her prowess.  When she meets a French playwright-director played by Jacques Francois (an actor with a long but not particularly distinguished career in French cinema), he encourages her dramatic aspirations in his new play about young Sarah Bernhardt and the couple split.. Now part of the problem with this movie is that Rogers is no longer the fresh-faced ingenue from their original films and she is certainly too old to play the young Sarah.  Also pairing the now slightly hard-faced actress as a peppy dancer slightly strains credibility; Astaire on the other hand always looked older than his years, but remained lithe and dapper with it, and although 50 here to Rogers' 38 he is definitely the more likeable.

Freed places this pair in a overly-contrived and fluffy tale which amounts to 'boy' loses 'girl', 'boy' gets 'girl' back, as Fred pretends to be the Frenchman over the 'phone, coaching Ginger to give the performance that he knows her to be capable of.  A significant part of this movie's lack of charm lies with the musical score from Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin, which is not a patch on the previous nine films with scores from the like of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.  In fact their only successful duet together, capturing a remnant of the old magic, is a reprise of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from 1937's "Shall We Dance".  They 'treat' us to an absolutely horrendous pseudo-accented Scottish "Highland Fling" number which is little short of embarrassing, although nowhere near as cringe-making as Rogers' emoting at her young Sarah audition in the play, where she begins with Juliet's potion speech and segues into an OTT recitation of "La Marseillaise" (in French no less!)  Astaire does have one wonderful number in this film -- let it be said without Rogers: "I've Got Shoes with Wings On". Through the skill of trick photography and Astaire's own imagination, we are treated to a turn where it really does seem that a pair of self-dancing shoes are actually controlling Fred's own feet when he tries them on.  Enchanting! 

The cast is rounded out with Oscar Levant's usual smart-ass turn as the pair's friend and confidante, much like his role in "An American in Paris", and he helps to pad out the film's running time with two of his very able piano performances.  Billy Burke as a flighty society type and would-be patron of the arts is as hard to take as ever.  Gale Robbins as Dinah's understudy looking to usurp her stage role and her role as Mrs. Josh only proves that she is no Ann Baxter from "All About Eve".

Like I said, something of a Parson's Egg. 
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