Saturday, July 11, 2009

Treading Gingerly

It's perhaps fitting that when I eventually saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' final film together, The Barkleys of Broadway, it was separated from my viewings of their previous films by at least two years, since in a vague way that apes the ten-year gap there was between 1939's The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and this final pairing, which occured when Judy Garland (who had already partnered Astaire in Easter Parade) had to drop out (though she apparently showed up on set repeatedly to make things difficult for Rogers). It's somehow not really a surprise that this is one of the weakest offerings from the legendary partnership- the most magical moment comes in a retread of Shall We Dance's 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', where everyone involved seems to acknowledge that Barkleys is a film clutching hopelessly to an unreachable past. There is no new ground to tread here, simply a brief reunion of faded magic.

I'm always someone who's been far more interested in actresses than actors, and even if Fred Astaire is a rather brilliant man, I'm concerned about the treatment of Ginger Rogers in these movies. The plot of The Barkleys of Broadway is, rather obviously, referencing the desire Ginger had to be a 'serious actress', which one suspects is partly what lead to the break-up of their partnership at the end of 1930s. The cycle of their movies in the 1930s sees a gradual move towards more equality in the partnership, and with that more weight, more drama in the romantic plotlines. Swing Time marked the first time their love wasn't sealed with a romantic dance- 'Waltz in Swing Time' ends with Ginger spinning off and Fred gesturing sadly after her, and the reunion is instead sealed afterwards, proving Ginger can no longer be so easily won. As the partnership wound down, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle had them already married, already stable, already equal.

Ginger doubtful; Ginger convinced

The Barkleys of Broadway, though, undoes the good work that the previous film did in sending Astaire and Rogers off in a pleasant fashion. For whatever reason, Ginger seems all too happy to mock her former serious self, and finally to accept the idea that Astaire really is her "Svengali". She is the one who has to be dragged onto the stage for the estranged pairing's reunion dance at a charity event- and is visually convinced during said dance to 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', even if she still leaves afterward. It is still Ginger who must realise her mistake and come back to Astaire, back to musical comedy, and leave her own aspirations behind, by convincing herself that those no longer are her aspirations. She cannot even be an actress without her "Svengali"- who pretends to be her French director (Jacques Francois) in order to boost her confidence and perform well.

In essence, during The Barkleys of Broadway, Ginger comes to believe that she is nothing without Fred, that it is to him she owes her career. While it's true that her post-Fred career never really took off, despite winning the Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1940, is it not a bit much to say that Fred could have stood without Ginger? Who can say if he would have become the star he did without Ginger as his partner? There's no question he was the better dancer, but would their films have been as good an escape from the Great Depression if Ginger hadn't been there as a tough cookie counterpart, a twirling dervish of a dress-wearer? Astaire stayed where he knew he could succeed. But Ginger tried. Trying to be a 'serious' actress isn't necessarily better than being a dancer or a comedienne, but she stretched her legs, she ventured into the unknown, she had a go. And it's a shame she's not more celebrated for it.

1 comment:

Cal said...

Yeah, I see what you're saying...

I saw this recently and had lukewarm feelings too. I think it's more about celebrating their partnership than him. They're both successful when they're apart from each other but it doesn't make them any happier. But it doesn't say much for art and it does read as her compromise.