Tap, tap, tap…
In 1936 Fred and Ginger were two years into their partnership, and Follow the Fleet was one of two movies they made that year. The film sports some Hollywood heavyweights and soon-to-be-heavyweights but is itself pretty lightweight. However, it’s classic Fred and Ginger. Sparky chemistry, magical dance sequences, and fun.
“Bake” Baker (Fred Astaire) has been in the Navy for the past two years. His former dance partner, Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers) turned down his proposal so he enlisted. Bake hasn’t been idle in his off-time, though. He fronts a jazz band and breaks into a tap dance every time someone plays a hornpipe.
When Bake gets shore leave in San Francisco, he and his buddies make a beeline for the Navy-friendly Paradise Ballroom, where, unbeknownst to him, Sherry is a hostess and featured singer. Sherry’s sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard), a seemingly dowdy music teacher, comes to visit her sister and has to depend on the condescending kindness of Bake’s shipmate, Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) to get into the club.
Connie’s tired of men passing her over, so Sherry enlists the help of her co-worker, Kitty (Lucille Ball) and one of the chorus girls (Betty Grable) into giving Connie a makeover. When Bilge, and every other guy at the Paradise see Connie their eyes bug out.
Bake, on the other hand, has eyes only for Sherry, who, like him, breaks into a tap dance whenever she hears a hornpipe. When she sees Bake she’s mildly annoyed but the two of them bond over a sundae and then win the Paradise’s dance contest. Bake’s not happy that Sherry’s working at the Paradise and he tells the manager what he thinks of the place. Long story short, Sherry’s out of a job. Sherry’s incensed but is pacified when Bake tells her he can get her an audition with a big-shot producer.
Meanwhile, Connie and Bilge have a giddy romantic night at Connie and Sherry’s apartment, where Connie tells Bilge about the ship her dad left her. Bilge flinches at Connie’s dream of her husband piloting the ship, but he still makes plans to meet Connie the next night.
It’s not meant to be, though, as Bake and Bilge’s leaves are cancelled and they have to ship out again. It’s about six months before they come back to San Francisco. In the meantime, Sherry is working as a substitute at any club she can find and Connie puts her savings into restoring her dad’s ship.
Bake knows he’s going to have to soften Sherry up after leaving so suddenly, so he brings her a monkey as a peace offering. Bilge, on the other hand, is an opportunistic slimeoid, and takes up with Iris Manning (Astrid Allwyn), widow and neighborhood man-eater. Connie is devastated. She’s also running out of money to fix up the ship.
As can be the case in a musical, the solution is to put on a show. Can Bake and Sherry do it? Will Bilge get the right hook he deserves? Will Connie take him back? The answers will be delivered, of course, in between the legendary dances Fred and Ginger are known for.
What’s unusual about Follow the Fleet is that there are very few sequences where Fred and Ginger dance together. This is naturally due to their characters being apart for about a third of the movie, and it’s fun to see their distinctive personalities. Fred Astaire is funny. Ginger Rogers is sassy. They’re greater than the sum of their parts, but their parts are pretty darned formidable.
The music in Follow the Fleet is terrific, written by Irving Berlin with score supervision by one Max Steiner. A lot of critics and film historians chalk up “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” as their favorite number in the film, probably because of Ginger swiping Fred with her sandpaper sleeve, but I’m partial to “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket.” They say it’s hard for a professional dancer to perform badly, and this sequence shows Bake and Sherry at loggerheads with their choreography, hip-checking each other across the deck and deliberately not dancing as a fluid pair. Ginger looks barely able to suppress her giggles and Fred only looks slightly and suitably annoyed. It’s a delight.
My one problem with the movie is the incredibly weak character development, especially with the two couples. It’s the usual thing in many musicals to have a straight dramatic couple, usually the leads, and a comic couple who generally provide support. Follow the Fleet half-heartedly turns that archetype on its head, with Bake and Sherry presumably being the comic couple, only there’s not much comic about them. Not even the monkey can supply much comic relief.
Bilge and Connie are also very thin characters. Randolph Scott as Bilge is just kinda there. It’s not a huge mystery whether or not Connie will take Bilge back, and whether or not he deserves it is another matter. The problem is their arc is pushed so close to the ending credits that it doesn’t leave much time for the two of them to do anything but exchange looks of various heat registers. It all feels like the cast is putting in their time until the next song.
Follow the Fleet did extremely well at the box office amid tepid reviews from the critics, many of whom, like me, thought the film’s plot was a wee bit shoddy. Ann Ross of MacLean’s said the film needed to have either a comic or a better story, and Fleet had neither. However, the general consensus was and is that Fred and Ginger are sublime.
In fairness, most musicals of this era were never meant to be especially deep or blindside the audience from a story standpoint, but some do the story thing better than others. Follow the Fleet is not Fred and Ginger’s best movie in my opinion–that would be Swing Time and The Barkleys of Broadway–but it’s still a legend in its own way.
This post is part of the upcoming Third Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon, which will be hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood, starting on December 28th. However, as far as we know, Crystal’s current health situation prevents her from hosting the event, which will now be managed solely by Michaela. Thanks for stepping up, Michaela! Our thoughts and prayers are with Crystal and her family. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow for a new ‘Origins’ post…
Follow the Fleet is available on DVD from Amazon.