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When the fleet puts in at San Francisco, sailor Bake Baker tries to rekindle the flame with his old dancing partner, Sherry Martin, while Bake's buddy Bilge Smith romances Sherry's sister Connie. But it's not all smooth sailing: Bake has a habit of losing Sherry's jobs for her; and despite Connie's dreams, Bilge is not ready to settle down. Written by
Diana Hamilton <email@example.com>
FOLLOW THE FLEET (RKO Radio, 1936), directed by Mark Sandrich, marks the fifth pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and one of their top musicals of the era with a bright score by Irving Berlin, the composer of their last outing, TOP HAT (1935). Reworking the formula from their earlier effort, ROBERTA (1935), Astaire and Rogers not only share screen time with another couple closer to their own age, but are characters already acquainted with one another from the start, instead of the usual boys meets girl outing. Unlike ROBERTA, Astaire and Rogers have equal status with the other couple in question, played by Randolph Scott (of ROBERTA) and Harriet Hilliard (making her screen debut). Another welcome change of format to the series is not only finding Astaire switching his elegant presence of top hat, white tie and tails for a sailor's uniform, but in changing its locale from European settings to down-to-earth San Francisco.
In the basic plot, Bake Baker (Fred Astaire) and Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) are shipmates in the U.S. Navy who go on shore leave. Bake reunites himself with Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers), his former dancing partner now working as a vocalist at the Paradise Club. Sherry's sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard), a lonely schoolteacher, comes to visit her sister at the club, and with some encouragement, gets herself groomed into an attractive young lady. Connie makes the acquaintance with Bilge, who had earlier ignored her due to her plain looking appearance. Now with the glasses gone and all dolled up, Bilge takes notice and escorts her home for some smooching. Once Connie mentions something about "wanting a husband at the helm," Bilge gets cold feet and makes an about face. Before going, he makes an acquaintance with Iris Manning (Astrid Allwyn), a society girl who later takes him on a scenic route back to his ship, causing him to be late from liberty leave. During the course of the story, lovesick Connie, who has salvaged her late father's ship for Bilge, falls victim of his neglect while Sherry has troubles of her own with Bake.
The motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "We Saw the Sea" (sung by Fred Astaire and sailors); "Let Yourself Go" (sung by Ginger Rogers, with a singing trio, one of them being Betty Grable); "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" (sung by Harriet Hilliard); "Let Yourself Go" (danced by Astaire and Rogers); "I'd Rather Lead the Band" (sung by Astaire); "Let Yourself Go" (reprise by Rogers); "But Where Are You?" (sung by Hilliard); "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" (sung and danced by Astaire and Rogers); "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Rogers) and "We Saw the Sea" (finale, sung by sailors).
Of the musical interludes, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is the most memorable. It's a production number played to an audience in the story which finds Astaire and Rogers in a Monte Carlo setting sporting their signature costume attire, Astaire well-suited and Rogers in elaborate dress with bell-type sleeves, that's been said in one of the documentaries on their careers, to have slapped Astaire across the face as Rogers twirls around during their dancing sequence. "I'd Rather Lead the Band" echoes Astaire's "Top Hat" number from TOP HAT. Instead of him taking front center stage tapping in front of a bunch of debonair swells, he does the same with a bunch of white uniformed sailors. Harriet Hilliard (later TVs Harriet Nelson of OZZIE AND HARRIET fame in the 1950s) has two solos. Her rendition of "Where Are You?" ranks one of the best sentimental love songs ever written for the screen. She sings it beautifully, with sincerity and heart. Of her subsequent films, FOLLOW THE FLEET is the only one she'll be best remembered. With the presence of Astaire and Rogers, and Berlin songs, it was a worthy start to her career.
The supporting players consist of Harry Beresford, Russell Hicks, Jack Randall and Brooks Benedict. Look closely for a young Tony Martin as one of the sailors, and Lucille Ball as the wisecracking blonde Kitty Collins. It's interesting to note that in the cast credits, Ball, who's name is right down in the bottom, has more screen time than Betty Grable, billed sixth, with only two brief appearances earlier in the story.
Formerly presented on American Movie Classics prior to 2001, FOLLOW THE FLEET, can be seen regularly on Turner Classic Movies or acquired in either VHS or DVD format. One final note, FOLLOW THE FLEET, which was founded by the 1922 play "Shore Leave," consisted of two earlier screen adaptations, SHORE LEAVE (First National, 1925) and HIT THE DECK (RKO, 1930), but it's this version that has become a classic. Although close to two hours, the story drags a bit. However, it's the great dancing and lively score that makes up for it. (****)
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