Follow the Fleet (1936) is considered one of the lesser Astaire-Rogers musicals. Seeing it again for research, it’s clearer than ever why. If ever there was a musical that should be fast-forwarded through to get to the musical numbers, this is it. And only the dance numbers are worth paying attention to.
The film’s plot has a sour taste throughout. Astaire and Rogers play characters that used to be an act, and they both used to be in love with one another. We see quickly that he still is in love, and learn later that she is too. But their relationship is strange, with Astaire uncharacteristically doing some terrible things that tend to backfire. Clearly the five screenwriters thought more about putting variation into the Astaire-Rogers repertoire than in what might fit Astaire’s persona. Astaire doing dumb, unkind things doesn’t work. He and Ginger must end up together, of course, but it’s more a article of faith that they do, not anything the film asks us to believe about them or their relationship, which seems off-filter from the start and never lets up.
Harriet Hilliard, the second female lead, often found her scenes and numbers cut out of television showings of the film. (We are grateful to TCM for restoring those scenes.) This OK actress and singer, who rose to fame with husband Ozzie Nelson on radio and television later in life, sings two numbers that are serviceable only. (Perhaps the only thing fascinating about “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” is that this is a New Testament quote from Irving Berlin, the great Jewish songwriter. But then, this is the man who gave us “White Christmas” and Easter Parade.”) Harriet does the ugly ducking turned swan thing in the early part of the film, and then just remains the second banana to Ginger’s character from then on.
Yet her relationship with movie beau Randolph Scott is as bizarre as Fred and Ginger’s characters. Scott plays Navy seaman Bilge Smith (seriously?) who is nothing but a cad and should be turned out on his ear when he returns to Hilliard’s pining character. Yet the film would have us believe that he can turn around and be a good guy (which our better nature wants to believe) and that she should receive him back, which is something she should know better than to do. No one comes out of this as a real good and real smart person.
But these films use plot as filler between the numbers. This one just happens to have a weak, confusing, slightly distasteful filler. What should get us going is the dance numbers. As in A-R films, all are worth watching.
The first is to the now classic “Let Yourself Go,” recently given its definitive treatment by vocal great Kristin Chenoweth. This one is by Ginger Rogers, and the comparison is painful. A great song, but not the best interpretation. The song’s rhythms seem to challenge a traditional Astaire approach to the dance. In this case, the dance is a contest between him and Rogers with other dance couples, leading from one wild dance display to another. It’s fun, and as the film so often attempts to do in so many ways, is a spin on the usual. It shows off the leads’ talent and humor, and that’s the purpose. Since it makes one hungry for more Astaire virtuosity and dance-duet perfection from the two, it’s successful in that regard as well.
Follow the Fleet contains Rogers’ only solo tap number in the film series, and the rarity of that kind of number combined with her skill makes this number—to again, “Let Yourself Go,” a must-see. Sometimes even those familiar with Rogers’ dancing in other films forget what a good hoofer she could be. Yet at the same time, the number reminds us of how unforgettable a combination Astaire and Rogers were together. She’s fine alone; when paired with Astaire, often transcendent.
Astaire of course gets his solo number, which as in some of his other films is combined with enough singularity to become the film’s novelty number as well. Here he breaks away from conducting a small Navy band to dance by himself, and then he is joined by a group of seamen in “I’d Rather Lead a Band.” Not Astaire’s greatest solo, but it’s Astaire, so it’s great.
“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” again tries to put a spin on the usual comic dance duet number. Here the two leads are trying to outdo one another in the building up of an act. So they are performing on a stage, for an audience, but they are also working through a number. It’s cute, and yes, it’s different. Fun, and ultimately not that memorable.
What is memorable and sublime is the classic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” which comes at the end of the film. It’s Fred and Ginger at their elegant best. In film history circles, this film is known as the one in which Ginger’s weighted sleeves hit Fred in the face on the first take, necessitating almost 20 more takes of the whole dance, which was filmed in a single take each time. In the end, the hit to the face is barely noticeable, and that is the take that ended up in the film. This is the one number worth watching more than the rest in the film, and is a reminder of the beauty of elegance and grace possible in dance.
So the next time you have a good half-hour, put in Follow the Fleet, keep the remote handy for fast-forward, and have a good time. If you do decide to watch the whole thing, at least you have Ginger being zingy and amusing, and you can catch Betty Grable and Lucille Ball early in their careers. That’s not worth sitting through the terrible plot for, but a reward for the more diligent and serious film person.