A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 1, 2016

Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936)

If Swing Time, as I suggested yesterday, has too little plot, then Follow the Fleet has a bit too much. Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott based their screenplay on a 1922 Broadway play, Shore Leave, by Hubert Osborne, which later became a musical, Hit the Deck. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of course spark real heat when they're dancing together: As the remark attributed to Katharine Hepburn about the team says, she made him sexy and he made her classy. But I don't find them terribly convincing as a romantic pair when they're not singing and dancing together, and this criticism was not uncommon even in their heyday. Which may be why RKO decided to try to spice things up by creating a parallel romantic team in Follow the Fleet, casting Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard as the lovers whose problems echo those of Astaire and Rogers. The trouble is, Scott and Hilliard generate much less chemistry than the lead couple. Scott had always been a sort of second-string Gary Cooper, but without Cooper's charm or acting ability, and Hilliard was best known as a singer with her husband Ozzie Nelson's band when she was signed for this film, her first feature. She sings, rather ineffectively, two of the lesser-known of the seven Irving Berlin songs in the score, "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" and "But Where Are You?" Follow the Fleet did nothing for her film career. It wasn't until she teamed with Ozzie for the radio series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1944, and later with their two sons, David and Ricky, for the long-running TV series of the same name, that she became really famous. Fame was in store, however, for several other members of the cast: Betty Grable and a blond Lucille Ball have small parts in the film, and Tony Martin, one of the sailors backing up Astaire, would later star in the film version of Hit the Deck (Roy Rowland, 1955), bringing Hollywood's use of Osborne's play full circle. As for Astaire and Rogers, Follow the Fleet contains two of their most memorable numbers. They do a slapstick dance routine to "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" that shows Rogers's great gift for physical comedy to full advantage. And then there's  "Let's Face the Music and Dance," which is one of their most balletic routines. Astaire does some remarkable footwork and Rogers is clad in an amazing dress that, thanks to weights in the sleeves and hem, swirls around her hypnotically. Once or twice, to be sure, you can see Astaire try to avoid getting swacked by her sleeves. (The designer credited with "gowns" is Bernard Newman.) At the end of this sublime routine, Astaire and Rogers slowly make their way off-stage and then suddenly exit with a breathtakingly unanticipated strut. But why try to describe it?