Who knew our Navy was overflowing with chorus boys during WWII? Not Judge Bryan Pope.
"I don't often try to apologize, 'cause I seldom make any mistakes."
So true, Fred. So true. And there's no need for you or the luminescent Ginger Rogers to apologize for this fun little seaside frolic.
Facts of the Case
Former professional hoofer Bake Baker (Fred Astaire) docks in San Francisco with his Navy fleet, only to find, as luck would have it, his dancing partner and old flame, Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers). While he tries to pick up where he left off with Sherry, his Navy pal Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) makes half-hearted romantic overtures toward Sherry's wallflower-turned-covergirl sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard). The course is set for romance and whacky misunderstandings with America's favorite dancing duo. All aboard!
Okay, so maybe labyrinthine plots have never been a trademark of Astaire's and Rogers' movies. But Follow the Fleet, their fifth outing together, is especially light in the story department. They've dropped anchor in a seafaring comedy so forgettable that I had to turn to the always reliable Internet Movie Database's plot summary to jostle my memory. Let's see…ah, yes: Astaire is a sailor trying to woo back Rogers' salt-of-the-earth landlubber and former dance partner.
Hold the phone, Joe: That dainty, fussbudget of a milquetoast Astaire as a sailor? A gum-smacking sailor, no less? Riiiight. Not since Judy Garland tried passing herself off as Summer Stock's farm girl heroine has a picture required this much suspension of disbelief. But never mind that, because this is Rogers' show all the way, and she's reason enough to forgive the film for its, um, narrative deficiencies.
So accustomed to playing second fiddle to Astaire, Rogers finally gets a film that plays to her strengths. Based on a play by Hubert Osborne, Follow the Fleet's creampuff story gives Rogers enough breathing room to explore all the qualities she has, until now, only hinted at. She's smart, streetwise, laugh-out-loud funny, damn sexy, and oh so spunky (her response to Astaire's suggestion that they kiss and make up after a typically harmless tiff: "Let's just make up. That'll give you something to work for.").
Rogers is well-served by Irving Berlin's catchy score. Sure, Astaire gets to kick things off with his peppy on-deck ensemble number "We Saw the Sea," but Rogers response is to just "Let Yourself Go." It's the film's most rousing song, and the savvy Rogers nails it with her keen sense of showmanship. Still, Astaire is yen to her yang, and, as such, the two work best when together. Take their comedic duet "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket." Astaire showboats before graciously turning the stage over to Rogers for a moment of Vaudeville-esque fun (an old bit about getting stuck in a dance step).
Not to be outdone, Astaire gets the last word when he reigns her back in for "Let's Face the Music and Dance," the film's most remembered sequence. The bleak number, about two attempted suicides thwarted by fate, is also a jarring shift in tone for what has, until now, been a frothy comedy. Hermes Pan's choreography is spectacular, of course, and it's tremendous fun watching Astaire practically duck for cover every time Rogers' heavy, beaded dress makes a swing toward his head (Rogers claimed the dress weighed a hefty 25 pounds), but the number doesn't exactly send you home laughing.
But forget about that, and forget too how the dynamic duo frequently takes a back seat to the blandly handsome Randolph and mousy Hilliard (she shines only during her "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" solo number), who only stop the show cold when placed next to Astaire's and Rogers' natural chemistry. Just fast forward to the good stuff. And to Ginger.
Follow the Fleet looks shipshape thanks to a fine transfer and a small handful of bells and whistles from Warner Bros. The full-frame, black-and-white picture is handsome, with much of the grain and most imperfections having been tidied up. The mono soundtrack is crisp and clear, serving the film well. In short, the picture looks and sounds lovely for a 70-year-old film. And just check out the packaging's original poster art. Gorgeous.
For anyone who's purchased other recent musical boxed sets from Warner, the extras here will be, in a word, predictable. In addition to the live-action musical short "Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and His Dance Orchestra," the poultry-themed animated short "Let It Be Me," and the film's original theatrical trailer, the package contains a 13-minute featurette that touches on both the film and the careers of Astaire and Rogers. Featuring observations from Astaire's daughter Ava and the likes of RKO historian Rick Jewell and choreographer Randy Skinner, "Follow the Fleet: The Origins of Those Dancing Feet" offers little that the viewer won't gleam from watching the film, although stories about how Astaire began show business as one half of a brother-sister act provide some interesting background. A nice enough inclusion, but these featurettes are beginning to feel more like a lazy afterthought.
How refreshing to see the always grand Rogers have the upper hand for a change. That alone makes this fine release from Warner Bros. worth the purchase. However, I recommend saving those pennies and applying them toward the entire Astaire/Rogers boxed set. You won't be sorry.
Ms. Rogers is found guilty of stealing this picture without remorse, and this court wouldn't have it any other way. All charges are hereby dropped.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Follow the Fleet: The Origins of Those Dancing Feet
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