Astaire and Rogers let themselves go in... Follow the Fleet (1936)
Yesterday, we swam around the pool with Esther Williams. Today, we match taps with Fred and Ginger. Follow the Fleet is, to me, pretty underrated. Sometimes it can feel like all you hear about is Top Hat, Swing Time, and The Gay Divorcee, which are all great films, but come on, there's more out there. Like Follow the Fleet. Effervescent, silly, and very easy on the eyes and ears, this film is one of my go-to's whenever I'm having a bad day. I typically give Top Hat as my favorite Astaire-Rogers flick, but honestly, it and Fleet switch back and forth.
here. Bake is excited, though -- the fleet is docking in San Francisco! He goes below deck and we meet his best friend "Bilge" Smith (Scott), another sailor with an unfortunate nickname.
That night, Bake and his group of friends go to the Paradise Club. Bake immediately goes to the telephone booth to call up Sherry, only to get no answer. Meanwhile, at the ticket counter, Connie Martin (Hilliard) is told she can't get into the club without a male escort. Disappointed, Connie turns to leave and spots Bilge, who has just arrived with the guys' cheap beer. Connie pretends that Bilge is her escort and pays their way in, explaining to Bilge once they are inside that she finally had a free night and she felt like letting loose a little by coming here where her sister works. Bilge really isn't interested, though, his eyes looking over other
"Let Yourself Go." If you think that gal in the middle looks an awful lot like Betty Grable, you'd be correct. Like Ball, Grable had been in a Fred and Ginger flick before with The Gay Divorcee (1934). Her part in that film had been a bit bigger since she got to perform "Let's Knock Knees" with Edward Everett Horton and here she sings back-up and then slowly disappears for the rest of the movie.
A little later in their conversation, after some more pointed barbs, Sherry and Bake shake hands and decide to let bygones be bygones. "Let’s kiss and make up," Bake slyly suggests. "No, let’s just make up. That’ll give you something to work for," Sherry replies. Love it.
Back in the dressing room, Kitty puts the finishing touches on Connie, whose dress is to die for. Usually I drool over Ginger's wardrobes, but I gotta admit, I find Hilliard's more attractive this go-around. This glittery number may be my favorite. Connie tries out her new look on Bilge, immediately getting his attention when she walks by. Hilliard does a good job of showing Connie revel in the flirtation while also still feeling a little shy and introverted. For example, when she sits down with Bilge, she lines up empty beer bottles to create a barrier between them -- it's flirty, but it
This song was originally going to be Ginger's in the previous year's Top Hat. When it was picked for Fleet, it wasn't Hilliard's voice the studio was thinking of, but Irene Dunne's. Dunne was the first choice for Connie, her re-teaming with Randolph Scott capitalizing
Back inside, Sherry and Bake casually dance when Sherry realizes that it's the club's dance contest, which employees aren't supposed to be in. Bake goads her into breaking the rule by teasing that she couldn't keep up with him anymore, and the twosome wow the crowd. What always cracks me up is that two other couples actually have the gall to try and beat Bake and Sherry, played by the greatest dance team ever. This routine is pretty loose, Fred and Ginger's legs flying everywhere and hardly any of it is in hold. It comes as no surprise when the duo wins. Watch the number here.
I would like to take a break from the film real quick to gush over this gorgeous apartment. It's definite proof that the movies are make-believe -- how else could you explain the Martin girls being able to afford this place? It is easily my dream home, although we only get to see the kitchen and the living room, which doubles as a dining room. Look at these pictures and tell me it isn't to die for:
Anyway, Sherry and Bake are leaving the Paradise Club when Sherry's boss intercepts them. He is introduced to Bake, who proceeds to insult the club while pretending to be Sherry's manager, getting her fired. Bake assures her he has a plan to get her an audition the next day with theatrical producer Jim Nolan and he drops her off at her apartment. Returning to the ship, Bake finds out that the fleet has been ordered to sail out right away. Uh oh.
The next day, Bake and Bilge are forced to paint high up on the ship as punishment for lying about why Bilge was out past curfew last night. Apparently, Iris didn't take Bilge to the docks right away (wink wink) and Bake told their superiors that Bilge was visiting his sick mother. When Bilge got on deck, they asked how his mother was and he responded that she was in Texas. Bilge doesn't mind the painting too much, though -- he's wild about Iris, an ex-chorus girl who married rich and was then "forced" to go to Reno for a divorce. Bake sees right through Iris and asks his friend about that teacher he left the club with, unaware that it is Connie. "She's a swell kid too, but she's kind of serious. She's sappy like you. She wants to get married."
Back on land, Connie has decided to restore her father's ship, basically because she believes Bilge is The One and when he comes back, they'll live happily ever after. It's kind of insane since they've only had one date, but you also know that Connie loves this ship, so she isn't renovating it just for Bilge. Anyway, the Martin girls don't have all the money they need to fix everything, but the man they put in charge of it, Capt. Hickey, was a great friend of their father's so he agrees to figure something out for them. This is mildly important to remember.
A few months go by and Bilge has passed his captain exams. Bake congratulates him and then goes on deck to practice with his band. Some important guests from Britain are on the ship getting a tour of the fleet, but Bake and his band don't hear the trumpet call to go stand in formation and they continue with their jam session. It looks like they're about to get into trouble until one of the British guests asks if they can watch the band perform. Say no more! "I'd Rather Lead a Band" is a fun number, like all of this film's numbers, and it's an excuse to watch a great Astaire solo. You can see it here.
Some time later, the fleet comes back to San Francisco. Connie is super excited, but Sherry could care less because she was able to wrangle an audition with Jim Nolan and she didn't need stupid Bake to do it. At their apartment that night, Connie gets all dolled up and prepares a scrumptious meal for Bilge -- he had promised before he left that they had a date as soon as he returned, and she is thrilled to break the news about the S.S. Connie Martin (not kidding, that's the name of her ship). When Sherry comes home from work, though, she finds Connie asleep on the couch and the food untouched. That louse never showed up.
Bake, meanwhile, is sleeping in a phone booth. He had tried to reach Sherry but she had already gone to work and she refuses to call him back when she gets homes, leaving Bake to pass out while waiting. He had even brought her a present: a small pet monkey. Not the most practical thing, but he's a cutie so I'll let it slide.
Understandably, Sherry asks for a drink of water before doing her singing. Bake overhears this and, seeing an opportunity to get rid of Sherry's competition, he fills her cup with bicarbonate of soda, causing Sherry to uncontrollably hiccup, thus ruining her audition. (I'm not one to expect realism out of Hollywood, especially a musical like this, but I never understand why Sherry doesn't get another chance. The beginning of her song is strong, so couldn't she just explain that she suddenly got the hiccups?)
here. Once again, her gown is superb. Over at the punch bowl, Bake is disappointed to find out that he'd been downing punch only to discover it wasn't spiked with liquor like he thought. The poor guy can't catch a break, and it will soon get worse.
Bake: "Who is he?"
Sherry: "Well, with the usual lack of imagination a sailor has, he told her his name was Smith. They call him Bilge."
Sherry: "Anything in a uniform."
Bake offers to talk to Bilge, but Sherry says Bilge has to come to Connie of his own will, not because he has been guilted into it. However, Bake could talk to Connie and see if he can change her mind.
On her ship, Connie is saying goodbye to Capt. Hickey when she realizes that the captain staked his reputation to help get the ship restored -- if she cannot pay off the bill, his career will be ruined. She decides to stay in San Francisco to raise the rest of the money, but she doesn't get the chance to inform Sherry and Bake of this before he launches into his speech: "Sherry tells me you’re leaving. Well, that’s probably the wisest thing to do. Run away. All this stuff about fighting for your man and all that makes things so complicated. Now if all girls would just give up and run back to Bellport, then we’d definitely see the end of family life, little Jr. would remain just an idea, and every man would burn his own toast. I thank you." (If you've seen this movie as much as I have, you can't read that dialogue without hearing Fred's voice in your head, including every inflection.) Now that Connie is going to stay, what can they do to get money? Put on a show!
no, really!), and the dance is pure goofiness. Everything will be going along smoothly and then Fred will do a step that Ginger really likes so she'll keep repeating it instead of moving on. You can see it here and you should. It's so joyful to watch.
It's the night of the show and Bake's liberty pass has been revoked. He confronts Bilge, wondering if he did it as revenge for Iris, but Bilge replies it wasn't him. Bake quickly finds out it was because of his altercation with the lieutenant at the party. He refuses to stay on the ship, though, and when Bilge tries to stop him, he knocks him out and jumps into the water to swim to Connie's boat. Astaire recalled this scene in his autobiography, noting that it didn't quite go according to plan: "When the time came for me to swing, I got carried away and brought one way up from my shoelaces that really clipped Randy on the mouth, bringing blood and almost flooring him. The 'Sheriff' had every reason to be annoyed with me but if he was, he never showed it. Always the southern gentleman."
Bilge is sent after Bake, leading to an awkward bump-in with Connie. She tells him where Bake is, knowing that it will ruin the show, and Bilge seems to have a change of heart about her. She's not having it, though, and she walks away. Bilge finds Bake in his dressing room and says he'll have to put him under arrest, but when Bake angrily informs him that this whole show is to pay for the ship Connie restored for him, Bilge agrees to stall the arrest until after the show.
You must see it.
Of course, the biggest story surrounding this number is Ginger's dress. I'll let Fred tell you about that: "Ginger came up with a beaded gown which was surely designed for anything but dancing.
When the dance was over, Astaire admitted to the director and Ginger that he couldn't even remember it, that's how dazed he was. He wanted another take, the second of many because none of them satisfied everyone. They all agreed to reconvene the next day, but it was unnecessary. Looking at the rushes the following morning, "the #1 take was perfect. It was the one we all liked best. The haymaker I got from Ginger's sleeve didn't show a bit. I was astounded."
In the depressing musical Pennies from Heaven, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters recreated this number and included clips of it. Astaire hated what they did, saying "I have never spent
here. Although I agree with Astaire on the movie, I do like this poignant moment because Martin and Peters' characters use Fred and Ginger as an escape, just like real Thirties audiences did.
After their amazing routine, Sherry and Bake get a note backstage that Jim Nolan, who was in the audience, wants to talk to them about a contract. Sherry tells the messenger that they'll get back to Nolan as soon as Bake gets out of the brig. "There’s one other condition," Bake says, "and that’s that Ms. Martin asks me to marry her." "Well, will you?" she asks. "You’ll have to ask Father," Bake smartly replies. Bilge and Connie have reconciled as well, but now it's time for the boys to go back to the ship. We leave our couples happily waving goodbye to each other, including our little monkey friend, because why not?
Follow the Fleet comes from the 1922 play Shore Leave, although they really don't bear a resemblance to one another. Shore Leave was made into a musical before Fleet called Hit the Deck. That musical came on the scene in 1925 and had a hit score by Vincent Youmans. In 1955, it was adapted to the screen with a sensational cast: Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Tony Martin, Ann Miller, Russ Tamblyn, and Vic Damone. That version capitalized on the unofficial "sailors-on-leave" genre that popped up after 1949's On the Town. Funnily enough, Tony Martin played Bilge in Hit the Deck and he also played an extra sailor in Fleet, although I've never been able to spot him. Hit the Deck is an adorable, entertaining film, though -- I highly recommend it. If you ever need a pick-me-up, you can't go wrong with a double feature of Fleet and Deck. It would be literal sunshine coming right out of your TV.
This is my second entry to the brilliant Ice Cream Social Blogathon. For the rest of the magnificent blogathon, click here.