Director Mark Sandrich and stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a marvelous hit with Top Hat the previous year. Of course, RKO wanted more of that and the search for new material was on. However, the filmmakers eventually decided to bring back something that had already been done as a silent picture a decade earlier. The Hubert Osborne play “Shore Leave” had turned into a Richard Barthelmess vehicle. All it needed now was a bunch of new, terrific Irving Berlin songs.
Sailors “Bake” Baker and Bilge Smith (Astaire, Randolph Scott) are on shore leave in San Francisco and head to a ballroom to meet women. Bilge helps the frumpish Connie Martin (Harriet Hilliard) into the place, but shows little interest in her. She happens to be the sister of Sherry (Rogers) who works as a dancer there. Sherry helps Connie dress smarter and put some makeup on, completely altering her appearance. Without telling Bilge who she is, she once again makes sure to run into him; when he finally learns that this attractive dame is the woman he initially ignored, he’s startled but intrigued.
Meanwhile, “Bake” and Sherry share a history together; they used to be dance partners and “Bake” is thrilled to meet her again. However, the sailors’ shore leave is revoked and they don’t even get the time to explain why they suddenly have to go. The sisters take it the wrong way. As time passes, Connie tries to raise money to salvage her father’s old sailing ship…
Lacking funny moments
The story is the worst part of this film. Every ingredient is predictable, the complications are mild and there’s a distinct lack of genuinely funny moments. Sometimes one wishes the Marx Brothers would just make an appearance and have a little fun. Another minus often pointed out by film historians is Astaire’s performance. God knows he wasn’t one of Hollywood’s finest actors, something which one tended to forget as soon as he started working his charm and moving his feet. That’s true for this film as well but there are moments when it’s hard to accept him as a cocky sailor, trying to come across as a tough guy by chewing his gum as nonchalantly as possible.
Still, the music and the dancing is top-notch. The Berlin songs are used to superb effect, not least the greatest hit of them, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, which is the last number, its choreography and set-up perfectly matching the dramatic style of the song. I love the opening tune as well, “We Saw the Sea”, where Astaire gets to complain about life as a sailor. As for the Astaire-Rogers pairings, dance critic Arlene Croce wrote that under Astaire’s coaching, Rogers had “improved remarkably as a dancer”. She does get to show it off in original ways, together with her partner as well as in a rare solo number where she tap dances to “Let Yourself Go”.
I’m sure audiences walked out of the theater with a grin after watching this movie back in 1936. But they had no idea that the next Astaire-Rogers flick, Swing Time, would not only do everything Follow the Fleet did – but also show that it was possible to bring back a little originality.
Follow the Fleet 1936-U.S. 110 min. B/W. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Screenplay: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor. Play: Hubert Osborne (“Shore Leave”). Songs: “We Saw the Sea”, “Let Yourself Go”, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Irving Berlin). Cast: Fred Astaire (“Bake” Baker), Ginger Rogers (Sherry Martin), Randolph Scott (Bilge Smith), Harriet Hilliard, Astrid Allwyn, Betty Grable… Lucille Ball.
Trivia: Shore Leave (1925), the Barthelmess film, was also remade as another musical, Hit the Deck (1930), but it didn’t feature the same songs. Irene Dunne was allegedly considered for the part of Connie.