There may be trouble ahead.”
Follow the Fleet is perhaps the most problematic film in the Astaire/Rogers series. It has an excruciatingly bad plot; it has a singularly lame performance by supporting actress Harriet Hilliard;1 and several of the dances aren’t all that they should be. On the other hand, Follow the Fleet has a terrific score from Irving Berlin, excellent singing and dancing from the stars, and, in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” one of the most elegant performances ever put on film.
There have been battleship musicals almost as long as there have been battleships. (Apparently, people like looking at sixteen-inch guns.) Follow the Fleet was the first film to attempt to make a “regular guy” out of Fred Astaire, portraying him as an able-bodied seaman rather than a male ingénue. Astaire doesn’t look ridiculous, but he scarcely looks authentic either.2 We first see him heading for shore with his shipmates, singing the forgettable “We Saw the Sea.” Astaire’s best bud is “Bilge” Smith, played by Randolph Scott.3 The boys all head for dime-a-dance dance hall, where Scott puts the make on a mousy skirt named Connie (Hilliard).
Unfortunately, Scott and Hilliard go together like “red whiskey and Seconal,” as Arlene Croce put it. Throughout the film, Hilliard seems terrified that Scott might actually touch her. Hilliard’s character, her songs (“Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?”),4 and her performance all suggest a dyed-in-the-wool spinster who simply has no interest in sex. Why the producers of Follow the Fleet thought it was a good idea to put such a character at the center of a musical baffles the mind.
Fortunately, Connie has a sister, Sherry (Ginger), who works at the club. Ginger’s featured in a delicious satin sailor suit, singing “Let Yourself Go,” a typical Berlin paean to good times.5 She’s helped along by an all-girl close-harmony trio, featuring Betty Grable. When she’s finished, she encounters Fred. It turns out they used to be a dance team! When a dance contest is announced, Fred insists that they participate, even though, as Ginger points out, she shouldn’t, because the contest is for guests.
The dance routine that follows isn’t quite up to either “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from Roberta or “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain” from Top Hat. The idea (apparently) is that Fred & Ginger watch a couple’s routine and set out to top them. However, the couples, amateur dancers recruited by choreographer Hermes Pan, were not actually on the set with Fred & Ginger. The cutting back and forth between the amateurs and the stars is a little clumsy, and tends to fragment the dance. Furthermore, the bits that Fred & Ginger do don’t really seem to come off the other dancers’ routines.
Once the dance is completed, the disastrous plot rumbles on. Connie and Sherry have inherited a ship from their father, and Connie dreams that Bilge might someday take the helm. The ship needs refurbishing, so Sherry/Ginger auditions for a part in a musical, doing her one solo in the entire Fred/Ginger oeuvre, a delightful tap routine to “Let Yourself Go.”6 When that falls through, the gang (naturally) decides to put on a show!
They turn the ship into a theater, where Fred & Ginger take turns singing one of Berlin’s most famous songs, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,”7 which is followed by another frustrating dance routine, a dance where everything goes wrong, in parody of their standard “perfection.” The comedy gets a little heavy-handed, and leaves us (or at least me) wishing that we could see the “real” dance, which, I can only hope, is floating out there in some Platonic realm of ideal terpsichore.
All of this does little more than get us to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” part of the show the kids are putting on at the warehouse. The entire number is a fantastically over-the-top exercise in platinum decadence, with Astaire and Rogers as two shimmering moths longing to expire in dance’s shimmering flame.8 Never before, and never again, would Astaire let the “dancing master” aspect of his personality show so clearly.9 There’s a little more plot after the dance is done, but who’s watching? Finita la commedia.10
Astaire recorded all of the songs from Follow the Fleet (without Ginger) at the time the film was released. They are available on the two-CD set “Starring Fred Astaire” from Columbia. Many of the cuts available on these two CDs are also available on other CDs released under Astaire’s name. In the early fifties, Astaire recorded an album of Irving Berlin’s songs for Verve Records, backed by a superb group of jazz musicians, now available on CD. Fred and Ginger did not record together. So far as I can determine, Ginger made very few records on her own. CDs that have the two singing together are using the movie soundtracks.
Check my author page for reviews of other Astaire/Rogers films.
- Twenty years later, Hilliard had metamorphosed into uber fifties sitcom mom Harriet Nelson. She married bandleader Ozzie Nelson in the thirties and by the forties the couple had two children, David and Ricky. The family had a radio sitcom in the forties, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which then shifted to TV in the fifties. (The kids’ parts were originally performed by professional actors, but Ozzie made it an all-in-the-family affair in 1949, prior to the shift to TV.) In Follow the Fleet, Harriet shares a scene with all-time sitcom queen Lucille Ball, an epic pop-culture encounter that has achieved remarkably little notice. Hilliard/Nelson worked in TV until the late eighties. [↩]
- His rich-boy haircut, for instance, is distinctly non-naval. [↩]
- Fred is “Bake” Baker. (The writers didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with names.) Scott appeared with Fred & Ginger and Irene Dunne in Roberta. Follow the Fleet was intended as a remake of that film, somehow substituting a battleship for high fashion, but Dunne wasn’t available. Astaire and Rogers were both very big stars as a result of the success of Top Hat, and Dunne, who’d been top-billed in Roberta, probably suspected that what had worked once wouldn’t work twice. [↩]
- Both songs were written by Berlin for the previous Astaire/Rogers picture, Top Hat, to be sung by Ginger as she struggles with her attraction to the supposedly married Astaire. [↩]
- Ginger, who looked and sounded a lot like Mae West when singing “Music Makes Me” in Flying Down to Rio, here seems to be inspired by Shirley Temple. [↩]
- Astaire has his own solo, the excellent “I’d Rather Lead a Band.” [↩]
- Ginger’s version has one of Berlin’s cleverest quatrains: “Honey, there’s one I lie to/ When I try to/Be true/To two.” [↩]
- Berlin, usually the most democratic of composers, here makes Noel Coward sound like Irving Berlin. [↩]
- Remarkably, it’s our gal Ginger who is the more exquisite of the two, although, of course, she’s working off Fred’s choreography. [↩]
- According to Fred & Ginger legend, in the first take of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” one of the weighted sleeves of Ginger’s extravagant art deco gown struck Astaire full in the face. Twenty-three takes later, they decided the first take was the best. I’ve seen the number at least 23 times and I’ve never seen Fred get hit, but I guess it happened. [↩]