The film was Follow the Fleet, the 1936 movie from RKO that was the fifth of their nine with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (the 10th Astaire-Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway, was made at MGM in 1949, 10 years after the last one for RKO, and was originally intended as a followup to Easter Parade featuring Astaire and Judy Garland until Judy had one of her nervous breakdowns and was replaced by Ginger — Astaire’s reaction was basically, “We’ve stayed in touch and always wondered what it would be like to do another one together”) and, surprisingly, the biggest-grossing Astaire-Rogers film in initial release. That’s surprising because it’s really not much of a movie in between the spectacular dance sequences — some of the other Astaire-Rogers films (notably The Gay Divorcée, Top Hat and Swing Time, despite the annoyingly whiny part played in the last by Victor Moore) work as total entertainments and are fun to watch even when the stars aren’t dancing. Not this one: Follow the Fleet is saddled with a lumbering plot (from Hubert Osborne’s 1922 play Shore Leave) and a pair of second leads (Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard — then Ozzie Nelson’s band singer but not yet his wife — who, as Arlene Croce put it, “go together like red whiskey and Seconal”) enacting Osborne’s plot about a woman who falls in love with a sailor, buys him his own ship, and then ends up rejected by him out of pride or (as in this case) a misguided desire to date only women who won’t expect the M-word and the longtime exclusive commitment it expresses. Shore Leave had previously been adapted in the late 1920’s as the musical Hit the Deck (“and either Shore Leave or Hit the Deck is the basis of practically every musical about sailors that has been made since,” Croce wrote), which RKO bought the rights to and filmed in 1930.
For Follow the Fleet they took the basic plot of Shore Leave/Hit the Deck but junked the original score by Vincent Youmans (ironically, the composer for the first Astaire-Rogers movie, Flying Down to Rio) even though it contained such standards as “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “Hallelujah.” Instead they assigned the score for Follow the Fleet to Irving Berlin as the second film in his two-film contract after the Astaire-Rogers Top Hat, and he came up with a stunning set of songs including the awesome “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” — the big final Astaire-Rogers romantic ballad dance at the end. Berlin was (and is) sometimes patronized as the “simple” songwriter, who created good tunes and simple lyrics but didn’t have the sophistication of Gershwin or Porter — but “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” with its Continental flavor, its uncertain tonality (the chorus is in a minor key, it shifts to major for the release and then minor again for the reprise) and its wordplay (“Before the fiddlers have fled/Before they ask us to pay the bill/And while we still have the chance”), sounds an awful lot like a Cole Porter song to me and works stunningly for the Monte Carlo-set dance drama for which it’s used here: Astaire is a gambler who’s about to shoot himself after losing all his money, Rogers is about to throw herself off the casino balcony, only they end up rescuing each other and doing perhaps the most stunning dance of the series. It was also one of the most painful dances Astaire ever did; the problem was Rogers’ beaded gown, which she designed herself — and those long, hanging sleeves full of beads were stingingly painful when she accidentally slapped him with him repeatedly.
Nonetheless, Follow the Fleet was a departure from the Astaire-Rogers series norms and quite frankly suffered from it. In The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Arlene Croce suggests that was deliberate: “One way to keep star vehicles moving is to put them into reverse. Follow the Fleet banished Continental chic by casting Astaire as a gum-chewing sailor and Rogers as a dance-hall hostess in a setting of San Francisco harbor lights, dime-a-dance palaces and apartments with sad little kitchens.” For Rogers Follow the Fleet was a return to the proletarian musicals she’d been making at Warners before she switched studios to RKO in 1933; for Astaire it was the first time he’d made such a grungy movie since Dancing Lady, his film debut and MGM’s attempt to duplicate the success of Warners’ 42nd Street. Follow the Fleet was the first Astaire-Rogers musical set entirely in the United States (of their previous films Flying Down to Rio had started in Miami but moved to Brazil, and the other three had taken place in Europe: The Gay Divorcée in London, Roberta in Paris and Top Hat in London and Venice) and by an odd happenstance it featured two performers, Harriet Hilliard and (in a bit part as one of Ginger Rogers’ co-entertainers) Lucille Ball, who went on to TV stardom in the 1950’s in sitcoms in which they co-starred with their bandleader husbands, who also produced the shows. It also has one of those piss-ant little plots in which the meanness that often crept into Astaire’s characters on screen gets pretty trying after a while — Astaire gets Rogers fired from her job as band singer and taxi dancer at the “Paradise Ballroom” (though the film is set in San Francisco the establishment was modeled on the real-life Palomar Ballroom in L.A., where Benny Goodman had his breakthrough success in 1935; RKO needed dancers to lose a dance contest to Astaire and Rogers, so they ran a real dance contest at the Palomar and the winners got to be in the movie as the star duo’s rivals on the floor) and later sabotages her audition with a Broadway producer by putting bicarbonate of soda in her drinking water (he thinks he’s sabotaging a rival instead of Rogers herself) — all too blatant a warmup for Holiday Inn (which shared three of the main creative personnel with Follow the Fleet: Astaire, Berlin and director Mark Sandrich), in which once again the songs are superlatively beautiful and the nastiness of the plot scenes between them makes the movie virtually unwatchable between numbers.
The big dance numbers in Follow the Fleet score one after another — “Let Yourself Go” (the dance contest at the beginning after Ginger sings the song with three backup singers, Joanne Gray, Joy Hodges and future superstar Betty Grable); “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” in which Astaire leads a corps of sailors in a drill routine (first he dances solo and then, on cue, the other sailors come down from their stations on the ship to serve as his chorus line — Charles laughed at the risibility of this gimmick but it’s an old musical convention and it was fun); a reprise of “Let Yourself Go” as Ginger Rogers’ tap solo at her audition; “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” (“the prize goofball routine of all time and the only one [Astaire and Rogers] ever did,” wrote Croce — on the basis of this sequence maybe Rogers could have partnered Astaire in the “runaround” or “nut” dance he and his sister Adele had made one of their trademarks on stage, but Astaire didn’t think so and saved it for his first RKO film sans Rogers, A Damsel in Distress, in which Gracie Allen — a superb dancer in her own right as well as a brilliant comedienne — partnered him); and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” There are also two solo songs for Harriet Hilliard, “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?,” rather mopey pieces — the first signaling her weakening determination to resist the dubious charms of Randolph Scott; the second her upset when a rich divorcée (Astrid Allwyn) pulls him away from her (temporarily, because Astaire has another nasty trick up his sleeve to break up Scott and Allwyn and return him to Hilliard’s arms) — which were cut from the TV versions shown in the 1950’s through the 1970’s and only seen on the home screen when cable movie channels — first AMC and now TCM — started showing Follow the Fleet in the 1980’s. Hilliard had a good voice — low for a woman and sounding quite like a late-1920’s/early-1930’s torch singer, though without the soggy intonation and deliberate tear-jerking that breed were partial to — but the songs are a bit of a drain on the movie’s energy level. RKO originally tried to get Irene Dunne to play Hilliard’s part — she’d collaborated with Astaire, Rogers and Randolph Scott in Roberta and delivered stunning performances of that show’s two big ballads, “Yesterdays” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” — but Croce thought Follow the Fleet would have been improved if Ginger Rogers had played both sisters — which would at least have showcased her dramatic versatility the way the numbers showed off her dancing versatility.
Rogers was not a happy camper throughout the making of Follow the Fleet — before it started she and her mother Lela, her manager throughout her career, held up RKO for a major salary increase and a guarantee of co-star billing with Astaire; and during the filming she gave an interview to a reporter in which, right after an exhausting dance rehearsal, she said, “After this, I’d like to take a vacation — digging mines!” She was pushing for more films without Astaire on her way to establishing a reputation as a non-musical actress — at which she succeeded; two years after the RKO series with Astaire ended she won the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle (and Rogers’ success in breaking away from musicals motivated Judy Garland to try the same thing; she got MGM to give her one non-musical, The Clock, and it made money — but her musicals made so much more money that Louis B. Mayer put her back into singing/dancing roles) and in the 18 months between Shall We Dance in 1937 and Carefree in 1938 she made three films to Astaire’s one. As for Astaire, he wasn’t as anxious to transition out of musicals as Rogers was, but he might have been able to do it; when I first read The Maltese Falcon it occurred to me that out of all the men in Hollywood in 1941 Astaire came closer than anyone to the physical description of Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, and as perfectly as Humphrey Bogart played the role I’d still like to think there’s a parallel universe out there in which Astaire played Spade (with Barbara Stanwyck as Brigid and Edward Arnold as Gutman) and made the transition from musical star to noir actor the way the other great male musical star of the 1930’s, Dick Powell, actually did — certainly the nastiness that gets in the way of enjoying some of Astaire’s musicals would have stood him well in noir parts!