Old Movie Week: Follow the Fleet (1936)

Fred Astaire (Bake), Ginger Rogers (Sherry), Randolph Scott (Bilge), Harriet Hilliard (Connie)

Directed by Mark Sandrich (Holiday Inn)

IMDB: When the fleet puts in at San Francisco, sailor Bake Baker tries to rekindle the flame with his old dancing partner, Sherry Martin, while Bake's buddy Bilge Smith romances Sherry's sister Connie. But it's not all smooth sailing: Bake has a habit of losing Sherry's jobs for her, and despite Connie's dreams, Bilge is not ready to settle down.

Some character combinations work better than others. I rather dislike Astaire's character because he was a meddling doofus. Am I supposed to root for the guy who gets his girlfriend fired on several occasions? Am I supposed to root for the girl who forgives him after that?

The sexual politics of this film were actually distasteful, particularly between the secondary pairing of Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard. She wants the handsome sailor and is willing to turn herself inside out to do it--and then she refurbishes her father's dilapidated boat to snare him. Okay, fine. I'm on board with that as long as he comes to realize he's in love with the real her, and well before she offers the boat as his price. Alas, that doesn't happen. He conveniently loves her after finding out the refurbished boat is hers.

Really? By contrast, those two made Fred and Ginger appear positively modern.

The dance numbers are loosely constructed around the idea of performing a big show aboard Connie's boat. One of the most incredible of these numbers is "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," where Bake and Sherry "rehearse" and "get stuff wrong." Repeatedly. It's virtuosic comedic dance. Absolutely incredible.

What struck me, in addition to the questionable sexual politics, was the theme of suicide. Connie is distraught on several occasions and contemplates how badly her life will be without Bilge. "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is also surprisingly dark, performed in minor keys. The "characters" Bake and Sherry play during the finale of the musical on the boat stand ready to commit suicide. Then they find one another and dance away their depression. The effect is surprisingly moving, especially considering how farcical the rest of the movie is. The emotion of the scene is genuine...but then it's lost again during the "let's make nice" finish. (Again, no footage on YouTube! Grr!)

Such an odd duck, this one. I could've forgiven a great deal had Bake been more likable, because what is a Fred Astaire role if he's not likable??


elizs said...

I've seen all the Fred & Ginger movies, and "Follow the Fleet" is most definitely the weakest (although Flying Down to Rio is close). What's crazy to me is that Harriet Hilliard went on to be the Harriet of Ozzie & Harriet. RANDOM.

Have you seen Shall We Dance yet? That's my favorite of their pairings, even though The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle has a special place in my heart for being the first of their movies I saw.

Anyway, I enjoy reading your take on these. I've been watching them for so long (since my childhood in the 80s), I can't remember how it felt to see them the first time.

Carrie Lofty said...

I haven't seen all of them, but I will! I've been enchanted by their chemistry, which means the completist in me must be satisfied. Thanks for stopping by! Tomorrow I move on to some Bing Crosby...

elizs said...

Bing & Bob's road movies are also quite terrific. I think "Road to Morocco" is my favorite of those.