Thursday, September 30, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Follow the Fleet (1936)

Fred Astaire plays a sailor who re-unites with his former girlfriend
and dance partner (Ginger Rogers) while on leave in San Francisco
For this film, the Producers at RKO tried to give Astaire and Rogers a slightly different look. In their three starring roles together, Fred and Ginger had been placed in decidedly upper-class roles, dancing together in tux and evening gown, respectively. As the decade progress and the depression continued, however, the studio decided that their dancing stars would be more relatable to audiences if they portrayed more blue-collar characters. The result was one of their best films together: Follow the Fleet.

As usual, there are a lot of reasons why this film works. Like its direct predecessor, Top Hat, it features a spectacular score by Irving Berlin, including "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," and "Let Yourself Go." As usual we also get a great supporting cast, including Randolph Scott, Lucile Ball, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson. This is also the only film in which Ginger gets a solo dance--whereas Fred almost always does--so it's notable in that regard as well.

The plot is fairly standard but well executed for what it's worth. Fred plays "Bake" Baker, a sailor who tried to re-unite with his former girlfriend Sherry and dancing partner (Ginger Rogers) while on a brief shore leave in San Francisco. Sherry has been having problems with her career since Bake joined the navy because no one wants to hire a female solo dancer--except as a stripteaser, which is completely out of the question for Sherry. Bake tries to help her out with his theater contacts, but his shore leave expires before he can get a hold of any of them or even explain to Sherry what happened. At the same time Bake's best friend "Bilge" Smith falls for Sherry's sister Connie (Harriet Hilliard) but gets scared off when she starts talking about marriage. So will the couples be able to overcome these misunderstandings? Seeing as this is a musical comedy, the answer is obvious, but the film is endearing enough to warrant watching.

Fred and Ginger as usual get three dances together, and they're to the three best tunes in the film, which I mentioned above. "Let Yourself Go" and" "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" are both fun numbers, with Ginger showing her comedic chops especially in the latter. The former is more a display of technical skill as the couple try to win a dance contest at the night club where Ginger works. Fred also gets to show off his incredible musical prowess by playing the piano in the intro to "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," much to my delight.

As good as the musical number with Fred and Ginger are, where this film really suffers is with the songs they give to Harriet Hilliard. It seems as if they're trying to revert to the formula used in Roberta with Irene Dunne where she co-starred as a stunning vocal counterpoint to Fred and Ginger's supurb dancing, but this time it doesn't work. Whereas Dunne had an incredible voice and memorable songs to sing, not only Harriet Hilliard's singing material forgettable in this film, but her voice also isn't anything exceptional, making her scenes seem to drag on too long.

So while this musical has great dancing, some good songs, and a cute and different plot for an Astaire/Rogers film, it still cannot be considered the apex of their stint together because of the drag caused by Harriet Hilliard's musical numbers. For the film that I think superlative of their oeuvre, be sure to check out my next review Swing Time.

As for this film, I give it 7.8 out of ten, which means it's still well worth seeing.

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