Follow the Fleet

Follow the Fleet, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. Co-starring Randolph Scott, Harriet Hilliard. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. B&W, 110 minutes.

Navy seaman “Bake” Baker (Fred Astaire) is on shore leave with a number of his buddies, including “Bilge” Smith (Randolph Scott), and they’ve all headed to the Paradise ballroom for the evening. What Bake doesn’t know is his former dance partner—and the woman he wanted to marry—one Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers) is now performing at the Paradise.

Joining Sherry for the evening is her plain sister Connie (Harriet Hilliard, better known by her married name Nelson, of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson fame), who finds she won’t be admitted to the Paradise alone. She tricks Bilge into escorting her, and her attraction for him is immediate, but he’s turned off by her staid appearance. Once in Sherry’s dressing room, Connie allows herself to be transformed. Bilge later doesn’t recognize her and his pursuit of Connie begins, but that stops when he realizes she wants to get married. Instead, Bilge takes up with a divorced woman with a penchant for sailors, Iris Manning.

Connie doesn’t realize Bilge has been scared off, however. In the meantime, Sherry has her own problems. With Bake’s help she’s lost her job at the Paradise, and a case of mistaken identity costs her the audition Bake promised to arrange. But it’s Connie’s loss and the debt the two sisters incurred pursuing her dream that prompt putting on the show to solve all their problems.

Ginger Rogers and three female backup singers put on a show for incoming sailors.

Ginger Rogers (with Betty Grable, center of trio)

While not Astaire and Rogers best film, it does have one of their finest scores with such Irving Berlin classics as “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” “Let Yourself Go” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” All three were big hits on the Hit Parade, which tabulated a song’s popularity.

For the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number, Rogers wore a dress that was heavily weighted, so as to give it the ability to swirl in a controlled manner. During the first take, the sleeve of the dress, which was one of the weighted pieces, hit Astaire, nearly knocking him out. Although he later said he completed that take in a daze, ultimately, it was the take he chose for the film.

Harriet Hilliard and Randolph Scott admire her father's scale model ship

Harriet Hilliard, Randolph Scott

Follow the Fleet also featured two cameo roles by actresses who would go on to great fame, each appearing in a part suited to her particular talents: Betty Grable as part of a trio backing up Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball uttering a sharp quip to a sailor who approaches her with a tired line.

The film is a little long and the plot is a bit convoluted, plus it’s hard to imagine Astaire as a sailor, but Follow the Fleet is still a delight for Astaire-Rogers fans.