I really like FOLLOW THE FLEET (1935) a lot, despite its weak points, because there's so little pretense here. Fred and Ginger play what they really are, professional dancers. And more than that, they give top hats, tails and evening gowns a rest for most of the film, playing rather typical people; a refreshing change, I think. Furthermore, there's no conniving about the romance we know is inevitable -- they start off being crazy for each other and it works just fine.
Bake Baker and Sherry Martin (Fred and Ginger) were a professional dance team before the film opens, but after Sherry declined Bake's proposal of marriage, they broke up the act and went their separate ways. Bake "joined the Navy to see the world" (as he sings with his shipmates in "We Saw the Sea"), while Sherry stuck to land and went solo. The film begins a few years later when Bake and his fellow seamen arrive in San Francisco on leave and run into Sherry singing and dancing at a local servicemen's hangout, The Paradise Ballroom. Both are thrilled to see each other (Ginger's tears upon seeing Bake after so long are as credible as any I've seen on film), but they are also a little wary about how the other might remember their previous parting.
"Let's kiss and make up," Bake suggests.
"No. Let's just make up. That'll give you something to work for," Sherry replies with a smile.
They do, and hit the dance floor together for old time's sake. Sherry has previously performed "Let Yourself Go" (), and now she and Bake (inadvertently entering the dance contest) perform a great tap dance duet to an instrumental reprise of the number. It's quite a sight -- Fred in his bell-bottomed sailor suit and Ginger in a satin, sailor-style pant-suit dancing up a storm. The number progresses from friendly competition between the two reunited partners to a full-fledged tap war, pitting them against two other dance-contest pairs (amateurs whom Hermes Pan had recruited from local Los Angeles dance halls). I can't describe it. You've just got to see it. It's probably my favorite informal dance number out of all their films. Needless to say, they win the contest.
A publicity still for FOLLOW THE FLEET: Bake and Sherry with their trophy.
On their way out, Bake and Sherry run into Sherry's boss, the club manager, and Bake gets her fired by telling the manager that she out-classes his establishment. Nothing to worry about, Bake assures her. The next day they'll go together to the office of Jim Nolan, theatre producer extraordinaire, and get her a real job. Unfortunately, Bake's liberty gets canceled and the fleet pulls out that night. Sherry is left alone and unemployed. We don't worry too much about her though. Sherry's the kind of girl who can take care of herself. So where does the principal conflict come in? Well, that's one of the weaknesses. The only real trouble in the film takes place among the number three and four players, putting Sherry and Bake a little bit on the back burner for some of the film.
While Bake and Sherry have been rekindling their old flame, Sherry's wall-flower sister, Connie (played by Harriet Hilliard, who dyed her hair dark to better contrast with Ginger), has been falling for one of Bake's shipmates, Bilge (played by Randolph Scott). (FOLLOW THE FLEET was originally envisioned as a reunification of ROBERTA's romantic duos, with Irene Dunne playing Connie, but Dunne was unavailable when it came time to shoot FOLLOW THE FLEET and Hilliard was brought in to replace her.) Lucille Ball, making her third Ginger-and-Fred-film appearance playing one of Sherry's fellow Paradise performers, has made Connie up to look like a bubble-head glamour queen instead of an intelligent music teacher. ("You know, it isn't that gentlemen really prefer blondes. It's just that we look dumber," Sherry tells her.) Bilge gets taken in, especially after he hears that Connie owns a scrapped ship which her father left her. While things appear to be sailing right along between them, Connie inadvertently (and unknowingly) scares Bilge off with talk of marriage. After the fleet pulls out, she secures financing and fixes up her ship, hoping to surprise Bilge with it when he returns. He comes back all right, but not to Connie, so she decides she'd better stick to teaching music and go back to Bellport. Sherry gets Bake to try to convince her to change her mind:
"Run away," he facetiously tells Connie. "All this stuff about fighting for your man and all that makes things so complicated. Now if all girls would just give up and run back to Bellport, then little Junior would remain just an idea, and every man would burn his own toast. I thank you."
Connie decides to stay, but only until she can figure out how to pay off her financial obligations. Sherry and Bake decide putting on a show to raise money is the only way. (How many times has this device been used in musical plots over the years?) Now the central conflict has been established. The problem is that our leads have only supporting roles in this drama. Hilliard and Scott aren't bad, but they're not whom we came to see. Even Hilliard's musical numbers ("Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" and "Here Am I, But Where Are You?" -- obviously intended for Dunne) don't measure up to the rest of the film.
Fred and Ginger don't drop out completely however. As it turns out, Bake returns (with a cute little monkey as an "I'm sorry" present) and heads for Nolan's office to talk him into auditioning Sherry just as (it turns out) she is dancing for him, having gotten an audition on her own. This dance audition is actually occasion for Ginger's first of only two dance solos in the Rogers-Astaire film series. She reprises "Let Yourself Go"() in a short, black, fringed skirt and black heels, tapping impressively and seemingly enjoying herself. Not only does she take advantage of this opportunity to show her stuff, but she shows off her strong, shapely legs as well. Well, well, well...
Bake blows her chances though when, thinking the girl auditioning for Nolan is competition for Sherry and not realizing it's Sherry herself, he sends her a glass of water tainted with bicarbonate of soda, causing her to hiccough her way through her vocal number and ruining her audition. When Sherry finds out about this later, she's not amused and has her revenge, getting Bake in trouble with a superior officer and losing his leave for him. Little does she know, this will threaten to keep him out of the show.
"I'm putting all my eggs in one basket. I'm betting everything I've got on you."
The reason it's clear this is a staged publicity photo and not a still taken during the shooting of the film is that you can see Ginger's face. Mark Sandrich, who directed five of Ginger and Fred's films, became notorious (at least in Ginger's mind) for shooting the back of Ginger's head. "If I was talking to Fred or looking at Fred, Mark would take a long shot of me from behind, from my knees to the top of my head, to frame Fred's face. I know how much has been written about what a splendid, supple back I had, but this was ridiculous," she describes in her book.(*8)
The show (and the rehearsals for the show) are of course, opportunities to work in some of the film's best musical moments. While Fred has two notable numbers with the guys on board their ship -- "We Saw the Sea" and the creative song-and-dance combo "I'd Rather Lead a Band" -- it's his numbers with Ginger that really stand out in this film. Besides the outstanding "Let Yourself Go" dance contest routine, FOLLOW THE FLEET features my favorite (and the only real slapstick-esque) of Ginger and Fred's comic routines, danced to "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" (after they've sung it). The basic premise of this farce is that they haven't finished choreographing the number and attempt to wing it. Sherry keeps getting stuck on a single step however (an old vaudeville standard, it appears), and goofy dancing chaos follows.
"There may be trouble ahead. But while there's moonlight and music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance," sings Fred to Ginger before they do as he advises.
In direct contrast to "One Basket" is "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (), a melodramatic, silent scenario about two socialites who meet, just as both are about to commit suicide, and dance away their depression together. It's part of "the show" Bake and Sherry put on to raise money for Connie, hence the elegant costumes. What's impressive about this number is how moving it is. The dancing does a marvelous job evoking and enhancing the somber mood set by the preceding action, and each gracefully drags the reluctant other across the floor. Another bit of dress trivia goes along with this number: Ginger's dress (again designed by Bernard Newman) was pale blue and heavily beaded, weighing about 25 pounds, she reports.(*9) Not only did it have a tendency to knock her off balance as the momentum generated by her spins swirled it about her legs, but the sleeves, which hung down from the wrists, caused Fred difficulties as well. About fifteen seconds into the first take, he caught a sleeve in the face and "kept on dancing, although somewhat maimed."(*10) The number was repeated for several hours in an effort to get a better take, but after about twenty, the cast and crew called it quits, planning to try again the next morning. As it turned out in the rushes however, the first take was fine, the blow to Fred's face being virtually unnoticeable.
8. Rogers 150.
9. ibid, 151.
10. Astaire 214.