February 21st, 1936. The New York Times: “With Irving Berlin’s score as a rhythmic accompaniment and with a considerably altered edition of Hubert Osborne’s play, “Shore Leave” (1922), as a convenient excuse, “Follow the Fleet” reduces itself, and quite pleasantly, to a generous series of attractive song and dance numbers linked almost imperceptibly by the most nebulous of plots. This, of course, is the way with all the Rogers-Astaire pictures, and we mention it only for the record—not because we expect any one to consider it a serious criticism of the film.”
That last sentence is important. Hollywood musicals are absolutely not about story and never were. They are about performance and their silly plots are only the string on which to thread the pearls of their musical numbers – though most of the stories do say something about the hard work and dedication demanded by the business of show. What audiences understood at the time was that all that hard work would be right there on the screen – even if the screen (with it’s editing and ideal camera angles) often made everything look easy … like the number below (which is NOT from Follow the Fleet).
Broadway veteran Fred Astaire (1899-1987) made little impact in Hollywood at first. Then RKO cast him in a minor role in Flying Down To Rio (1933), from which this clip is taken. He chose Ginger Rogers as his dance partner, having been in a routine with her in the 1930 Broadway production, Girl Crazy. Their wholesome charm – especially in the number The Carioca (below) – had unmistakable sexual undertones when it appeared on screen and turned an otherwise minor number into the highlight of the film (The Carioca).
The nine year old, future director Stanley Donen, saw Flying Down to Rio at least nine times: “I’d never seen anything like it,” he said, “And I’m not sure I have since. It was as if something had exploded inside me. . . I was mesmerized. I could not stop watching Fred Astaire dance. I went back to the theatre every day while the picture was playing. I must’ve seen it at least twenty times. Fred Astaire was so graceful. It was as if he were connected to the music. He led it and he interpreted it, and he made it look so effortless. He performed as though he were absolutely without gravity.”
When Flying Down to Rio made just under half a million dollars (with the Great Depression at its worst) RKO executives paid attention. The following year they were put together again in The Gay Divorcee (originally Gay Divorce, but the Hays office demanded a change – it was OK to suggest a divorced person was “happy” but not that a divorce was happy!) In glamorous surroundings, Astaire and Rogers’ banter made them likable and “just like us” – and the film made an even larger profit. Next came Top Hat (1935, right) – a story of mistaken identities in an art deco vision of Venice, with breezy dialogue that amounted to an elegantly delightful cinematic cocktail. Costing an extravagant $625,000, Top Hat grossed $3.2 million and established the Astaire-Rogers brand. Though still mainly about stringing musical numbers onto a light-weight thread of a story, these were nevertheless the first musicals to make substantial use of dialogue that was integrated with song and dance to develop character. What is more, the scores were by top composers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin – along with Jerome Kern, who worked on their next, Roberta (1935). Then Irving Berlin was brought on board again for Follow the Fleet (See what I did there? On-board? Geddit?).
So far the stories in Astaire-Rogers films had followed a boy-meets-girl formula but in their fifth RKO outing Astaire got to switch his elegant presence of top hat, white tie and tails for a sailor’s uniform and some gum-chewing antics (left). He also changed its milieu from a European setting to down-to-earth San Francisco, where he is reunited with Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers, below), his former dancing partner – now working as a singer at the Paradise Club. They share screen time with another couple closer to their own age, Sherry’s sister Connie (Harriet Hilliard) and Bilge (Randolph Scott). No need to waste time summarizing the fluffy plot: As one commentator notes, “The sailors may complain in chorus about the monotony of the ocean, but it seems their duties are completely non-existent, and somehow Fred Astaire finds enough free time during the day to offer dancing classes to a crew of would-be romantic sailors.”
For my money though, this is what gives the RKO musicals the edge over later brasher and more expensive MGM classic, which seem to take themselves so seriously. In Follow the Fleet there is an air of impish humour just beneath the surface – such as that deck full of sailors dancing with each other – which makes it all a bit of a laugh.
Follow the Fleet had more musical numbers than the previous Astaire-Rogers pairings: “We Saw the Sea”; “Let Yourself Go”; “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” (cut by censors in Britain); “I’d Rather Lead the Band”; “But Where Are You?”; “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”; “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”. And several are reprieved in different form through the film.
Ginger Rogers later pursued dramatic roles and left dancing behind, appearing in mainly forgettable dramas though she did receive an Oscar nomination for Kitty Foyle (1940). In interviews, she often downplayed the importance of Astaire in her career. When Rogers died, however, every newspaper and television newscast in the world carried pictures of her – dancing with Astaire. The image of Astaire and Rogers dancing is a definitive symbol of 20th Century culture; a reminder that a violent age also had another side. In them, as one writer has put it, we see “our world and what it is possible to make of its spaces – in the light of such movements we can find that our earthbound nature is made acceptable, even delicious.” (Edward Gallafent, Astaire Rogers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: p.224) For more on the history of dance film click here.