October 12, 2015

Follow the Fleet (1936)
Grade: 71/100

Director: Mark Sandrich
Stars: Fred Astaire, Randolph Scott, Ginger Rogers

What it's about. Fred Astaire and Randolph Scott are sailors in the U.S. Navy. The sometimes contentious buddies get shore leave in San Francisco, where Astaire resumes his courtship of nightclub singer and dancer Ginger Rogers. Meanwhile Scott, a confirmed bachelor, has to choose between good poor girl Harriet Hilliard and bad rich girl Astrid Allwyn. Guess who wins.

Lucille Ball and Betty Grable show up in minor roles, as does Astaire's engaging pet monkey.

How others will see it. Astaire-Rogers movies practically have a cult following, and if today's viewers complain about the movie, it is because big Randolph Scott and Ozzie Nelson's future wife take too much screentime away from our charming couple. Thus, Top Hat seems to be the preferred Astaire-Rogers pairing.

This was also the case back in 1936, since Top Hat received four Oscar nomination, including Best Picture, while, alas, Follow the Fleet was ignored by the Academy.

How I felt about it. Sometimes it seems as if there were a hundred Astaire-Rogers films, given how often they are shown on Turner Classic Movies. But there were actually only ten movies, and nine if you don't count The Barkleys of Broadway, filmed years after the famous dance pair broke up.

Most of those films don't hold up well today, and I'm not just referring to Astaire's imitations of black hoofers like Bojangles. The plots reek of formula, involving a hard-to-get Rogers simultaneously bemused and annoyed by Astaire. There's usually some misunderstanding, in "Three's Company" sitcom fashion, and often some foppish foreign guy with a "funny" accent.

But Follow the Fleet isn't embarrassing at all. True, we suspect all along that wallflower-turned-hottie Harriet Hillard will land hunky Raldolph Scott, even if matters are drawn out late into the final reel. She won't get to keep him though, since he apparently found a time machine to take him back into the Old West to make scads of "B" movies.

But we like Scott anyway, as well as Astaire and Rogers, and it turns out that less of Rogers doesn't hurt the film at all, since that means less formula in the Rogers-Astaire courtship. Mostly they are friends here, which is how we prefer it: no songs about envelopes, potatoes, and tomatoes. Let's call the whole thing off, indeed.

Actually, Harriet Hilliard is a bore, honest to a fault, but at least she's both pretty and nice, and the Irving Berlin song "We Saw the Sea" has been stuck in my head for a few days now. Anything other than that aggravating potato-tomato tune.

I've always believed that Astaire was better as a comedic actor than as a singer or dancer, even though the aerobic exercise was more beneficial to his health than the cigarettes they smoke too much of in these old movies. Here he does more acting than performing, due to RKO Radio's desire to give a firm career push behind the hulking Randolph Scott.

The studio motive may also account for the above-average screenplay. imdb.com credits five names, none of which, alas, are Ben Hecht or the Epstein brothers, but many of the lines are nonetheless amusing.