Thursday, June 14, 2012

Follow the Fleet (1936)

RKO Pictures
Director: Mark Sandrich
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolf Scott, Harriet Hilliard

RKO goes back to the usual well of teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in yet another musical, their first of the year 1936, following the huge success of Top Hat, in Follow the Fleet. This time around Astaire’s role is not that of a wealthier playboy living in the lap of luxury as a famous entertainer as he once again falls in love with Ginger Rogers, rather it is of a naval seaman returning to find his old partner and former lover in hopes to rekindle their past magic. Astaire and Rogers have been the bread and butter of RKO for the past couple of years, guaranteeing a regular stream of revenue from their team’s big name, helping to keep the studio afloat as it always seemed to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.  By once again by putting Fred and Ginger together it would be like printing money when they needed it, the trick being that they needed to keep from making the dancing/singing duo from seeming too repetetive.

Follow the Fleet is a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy of two naval friends and their adventure in love with two sisters when they make port in San Francisco, and how to make relationships work between the girls and men controlled by the navy. When the fleet sets anchor in the San Francisco Bay the boys go off to play. Two friends “Bake” Baker (Astaire) and “Bilge” (Randolph Scott) while out on the town find love. Bake reunites with his old dance partner Sherry (Rogers), who had declined his marriage proposal before he set out for the navy years prior. Bake attempts to rekindle the relationship by helping out Sherry with a part in a big show, but through mistaken circumstances plans go badly for her. Meanwhile Bilge meets Sherry’s younger sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard), and falls for her when she is dolled up one evening, something she is not known for doing. Bilge is scared by her when she talks about marriage and keeps his distance, but she badly wants to be with him. All this leads to a show led by Bake and Sherry which is done for to raise funds for Connie to salvage an old ship, once owned by her now deceased father with intention of making Bilge its captain. Capped with a musical show, all ends well as the couples succeed in love and goals, Bake and Sherry landing a Broadway show, Connie and Bilge with the ship they worked so hard to secure.

To make this film different for the previous Astaire/Roger pictures our stars are removed from their luxurious perches seen time and time beforehand. Astaire this time is a lowly naval seaman and Rogers a singer/dancer just trying to get by working night clubs. This is very different from the usual tuxedo and gown bedecked couple we are used to seeing, as now he is just a gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking nobody, and she is just a run-of-the-mill night performer. The couple also shares a past from a declined wedding proposal. These are the facets that were used to try to keep their routine fresh from their many films previously. The new twists are all fine a good, things that Fred Astaire most of all was very aware of and committed whole heartedly to when working on Follow the Fleet, but when it comes down to it the picture is just another Astaire/Rogers flick.

Not to say that it was a bad thing, of course. Directed by now veteran Astaire/Rogers director Mark Sandrich, Follow the Fleet does feel like a film on automatic pilot, in both a good way and a bad way. By good I mean all the proper players seem to have improved in skill and knew clearly their role, including Sandrich, Astaire, and Rogers. By bad I mean the feature feels less than inspired, as if they took the usual pieces and simply assembled yet another film just like the other ones, only less glamorous. Sandrich does a fine job assembling all the correct pieces and shooting the picture as it always should be, perhaps focusing more successfully on the humor than we had seen him do in the past. This creates a fine film with a mix of comedy and quality music, which was once again written by the famous music man Irving Berlin, hitting his second stride in music thanks to Astaire.

Astaire and Rogers as a performing couple had improved as well. It becomes clearer that Rogers has improved dramatically over her many films with the tutelage of Fred, including her very own number where she dances by herself, Astaire nowhere in the scene. As mentioned before, Astaire, who was once considered to not have a future as a good actor, is committed to becoming more of a character. He tries to convey a character that is more everyman by doing the little things that were less than proper on the screen, like chewing gum, all for the sake of being the everyman. We see he is trying, and in a way it works, but Astaire is still just Astaire, a skinny dancing machine with the big eyes and a fair amount of wit.

Despite Astaire and Rogers being the front line stars, it is the supporting couple that is actually the center of the story. The tall and handsome, but thespianly poor Randolph Scott once again plays a role similar in nature to the previous role in an Astaire/Rogers film, Roberta. This time, however, his character is a bit more flawed, self-centered, and non-committal. He would be paired up with a cinematic newcomer, Harriet Hilliard, stage name given to her by her husband, band leader Ozzie Nelson, later to take on his last name as Harriet Nelson. This beautiful, young singer does an admirable job of caring the emotional center of a film that is relatively weak plot-wise. What is clear for her is her skill of singing, which is showcased a couple of times in the feature. This was just a start of a short stint she would have with RKO, only to later team with her husband and create one of radio and television’s most enduring shows, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Despite this feature missing that special something, perhaps a larger musical number, or more of a big budget quality to it, the film would still have the drawing power to make good at the box office. Not one of the best works of Astaire/Rogers, but a good natured production for any leisurely trip to the movie house. It goes to manifest just how much worth the performing team was to the studio, and with Astaire being one of the hardest working performers, and Rogers always attempting to get better, together they formed a winning formula that RKO desperately needed.

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