I’ve always felt that “Follow the Fleet” is one of the odder Fred and Ginger films because of its structure and where it fall within the series.
Coming off of the sublime “Top Hat,” Fred and Ginger’s success is unquestionable. So why RKO chose to pair them with Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard as co-stars seems like a step down for the famed duo. In fact, “Top Hat” was opening when “Follow the Fleet” started filming. Perhaps the studio felt that their success could rub off on Scott and newcomer Hilliard. But the main thrust of the plot – and there’s not much here to work with – is tied to Scott and Hilliard. While Fred and Ginger have plenty of screen time, they feel like second bananas and almost function as the humorous supporting cast, roles that normally are played by Edward Everett Horton or Helen Broderick.
In fact, because there are four stars, that wonderful supporting cast is sorely missing here. You do get Lucille Ball in a small role and Betty Grable in an even shorter role, but it’s mainly of interest because of who they are and what they would later become, not because of what they are doing here.
And yet, oddly enough, this film is easy to watch. It zips along as if none of these detriments matter. Fred and Ginger sparkle, and when they dance, it’s a dream.
As the title denotes, “Follow the Fleet” has Fred and Randolph playing Bake Baker and Bilge Smith (gotta love the names), two sailors who get shore leave when the fleet pulls into San Francisco. The two and their pals head off to the Paradise Club, where Bake tries to reach his old girlfriend Sherry Martin (Ginger), unaware that she actually works at the Paradise.
Meanwhile, Sherry’s sister Connie (Hilliard) comes to the Paradise for a visit. The unglamorous Connie cannot gain entrance to the club without a male escort, so when Bilge arrives with beer, she buys his ticket and explains her predicament once they are safely inside. He barely acknowledges her, and she heads off to Sherry’s dressing room. While there, Sherry asks friend Kitty (Ball) to spruce up Connie, who has never been anything but a wallflower.
But when Kitty is done, a glamorous Connie heads out to the dance floor, where Bilge immediately gravitates toward her, unaware that Connie is the woman he entered with.
Meanwhile, Bake and Sherry reunite. And frankly, for the plot, there’s not much else. Sherry wants to audition for a real show, while Connie wants to refurbish their dead father’s ship so she can marry Bilge and give him a ship of his own. Bilge doesn’t want to feel tied down, so he dates someone else.
One fact that sets this entry apart from the other Fred and Ginger films is the setting. Typically, Fred and Ginger are dressed to the hilt, even if they aren’t rich. Here they are working class, and while their show biz dreams haven’t changed, the venue has.
The enjoyment of “Follow the Fleet” is in the dances and interplay. If Hilliard and Scott provide the main plot, it’s Fred and Ginger who provide the sunshine. Thankfully, they have a terrific Irving Berlin score to help them along. The film starts off with the delightful “We Saw the Sea,” which Fred is singing as they pull into dock.
Next we switch to the dance hall, and Ginger is singing “Let Yourself Go” with a trio that includes Grable. Then Ginger and Fred dance to it to win a dance contest. Interestingly enough, choreographer Hermes Pan recruited actual dance hall contestants from around Los Angeles to show off their best moves. Fred and Hermes had fun with their take on the latest dance crazes, and yet it’s Fred and Ginger who ultimately lend a timeless energy to this sequence by creating their own routine rather than merely mirroring those of the other couples.
Hilliard actually has two solos in the film: “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?” Both are nicely presented, and it makes sense she would have these solos, as this was her first film after establishing herself as a radio vocalist with Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra – whom she would marry and become a TV fixture in the 1950s (and to think she and television icon Lucille Ball were both in this film). Apparently Hilliard was a blond but dyed her hair dark so as not to compete with Ginger.
In “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” Fred has a terrific solo in which he’s teaching his fellow sailors how to dance. The number beautifully ties into the Navy theme as he taps out commands and drills the sailors through the routine. And, for the first time, Ginger receives her own solo as she auditions for a producer by reprising “Let Yourself Go.”
The “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” number allows both Ginger and Fred to have some fun as their “practice” consists of pratfalls and gags. This one shouldn’t work but it does because of their enormous chemistry and the artistry they lend to what is essentially a vaudeville routine.
In fact, author Arlene Croce calls this the film where Ginger truly blossoms and shows her range, from the comic in both of these numbers to her seriousness in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
And “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a killer. This number is self-contained piece that is part of the show everyone is putting on to save the two sisters’ father’s ship. In fact, it’s the third time, following “Flying Down to Rio” and “Roberta,” that a Fred and Ginger film ends with the gang putting on a show.
But “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a brilliant piece of melodrama scored and danced to perfection. This number could have easily backfired – he’s a gambler, in his tuxedo, who has lost everything and contemplates ending his life by shooting himself. However, when she appears in a gorgeous beaded gown and wants to jump to her death, Fred saves the both of them. Yes, it appears the routine could be headed down a very hokey road. Instead, the two take this very somber mood and build a mesmerizing number, reveling in its theatricality by dancing as if no one else is around. The music and movement enhance the melodrama rather than fight it, and both Fred and Ginger are breathlessly hypnotic.
It’s worth noting that Ginger’s gown weighed about 20 pounds, and Ginger said she had to really focus on her balance. The gown’s momentum and weight often caused her to move when she shouldn’t. In addition, during the first take, her sleeve smacked Fred in the face, and he said he was seeing stars throughout the rest of the number. Yet after many takes, it was determined the first one was the best, so it’s the one that’s in the film (and you can see Fred discreetly flinch early on when the sleeve hits him).
Regardless, the number is sublime, and while the movie ends with the resolution for Hilliard and Scott’s characters, it’s this number that carries us out of the film and stays on our minds.
Thankfully, this would be the last time Fred and Ginger would share the spotlight with anyone else, and they would be the sole leads in their five final films together.
But “Follow the Fleet,” despite its many shortcomings, is far more enjoyable than it should be. And audiences seemed to agree, making this a big moneymaker for RKO and cementing Fred and Ginger’s popularity. Thankfully, there was plenty left to come.