The Fabulous Films of the 30′s: Follow the Fleet
starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and…
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Follow the Fleet. It was many years ago, during one of those ‘vacation weeks’ between Christmas and New Years. I was staying up really late, thoroughly enjoying ‘vacation-mode’… sitting on the floor of my living room, eating marshmallow ‘circus peanuts’, and doing a tremendous jigsaw puzzle of the Sistine Chapel — while eagerly waiting to see this late-night Fred and Ginger movie on some obscure local cable channel. (isn’t it amazing how I can remember minutiae like this, and yet can forget what I had for lunch last week?) Anyway, I was really looking forward to seeing this film for the first time, and although I was relatively sure I’d like it, I certainly had no idea that I would love it, or that it would turn out to be one of my all-time favorite Fred and Ginger films… BUT probably not for the reasons most people would think…
Follow the Fleet (1936, director Mark Sandrich)
“You needn’t wait up tonight mother, we’re going to Paradise”…
So why do I adore Follow the Fleet? Well, of course there’s Fred and Ginger who never cease to amaze me. I can watch them dance for hours upon hours and never get bored. And then there’s the wonderful music of Irving Berlin, which I can never get out of my head — but, seriously, who would want to? There’s also a marvelous bit part by the lovely Lucille Ball, long before anybody ‘loved’ her… However — that all said, the main reason I like this film (and I am going to duck now) is for the Harriet Hilliard / Randolph Scott storyline. Yes, I said it… the main reason I like this Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film is for the Harriet Hilliard and Randolph Scott plot.
Now, let me provide some background information about the film for those of you unfamiliar with it:
- Fred Astaire: Bake Baker
- Ginger Rogers: Sherry Martin
- Randolph Scott: Bilge Smith
- Harriet Hilliard: Connie Martin
Film Origins: Follow the Fleet was based on the 1922 play, Shore Leave, by playwright and screenwriter Hubert Osborne. The play opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre on August 8, 1922 and ran for 151 performances, closing in December of 1922. It was produced and staged by David Belasco, and starred James Rennie as Bilge Smith and Frances Starr as Connie Martin — it did not include any Bake Baker or Sherry Martin roles. But that’s not the end of the story… The 1922 play was adapted into the 1925 silent film, Shore Leave, starring Richard Barthelmess as Bilge and Dorothy Mackaill as Connie. In 1927, the play was once again adapted, this time into a 1927 Broadway musical called Hit the Deck with music by Vincent Youmans, and starring Charles King as Bilge and Louise Groody as Loulou (which is essentially the Connie role). The musical opened on April 25, 1927 at New York’s Belasco Theatre and ran for 352 performances, closing on Feb 25, 1928. In 1930, the musical was then adapted into a RKO film of the same name starring Jack Oakie as Bilge and Polly Walker as Looloo (yes, this time spelled Looloo). In 1936, the film Follow the Fleet was released, this time with the addition of two new main characters: Bake Baker played by Fred Astaire and Sherry Martin (Connie’s sister) played by Ginger Rogers — and with music by the incomparable Irving Berlin. But, to continue — in 1955, another film version of Hit the Deck was released, this time with a slightly different plot and differently-named characters, starring Jane Powell and Tony Martin.
Film Plot: Navy pals, Bake Baker and Bilge Smith, are on Shore Leave in San Francisco. At the Paradise Ballroom, Bake happily runs into his old dancing partner and flame, Sherry Martin, and Bilge first meets and rejects ‘old maid’ schoolteacher, Connie Martin (Sherry’s sister). Connie gets a startling makeover by Sherry’s friend (Lucille Ball) and accidentally-on-purpose runs into Bilge again, who is absolutely smitten with her. All goes well until Connie inadvertently talks about marriage, after which Bilge decides instead to pursue divorced socialite Iris Manning (Astrid Allwyn). As the story continues, Bake pursues Sherry again, Connie is heart-broken over Bilge — and Connie, Sherry and Bake produce a musical show to help pay up the debt Connie amassed while trying to refurbish the ship she inherited from her dad (for Bilge).
- We Saw the Sea (sung by Fred Astaire)
- Let Yourself Go (sung by Ginger Rogers backed by a trio including Betty Grable; later danced by Fred and Ginger)
- Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (sung by Harriet Hilliard; was originally written for Top Hat but wasn’t used because it didn’t advance the film’s plot)
- I’d Rather Lead a Band (sung by Fred Astaire)
- But Where are You? (sung by Harriet Hilliard)
- I’m Putting All My Eyes in One Basket (played on piano by Fred, then sung and danced by Fred and Ginger)
- Let’s Face the Music and Dance (sung by Fred Astaire, danced by Fred and Ginger; this dance was filmed in one continuous two-minute-and-50-seconds shot)
And now, for the fun stuff, some film quotes and song lyrics:
Fred sings “We Saw the Sea” in the opening scene…
We joined the Navy to see the world
And what did we see? We saw the sea
We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic
But the Atlantic isn’t romantic
And the Pacific isn’t what it’s cracked up to be
Bilge sees a picture of dance team “Baker and Martin”…
Bilge: So that’s why you joined the navy, you thought a torpedo would be easier to dodge than a shotgun?
Bake: Don’t be funny. I asked that little girl to marry me.
Bake: Yeah, and she turned me down.
Bilge: Imagine a guy asking a dame to marry him.
Bilge first meets Connie at The Paradise…
Bilge (whistles at some pretty girls)
Connie: They’re pretty aren’t they? Oh but I’ll bet you’re used to seeing pretty girls all over the world.
Bilge: I never give them a tumble sister. Women don’t interest me.
Connie: I’ll bet you dance beautifully.
Bilge: No, not a step. Well, I got to be shoving off. So long.
Sailor: Where did you pick up that awful looking crow?
Bilge: She picked me up. I think she’s screwy.
Sailor: She must be if she tried to pick you up.
Bake spots Sherry singing “Let Yourself Go”…
Come, hit the timber, loosen up and start to limber
Can’t you hear that hot marimba? Let yourself go
Let yourself go…relax
And let yourself go…relax
You’ve got yourself tied up in a knot
The night is cold but the music’s hot
Bake and Sherry meet again…
Sherry: Why didn’t you write to me?
Bake: I didn’t think you cared about hearing from me especially after that last time we saw each other.
Connie: Well, all I said was I didn’t want to marry you.
Bake: Yeah, I know. It all seemed very important at that time, but it doesn’t make any difference now.
Connie: Doesn’t it?
Bake: Nah, as you said, marriage would have ruined your career.
Connie: Well I found out I was wrong.
Bake: No, maybe you’re right, if you would have married me you wouldn’t be working in a chop suey joint like this.
Connie: Well, I don’t see any admiral stripes on you.
Kitty (Lucille Ball): Well, you sure look different.
Connie: Don’t I? I’m beginning to feel different…. Kitty, there’s a sailor I want to meet, how do I go about it?
Kitty: Are you kidding?
Connie: No, I mean, are there any rules?
Kitty: Yes and no… Yes, before you meet him, and no, after.
Bilge meets the ‘new’ Connie…
Bilge: Well, watch my maneuvers — you can’t beat the navy.
Connie: All right, sailor, I surrender.
Connie: Well, I’m willing to discuss terms.
Connie, about to leave The Paradise with Bilge, sings “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan”…
Someone I’m mad about is waiting in the night for me
Someone that I mustn’t see, Satan, get thee behind me
In the meantime, Bake ‘accidentally’ gets Sherry fired…
Bake: Well, I fixed that.
Sherry: You fixed me!
Bake: I did that on purpose, Sherry. I don’t want you working in a place like this. Now tomorrow, I’ll take you over to see Jim Nolan. I’ll get him to put you in one of his shows. He’ll do that for me.
Sherry: It might have been better to wait until we were sure!
Bake: Now, I’ll take care of everything.
Sherry: That’s exactly what’s worrying me.
Connie shows Bilge a model of the ship she inherited from her dad… but unfortunately for Connie now, things begin to change…
Bilge: A steam schooner, just the kind I’d like to feel under me. Baby, I’d like to be captain of your ship. I wanna sail under my own steam to China and India, and all those spickety ports.
Connie: Oh so do I! I always wanted to sail on her to all those spickety places, with my husband at the helm.
Bilge: Holy cat.
Connie: What’s the matter.
Bilge: I got to be going. Gotta be back on board by 12 o’clock.
Bilge tells Bake about his late-night date with Iris Manning…
Bake: What about that teacher that was gonna make you captain of her ship or something?
Bilge: She’s a swell kid too, but she’s kind of serious. She’s sappy like you, she wants to get married.
Connie and Sherry ask an old friend to help finance the refurbish of their dad’s ship…
Captain Hickey (Harry Beresford): If you don’t mind my saying so, I think he’s a very lucky young man.
Connie: Oh, actually Captain Hickey, I consider this whole thing a business proposition.
Fred has a jam session with the crew…
I haven’t ambitions for lofty positions
That wind up with the wealth of the land
I’ll give you the throne that a king sat on
For just a small baton, providing you included a band
If I could be the wealthy owner of a large industry
I would say, “Not for me”… I’d rather lead a band
Bake and Bilge are back on shore leave. Connie waits for Bilge to show up for a date, eager to tell him about the ship, but Bilge never shows up…
Connie: You see I never did write him. I want to keep the boat as a surprise. So I really can’t blame him, it’s my fault.
At Iris Manning’s party…
Bilge: Remember that teacher I told you about? She’s here and she was expecting me last night.
Bake: Did you forget?
Bilge: No. I lied to her and told her I had to stay on board.
Bilge: Oh, I don’t want to wake up some morning and find myself married. Acted as cold as I could. A dame like that always makes me feel like a heel.
Bake: Ah, she brings out your finer instincts.
Iris: Where have you been Bilgy?
Connie, heart-broken, sings “But Where are You?”…
Have you forgotten the night that we met?
With so much to remember, how could you forget?
The dreams I dreamed have yet to come true.
My dreams and I are here, but where are you?
I must mention here that Harriet Hilliard performs “But Where Are You” exquisitely — with tears welling up in her eyes… absolutely beautiful.
Now, since I don’t want to spoil the entire film for you, I won’t continue with this ‘quote-filled’ play-by-play. Instead, I will just say that, as the film progresses — Sherry gets even with Bake for getting her fired (and for accidentally sabotaging her audition for Jim Nolan), Bake plots to get Bilge out of Iris Manning’s hands and back into Connie’s arms again, and Connie must find a way to pay back the loan that Captain Hickey guaranteed for her — and all of this culminates (after a little bit of extra drama between Bilge and Bake for good measure) in a wonderful musical show starring our beloved Fred and Ginger…
And, lastly, some fun facts…
- In 1932, Harriet Hilliard met Ozzie Nelson, who hired her to sing in his band. They were married three years later, in 1935. In 1944, the Nelsons launched their radio show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which transitioned to television in 1952.
- Follow the Fleet was Harriet Hilliard’s feature film debut.
- The role of Connie Martin was originally planned for Irene Dunne, who had previously starred with Fred, Ginger and Randolph in Roberta (1935). Dunne however, was unavailable to play the part, so the role went to Hilliard.
- Both Harriet Hilliard and Lucille Ball later starred in television sitcoms with their real-life band-leader husbands.
- Follow the Fleet was the fifth of ten films that Fred and Ginger made together.
I am very excited to announce that this article, along with 18 other articles from this Blogathon, are available in an e-book via amazon. Any profits from the amazon e-book which sells for 99 cents will go to film preservation.
A Big Thank You to the marvelous Classic Movie Blog Association for hosting this very special event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.
—Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub