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DVD SAVANT

Follow the Fleet


Follow the Fleet
Warner DVD
1936 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 110 min. / Street Date August 16, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Harriet Hilliard, Astrid Allwyn
Cinematography David Abel
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor Henry M. Berman
Original Music Irving Berlin
Written by Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor from the play Shore Leave by Hubert Osborne
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by Mark Sandrich

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available in the boxed set The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 with Swing Time, The Barkleys of Broadway, Shall We Dance and Top Hat: $59.92.

Of the classic RKO B&W Fred & Gingers in this collection, Follow the Fleet is the only one that doesn't add up to more than the sum of its parts. Individual numbers equal the best of the team's work, but a humdrum script dilutes the film's attention to include another romantic couple. The result is a chipper musical that doesn't always play to the gifts of its stars.

Synopsis:

With the fleet back in San Francisco, ex- dancer Bake Baker (Fred Astaire) looks up his old partner Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers). His best pal Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) falls for Sherry's sister Connie (Harriet Hilliard), a schoolteacher learning to be attractive to men by taking off her glasses and acting dumb. Many dancing and romantic complications ensue, with the girls forever unsure of their apparently untrustworthy boyfriends.

Follow the Fleet comes from a pre-existing play that seems less custom-tailored than Astaire and Rogers' other vehicles. Some of the changes are rather refreshing. Astaire excels playing not a suave man-about-town but a lower-class seaman who chews gum and cuts up with the boys. It's a switch to see him alter his dancing style to suit a hoofer familiar with work down in the vaudeville trenches. Astaire is one of the few actors who can alter his dancing style to suit different characters, and we believe that his Bake Baker might be a guy with some fancy steps who quit to join the Navy because of a fight with his girl.

In one very amusing scene, Bake and Sherry enter a dance contest and find they have to really get cooking to compete with the hot amateur talent around them. About five steps into his dancing, Bake is tapped on the shoulder, disqualified by the judge!

The composer of note here is Irving Berlin, which makes us think of how much more conducive Hollywood was to great talent back then, when the country's best composers and lyricists were writing for musicals as well as putting out hit pop songs. Great work flowed into pictures like Follow the Fleet; putting together such a talent combo today would be impossible because everyone with a name big enough to draw an audience demands to be in creative control ... there's little evidence of stars of any ilk subordinating their positions or taking career risks in the name of creating something special.

Several of the hit numbers in Follow the Fleet function as songs do in ordinary musicals, interrupting the story instead of advancing it. One wonderful rehearsal dance builds its humor around a series of mistakes and accidents. We Saw the Sea is used as a standard intro for Fred. Let Yourself Go and I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket are pleasant enough, but don't have the contextual presence of songs in other titles - something like Pick Yourself Up is an integral part of the story development in Swing Time.

The timeless tune of the show is the delirious Let's Face the Music and Dance. It takes place on a stage and jumps the characters back into fancy-gown and tuxedo mode. An illustrated story of potential suicide and romantic harmony borne of despair, it has the strangest mood of any Astaire and Rogers dance scene; until the two lost souls find strength in each other, it almost evokes the doomed romantic melancholy of Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim: "There may be trouble ahead ..."

Follow the Fleet's story is a tired "tars 'n dolls" adventure in dating, with beefy sailors on shore leave. Fred's Bake makes promises he can't keep and accidentally louses up Sherry's singing audition by dosing her with bicarbonate of soda. The various hijinks are amusing but not up to the level of wit or romantic invention of the earlier pix, even though some of the same writers and director Mark Sandrich are involved.

Bake and Sherry's story is no more complicated than old sweethearts giving their romance another try. Equal screen time is devoted to the less satisfying courtship between Sherry's sister Connie and Bake's best friend Bilge. Bilge is Randolph Scott, he of the perfect profile and warm smile. But when it comes to women Bilge is an unlikeable cad, rudely brushing off schoolteacher Connie (read: glasses, hair in a bun) with curt statements like "Women don't agree with me." He then comes on strong to the made-over Connie, gobbles up pie from her refrigerator, and then scoots off to greener pastures when fast (and married) society girl Iris Manning comes sniffing around.

Connie is charmingly played by Harriet Hilliard, who as Harriet Nelson later became everyone's favorite 50s mom. Connie starts from the proposition that she's grossly inferior as date bait -- Sherry advises her to 'act dumb' around men -- and she accepts Bilge's abuse as standard behavior. She may forgive Bilge at the end, but we still dislike him. The couple say they're going to sail around the world to all those "spiggoty places" -- a remark that sounds like a euphemism for some kind of cultural put-down. 1

Also turning our heads is a very tall Lucille Ball, who gets the opportunity to deliver a couple of sassy dialogue lines. Less active but immediately recognizable is Betty Grable -- she looks as if she were told to stand in one place, shut up and smile.


Warners' DVD of Follow the Fleet is in fine shape. The encoding helps a so-so transfer element to look its best, and the audio track is greatly enhanced by careful re-recording.

The docu this time (The Origins of Those Dancing Feet) is straight bio coverage of Astaire and Rogers' whole childhood to fame tale. Since both of them have remarkable backstories, it plays well. The part about Let's Face the Music and Dance details the old story of Fred being smacked by Ginger's beaded sleeve during a dance spin, and the take staying in the show. It may have been a startling sting, but the dress looks too sheer and light to deliver the punch described in the voiceover.

The cartoon this go-round is a winner about a rooster with a Crosby-like voice that has the henhouse in an uproar. The cynical ending is similar to the old classic about a country chick taken in by a big movie star. The short subject is Melody Master: Jimme Lunceford and his Dance Orchestra. As Lunceford is a ready-for-prime-time version of Cab Calloway, it's more lively than many musical diversions from the time.

An original theatrical trailer rounds out the package. The original poster art on the cover is one of the nicest in the collection.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Follow the Fleet rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette Follow the Fleet: The Origins of Those Dancing Feet, Musical short Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and His Dance Orchestra; Cartoon: Let It Be Me, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2005


Footnote:

1. Savant has a pretty big dictionary, that he should consult more often. It has an entry for Spielberg, Steven, but none for 'spiggoty.'

Note 8.13.05, from reader Jim Murphy: "I'm loving your reviews of Astaire & Rogers. Don't know how authoritative this source is, but it does reference the Oxford English Dictionary:

Spic

Many believe that this derogatory term for a person of Latin American descent is a clipping of Hispanic. While this appears plausible on its face, it is not correct. Use of the term Hispanic to refer to a person of Latin American descent, especially one living in the United States, only dates to the early 1970s. The epithet spic, on the other hand, dates to the early days of the 20th century.

So if it did not come from Hispanic, where did it come from? Spic is a clipping of the adjective spiggoty which was applied to immigrants from Central and South America because they did not "spiggoty English" (speak the English). The term probably arose among Americans in Panama during the building of the canal. The abbreviated spic was in use by 1913.

The earliest known use of spiggoty is in the 14 March 1908 issue of the Saturday Evening Post: "All Americans are alike. They do not bother to learn foreign languages when they go to a foreign country, but they force the natives to learn American. So, when the Panamanians presented themselves, if they could talk English, they prefaced their attempts to cheat the Americans out of something -- it really made little difference what -- with the statement, accompanied by eloquent gestures: "Spik d' English." If they couldn't they said: "No spik d' English." One or the other was the universal opening of conversation, and those early Americans soon classed the whole race of men who could or could not "Spik d' Eng." as "Spikities," and from that grew the harmonious and descriptive Spigotty." (Source: Word Origins) - Jim Murphy

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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