Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Astaire and Rogers Face the Music—and Dance

When I was learning to appreciate classic musicals, I noticed that revival houses liked to pair the Astaire/Rogers Top Hat (1935, music by Irving Berlin) with their 1936 offering, Swing Time (music by Jerome Kern). Both, of course, are heady blends of screwball antics, mistaken identities, tap dancing, crooning, and glides around the ballroom floor. These films don’t make much sense, but Astaire’s suave grace. Rogers’ spunk, and the participation of a host of amusing sidekicks ensure that they’re magical and fun. Of the 10 Astaire/Rogers films Top Hat was chronologically #5, and proved to be their all-time major blockbuster. Swing Time, slightly less of a hit but still highly popular, was #7.

 In between these two major outings by one of Hollywood’s favorite duos, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers launched as their sixth pairing a little vessel called Follow the Fleet (1936, again with an Irving Berlin score).  It certainly has its moments—and some wild and crazy dancing—but an ultra-sappy romantic plot and some additional missteps prevent this from being one of the duo’s top outings.

 Because Astaire, in his early films, was typically kitted out in white tie and tails, Follow the Fleet tries to modify his patrician image by dressing him in a sailor suit. In other ways too, the script aims to suggest that he’s simply an average Joe (in many of the early scenes we have to watch him enthusiastically chewing gum). The nautical segments give us some great song-and-dance numbers, like Berlin’s rollicking opener, “We Saw the Sea.”  I can’t resist providing some sample lyrics to showcase the song’s deadpan wit, which Astaire sells with gusto:

 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 . . . .

 We never get seasick sailing the ocean
We don't object to feeling the motion
We're never seasick but we are awful sick of sea

It took me a while to realize what’s unusual about this gang of gobs. In such nautical musicals as On the Town and Anchors Aweigh, the men may be enjoying shore leave, but they’re members of the U.S. Navy, and they’ll soon be risking their lives in some of the bloodier battles of World War II. Follow the Fleet, by contrast, focuses on the peacetime navy, in which sailors seem to have nothing better to do than court pretty girls and evade the shore patrol while staging an impromptu musical show to help a damsel in distress.

 That damsel is not Ginger but her sister Connie (played by a pre-Ozzie-Nelson Harriet Hilliard). She’s a mousy music teacher who—when glammed up by a helpful (and very blonde!) Lucille Ball—catches the eye of Fred’s buddy, portrayed by a hunky but not too ethical Randolph Scott. Soon she’s deeply in love and worried about a potential loss of self control, which leads her to sing a really nauseating song called “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Clearly, Irving Berlin had his duds as well as his triumphs.

 Somehow everything ends up hinging on the success of that shipboard show, in which (of course) Astaire and Rogers triumph. It’s an unusually somber but gorgeously staged routine in which Ginger’s character contemplates suicide but is persuaded by Fred to “Face the Music and Dance.” Their achievement is such that the out-of-work Ginger earns her debut on Broadway and gets Fred in the bargain too. 

 They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.


No comments:

Post a Comment