Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine of their ten films together in the 1930s. These musical-comedy romances are among the decade’s most memorable entertainments, and a few of them, including Mark Sandrich’s Follow the Fleet, address the Great Depression that helped engender them. Released the same year, George Stevens’s Swing Time, with its bounty of brilliant dances conceived by Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan, has attracted the most attention; but Follow the Fleet was more popular with the public, giving the dance team in fact their signature tune, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” a stirring anthem of courage in the face of the unpredictable financial circumstances that the Depression imposed on people—in my opinion, Irving Berlin’s masterpiece. (Many, perhaps, would opt instead for “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”) Indeed, Berlin’s rich and varied roster of songs written and composed for Follow the Fleet is one of the film’s finest assets.
Astaire and Rogers are two others. Astaire’s sailor is a rare role placing his character among “the people”; but it isn’t an incidence of slumming: this is the performance in which Astaire seems most assured and relaxed until another outstanding role, opposite Judy Garland in Charles Walters’ Easter Parade (1948), matched it. (Again the music and lyrics were Berlin’s.) Rogers is something else. Unlike Astaire, whose roles with or without Ginger tend to a single definite persona, Rogers is an actor delineating in each of her films with Astaire a different character, and during and after the RKO run with Astaire also she gave outstanding performances as well in Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door (1937), 5th Ave Girl (1939) and Primrose Path (1940), Garson Kanin’s Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood, 1940), Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942), William A. Wellman’s Roxie Hart (1942), William Dieterle’s I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952) and Nunnally Johnson’s Black Widow (1954). Rogers plays Sherry Martin in Follow the Fleet with charm, zest and unexpected warmth.
In her odd book about Astaire and Rogers (cleverly, she concludes that Swing Time is about the mythology of the team), Pauline Kael protégée Arlene Croce has written that the “Let’s Face the Music . . .” number is strictly a (splendid) set-piece. On the contrary, what makes the final, famous song and dance especially brilliant is that it unifies the film thematically. Indeed, it is the culmination of everything preceding it in the film. Adapted from an obscure ’20s nonmusical play, Hubert Osbourne’s Shore Leave, by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, Follow the Fleet’s comedy on the brink of disaster reverberates with rich relevance to the dark days of the Depression.
On shore leave a sailor, Bake Baker (the fact that we never learn his first name—the nickname “Bake” clearly derives from his family one—assists in the suggestion that he is Everyman), is reunited with Sherry, his former dance partner, in Paradise, the lower-class San Francisco nightspot (and clip joint*) where she performs. Their rekindled romance is tested by a series of misunderstandings. Nevertheless, they pool their efforts and talent to help out Sherry’s sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard—Ricky Nelson’s future mom), a music teacher who has fallen in love with Bake’s won’t-be-tied-down-in-marriage shipmate, Bilge Smith. (Another nickname, after the lowest point of a ship’s inner hull—another Everyman, but one not so nice, one capable of deliberately not showing up for a date. All these names, in fact, hit targets: Bake, with his half-baked schemes for promoting Sherry’s career; Sherry, intoxicatingly vivacious; Connie, constancy in love personified.) By helping the other couple, Connie and Bilge, realize their dreams (Bilge wants to captain his own ship; Connie wants to be part of the ship), Bake and Sherry realize their own dreams, binding their relationship and staking it bravely as a defense against life’s vicissitudes and shocks of circumstance.
Like countless others, these four characters rely on dreams and hopes for the future to carry them through problems and disappointments. Bake dreams of having the respect of the girl he loves, but in order to get this, acting as her agent, he goes behind her back, managing through a mix-up to do her career more harm than good. For her part, Sherry dreams of being Bake’s equal as a performer. The comical dance accompanying the touching tune “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” brings to light this dream of hers. It is part of the routine they rehearse that Sherry should appear out of step—which she hilariously does, in the process compensating for and inadvertently revealing her shaky sense of self-worth, all but otherwise buried beneath the amiable competitiveness and oneupsmanship in which she and Bake constantly engage. Sherry’s dream, then, is for security as well as love—mental as well as financial security. She needs to believe she is good enough to survive and maintain herself. Connie, dreaming of her life with Bilge, on the other hand, puts herself to the task of arranging for the salvaging and restoration of the ship she herself owns, hoping that this merging of their dreams will result in her and Bilge’s merging romantically as well. But fearful of marriage, Bilge resists his reciprocal feelings, thereby frustrating both their dreams. When he rejects her, she keeps secret about her undertaking on his behalf, partly for the sake of pride, surely, but also out of honor and decency; she is refusing to use the ship to bait the boy into romance. The dreams of all four, then, remain frustrated.
Of course, the film does not leave these delightful characters interminably suspended in their interlocking limbos. To help Connie pay for the ship’s restoration, Sherry, with the help of her sailor, puts together the shipboard show that in the end raises the necessary funds and unites each couple, realizing all their dreams. The finale of the show is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” It is, among other things, a projection of the point at which the quartet’s dreams remain frustrated and, at the same time, a startling symbol of their working their way out of frustration into the fullness of romance. The number, heightened by trappings of the high life, climaxes a playlet-within-the-show-within-the-movie: a complexity of structural arrangement suggestive of the mind and of mental processes. The playlet, silent but for the background music and the song, surely suggests a dream. Bake appears as a dapper gambler embroiled in the irony that all the girls who hovered around him have abandoned him now that his bad luck at the shipboard gambling table has consumed his bankroll. The anonymous gambler is on deck about to commit suicide. Could anything now save him? He spots a girl who also is about to end her life. Interceding, he sings to her—“There may be trouble ahead,/ But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance,/ Let’s face the music and dance . . .”—and they dance. The dance snatches them from death, then, but the dance itself also suggests the pressure and anxiety of death hovering, making their lives, and the possibilities of those lives, fragile and perilous. In effect, the man is leading the woman out of death, but the dance, that is, art, becomes the complete definition of whatever holds the two back from death and, finally, draws them into death, a starkly synchronized couple. The implication is that, united, they can brave life and even death. A masterpiece, this is the single most quoted dance duet in all of cinema: a series of alternating semi-stylized movements and halts, in elegant formal dress (the opposite of Bake’s naval and his and Sherry’s otherwise casual attire), the evocation of an intimately inhabited limbo-for-two between life and death, the point where life is reclaimed from death, and also the limbo between art and life, the realm of dreams where art redeems the tragedy of life. This grand, slow, melodic dance is punctuated by the man’s quick, light steps as he guides an entranced creature so beauteous that she becomes his muse, putting him in a kind of trance—this night-of-the-soul dance with its shimmering touches of the macabre—this dance whose brief haunting halts intensify its fluid grace—this grace, this human grace raising Sherry to an appreciation of her talent and evoking the very process of artistic sublimation that enables humanity to transcend desperation and despair and achieve integration—this integration that in the “show” dimension averts the double suicide towards which two separate souls had been headed and helps make in the “real” or film dimension two lasting couples—Bake and Sherry, Bilge and Connie—through the combinate realization of their individual dreams. No more nonsense, please, about this being a set-piece!
Most of us feel the film’s coming together in this number, and if it weren’t for Croce’s remark I might not have pursued working out this thematic exegesis; but what a marvelous resolution the last dance is of all the film’s material—thematic, social, psychological. For Bake and Sherry, this dance—this glorious dance—signifies their becoming a team in life as well as in art. By sharing the exalted, solemn discipline of his craft with the girl he loves (by contrast, their earlier dances had been lighthearted), Bake is able to coax Sherry to a realization of her potential and talent. This he manages to do, thus undoing his previous misguided attempts to “manage” her career. Of course, her following his lead in sublime dance is a measure of her respect for him—the respect he worried she did not have for him but whose seeming absence really only reflected her own self-uncertainties. Thus Bake’s new self-confidence arrives in step with Sherry’s, and in the face of all the worries, doubts and uncertainties that the Depression has deepened and even helped engender they will continue to dance together beautifully.
And Americans and Europeans felt released for a while from their own woes and fears. Paradise was an early stop. Audiences were transported farther than that.
* The fact that this is a clip joint is the reason that Connie is denied entrance to Paradise without a male escort. Employees clipped for the joint; unescorted female patrons might clip money for themselves and even solicit as prostitutes. The irony is that, while Connie is stably employed, the film hints her sister’s brief descent into prostitution before making her way up to Paradise, the sordid nature of the place doubling as a reflection of both the descent and the (slight) upturn in Sherry’s fortunes. That such an establishment is called Paradise compounds the irony while being accurate: a step up from the gutter is still a step up, and it can seem like Paradise to those girls who have taken the step. Her step down and step up—her difficult past—is of course what Sherry draws upon for the magnificent despair and poise she projects in the film’s final musical number. It is Sherry’s past, again, only (gingerly) hinted in the film, that helps account for much of the number’s tremendous emotion, its suggestion of triumph over the economic bleakness that the stock market crash and the Depression imposed on people as high as the two portrayed in the number and as ordinary as the sailor and the girl portraying them.
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