"Bake" Baker (Fred Astaire) and his fellow sailors are now royally sick of seeing the sea, having been sailing for longer than they care to remember, so when they get the chance of shore leave they jump at it. As Bake and his best friend Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) prepare to go, a photograph falls out of Bake's locker and Bilge takes a look: it's of him and his ex-girlfriend Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers), who Bake elected to leave to join the Navy when she turned down his marriage proposal. What are the chances of him meeting her again in this San Francisco nightclub?
Pretty high, as this was the fifth of the Astaire and Rogers movies, so they have to meet up at some point. For a change, the romance between them has already happened in this one, and it's a case of that love being rekindled as we watch them over the course of the best part of two hours, which in truth was too long considering the plot they had to work with. Not that their storyline was any worse than their other pairings, it's just that there was far too much concentration on their co-stars, who are involved in a budding romance that is having trouble getting off the ground - did we really want to see this when we could be watching the dancing?
Those co-stars were Scott and Harriet Hilliard, better known to fans of classic American television as Harriet Nelson from Ozzie & Harriet, but here in her second film struck gold with a production that is likely to be recalled for longer than any of her other films. But maybe not for her contribution, as she plays Sherry's music teacher sister, introduced wearing glasses and primly dressed, pretending to be Bilge's date for the evening as she cannot gain access to the nightclub any other way. We can tell that although he is not interested in her, they will be getting together eventually because she undergoes a makeover in the dressing rooms.
So now without the specs and all glammed up, Connie can think about hiring Bilge to captain her ship to sail her around the world in. Why does she have her own ship? Good question, as it's mainly an excuse to build her part up, and we didn't really need it especially as Hilliard tends to mope through her scenes and drag down the mood, even if she has an attractive singing voice. Better to look forward to the dancing, which starts when Bake and Sherry reteam after an emotional reunion, and enter the dance competition that as an employee she really shouldn't be doing, but they do anyway. And win, of course, setting the film on a course of coruscating musical numbers.
There's a variety here in the Irving Berlin songs they perform to, from Ginger's solo number Let Yourself Go - and she even gets her own solo dance routine in this one, which makes a nice change - to the comic number of I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, where the couple don't half fling themselves about in a more knockabout style than we're used to. Fred also tickles the ivories in an impromptu spot of piano playing, and enjoys a tap routine where he uses the beat of the marching sailors for his rhythm, but it's that final dance that Follow the Fleet is most famous for. Oddly it has nothing to do with the light tone of the rest of the film, being a self-contained arrangement that Bake and Sherry put on as a fund raiser, but Let's Face the Music and Dance has rightly become one of their most celebrated sequences, with a wistful, even portentous mood as their characters try to forget their troubles by falling into each others' arms and swirl and sway into the night. It's a sublime moment and makes the problems of the rest of the film melt away. The cheeky monkey is good too.