There’s something so inherently charming about the classic, sailor musical. For the American public, World War 2 had become such a part of their daily lives that it even began to infiltrate the typically happy world of musicals. It’s a subgenre that’s essentially impossible to recreate at any other moment in history—they’re inherently of their time, and I love the sweet kind of optimism and escapism that typically exist, despite the aspects of reality encroaching in. TCM focused on a specific subset of “sailors on leave” pictures a few nights ago, and I caught one that I had never seen: The Fleet’s In, starring Dorothy Lamour and William Holden.
Sailor Casey Kirby (Holden) is a shy guy, but he pushes aside his anxieties momentarily to approach a famous, beautiful actress for an autograph after her charity appearance. However, her PR agent seizes the moment, and suggests that kissing a sailor would make a great photo opportunity for her. So she lays a smooch on Casey, much to his surprise, and when the photo hits the papers the next day, his buddies believe he must be the smoothest talking player on the ship. They lay a bet down that he can’t close the deal with a famously unreceptive nightclub singer in San Francisco, known as the Countess (Lamour). Of course, as we’ve learned from all love-based bets ever depicted on a movie screen, they end up falling in actual love, and at one point she discovers that their relationship has been egged on by a wager. I will leave it to you to determine whether or not they reconcile by picture’s end.
The movie is pleasant enough, if a little bland at points. Holden and Lamour look great together, and Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton are fun as the “B” couple. A large chunk of the midsection is devoted to a USO-style stage show, featuring some performers who were actually touring bases and ships at the time. These included a few stand-up comedy routines, some dance numbers, and some performances that would qualify as both: husband-and-wife Lorraine and Rognan’s comedic ballroom dancing in particular, playing off dramatic shifts in tempo and loads of acrobatic tumbling and bodily contortions, was marvelous and funny. Sadly, a bit of research led to me to find out that, though they were very popular on the wartime circuit, they were only featured in two films—and that’s because Rognan was killed and Lorraine seriously injured in a plane crash in 1943.
Downers aside, the plot of the movie is pretty basic… there are a few comedic moments that elevate it into entertaining territory. Lamour and her roommate Hutton live at the top of a dizzying, Everest-esque staircase (in reality, a lovely matte painting), which present their two beaus with a bit of a challenge—Holden, ever the gentleman, handily carries Lamour to the peak, while Bracken ends up in Hutton’s arms by the time they reach the top. Overall, I think there are more fun and more historically accurate/interesting entries in this subgenre, but it’s a fine way to spend 90 minutes for completion’s sake—especially for the rare look at Lorraine and Rognan, an unendingly catchy theme song, and an interesting, fairly uninterrupted USO-style stage experience.