Richard Barthelmess plays a sailor whose fling turns into something far more serious when Dorothy Mackaill salvages her father’s ship so that he can be captain. Awkwardness ensues, especially since she didn’t bother to learn his name before he shipped out…
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Richard Barthelmess spent most of the 1920s acting in bespoke roles for First National with considerable success. His film from this period included Tol’able David (1921) is a true classic and The Enchanted Cottage (1924) is a poetic examination of the trauma of war even after peace.
Shore Leave was based on a stage property by Hubert Osborne and was directed by John S. Robertson, who had also directed The Enchanted Cottage, as well as the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the 1922 version of Tess of the Storm Country. Shore Leave is lighter than these other pictures, centering on love story with very few dark elements.
Barthelmess plays Bilge Smith, a lonely fellow who decides that he will join the Navy and see the Army, to paraphrase a Marx Brothers gag. He takes to the naval life easily and hopes to one day gain enough experience to captain his own merchant vessel. (If this seems like a recruitment spiel, well, Shore Leave was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, so it probably was.) When his ship docks near a small New England town, Bilge meets Connie Mason (Dorothy Mackaill), the town spinster.
And this is where I realized the film was in trouble. We are expected to believe that Connie is unwed and unwooed when… She’s Dorothy Mackaill with straight hair. And what’s worse, we know that Robertson and Barthelmess knew better because they had enough sense to give May McAvoy a putty nose and fake teeth in The Enchanted Cottage.
Anyway, Bilge agrees to date this obvious hag and during dinner, it comes out that her father had a ship that ran aground in India and she is just looking for someone to be its captain. She and Bilge kind of kiss and he leaves, promising to see her around sometime. That’s all the encouragement Connie needs and she arranges to have her father’s ship recovered and refitted for her husband.
Of course, his real first name isn’t Bilge and his surname is Smith, so she’s stuck trying to find a sailor in Calvin Coolidge’s navy by the name of Smith. (Bilge forgot about her the minute he shipped out, by the way.) When the fleet comes in, she invites every Smith over to her boat hoping to catch her man. This is treated as entirely sane and normal instead of disturbing and stalkerish. They had one date and he said maybe he would call her sometime, remember.
I am not opposed to zany love schemes in a rom-com. I live for them! For heaven’s sake, The Doll is one of my favorites and it centers around the heroine posing as an automaton that the matrimony-phobic hero ends up wedding. (Long story.) Or The House on Trubnaya, which is all about the adventures of a country girl and her pet duck in Moscow. Bring on the madcap plot devices but if you do go that route, you either have to make everything about the setting a bit off-kilter (as was the case in The Doll) or have the other characters acknowledge that the goofy person is a little cuckoo (as was the case in The House on Trubnaya).
The underlying idea of the story is nice enough. A young lady with very specific requirements looking for love has launched many a rom-com, as has the idea of love and salvation coming from an unexpected place. It’s just that Shore Leave doesn’t present it very well and kind of unintentionally leaves its leading lady looking like a nutbird.
This links up with the other major flaw in the story: Protagonist, protagonist, who’s our protagonist? We spent much of the first reel hearing about Bilge’s dreams and motivation. We understand why he joined up and why he loves the sea. But he’s not really the main character, Connie is. She drives the plot, so making her seem desperate for romance, hiding her motives and failing to quickly establish them as THE main aspect of the plot proves to be a fatal error.
As it is, Connie is a stunning young woman who briefly wears a slightly unfortunate hairstyle and who, improbably, is unable to land a sailor. (A sailor!) Her motivation and background are introduced too late and the title cards establish her as a spinster rather than a picky daydreamer. While we know immediately why Bilge joined the navy (and it doesn’t actually matter), we have to wait until after Connie makes her date before we hear about her parents and her dreams.
If we had seen her daydreaming of the perfect captain for her ship, observing other sailors and finding them wanting, running off half-cocked at any positive news and constantly following her impulses, her actions would have made much more sense. But Richard Barthelmess was the bigger star and this was his production company, so Bilge is the one with the early development.
Anyway, Connie finally finds Bilge and he proposes to her… but takes it back once he realizes that she owns a ship. He doesn’t want to marry a rich woman because… reasons. We know why he joined the navy but no word on his aversion to rich women. (Honestly, between Connie’s stalking and Bilge’s dislike of ladies with cash, I think Alfred Hitchcock could have made a solid thriller on these bones.)
Will these kids get together? Will Connie be sufficiently impoverished to land her able seaman? See Shore Leave to find out!
Before we start this, let’s clear up one thing right now. I love the romantic comedy and I respect the romantic comedy but I am also extremely picky when it comes to the romantic comedy. I know what I like and I have found some pretty excellent examples over the years, so my standards are high.
(Silent favorites include My Best Girl, Oh Doctor, The Girl with the Hat Box, The House on Trubnaya, The Oyster Princess, The Doll and so forth. If I brought in all my favorites from its sister genres, the domestic comedy and the bedroom farce, we’d be here all day.)
I really wanted to like Shore Leave. The cast, the director and the genre are all very much my cup of tea. But I don’t buy Richard Barthelmess as a rough and ready sailor any more than I buy Dorothy Mackaill as a lonely spinster. The story could have worked with some tweaking but it all kind of falls flat. The picture takes itself too seriously to work as a zany rom-com and the plot is too nutty to be played as a straight drama. As a result, we kind of have something that is neither fish nor fowl.
The story was adapted for the screen by John S. Robertson’s wife, Josephine Lovett, who had also done better work during her long career (she penned/adapted Our Modern Maidens, Our Dancing Daughters, Tess of the Storm Country and The Enchanted Cottage).
I did some digging into the original Shore Leave stage production and it was considered pretty treacly in its day but it did two things that the film did not: Connie was the unambiguous protagonist and she is established to be quite eccentric early in the story. It was right there!
It’s not that the cast and crew didn’t try, they clearly did. The film looks good and the performers make an effort, it’s just not enough to save it. To be honest, Shore Leave just kind of made me sad. Seeing so many talented people having a simultaneous off day is never fun. I wanted to like it but it just wasn’t happening for me.
Where can I see it?
Silents vs. Talkies
Shore Leave vs. Follow the Fleet
Well, the idea of a plain young woman making herself and a ship over for the man she loves was an appealing one to Hollywood and the main plot of Shore Leave was repurposed as the B plot of Follow the Fleet, a 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers RKO musical.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
So, musicals. I am not into them much. Or at all, really. The ones I do like tend to be on the more anarchic side. I am a Hellzapoppin’ girl in a Rodgers and Hammerstein world. If you give me a choice between An American in Paris and South Pacific, I’ll take The Enemy Below. So, I don’t feel like I have the exact expertise to give the song and dance numbers a suitable review. I’ll just assume that if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like. I mean, Irving Berlin, Hermes Pan, I am fairly certain that musical lovers are in good hands. With this in mind, my main focus will be on how the talkie handles the plot elements it shares with Shore Leave.
The action is moved from New England to San Francisco and the dressmaking shop is replaced with a somewhat shady nightclub, all the better to showcase the hoofing of the stars.
Astaire and Rogers do not play Bilge and Connie. Instead, they are Bake and Sherry, a battling pair of exes who were a dance duo before they broke up and he joined the navy. His pal is Bilge (Randolph Scott) and her sister is Connie (Harriet Hilliard). Bilge is looking for love, Connie is smitten with handsome Bilge and even gets a makeover from a very young Lucille Ball in an attempt to win him over.
While Sherry is flirting and battling and dancing with Bake, Connie is making plans to use her half of the inheritance on Bilge. Her half is, of course, the ship. (A music teacher and a singer at a dodgy nightclub in a San Francisco apartment the approximate size of a standard football field… Good thing we are informed that Sherry got the family money!)
Connie’s main problem here is that she wants to be smart and she wants to go to sea, neither of which were not seen as viable options for young women in many mainstream films of the time and certainly not this one. Anyway, the ladies need to pay off that ship, so they decide on a tried-and-true musical method for quick money: “Hey, guys, let’s put on a show!” With Sherry and Bake’s professional dancing, surely raising money will be a snap!
Relegating Connie and Bilge to supporting roles was a smart move. Their courtship is so cartoonish that they either need to be placed in more obviously comedic trappings or they need to take up a bit less space in the plot. And at least Bilge’s initial “Whoa, hold your horses, I just met you!” reaction has some toehold in normal human behavior. (What follows… not so much.)
In this adaptation, Bilge is no longer opposed to letting a rich woman pay his way. Wealthy ex-chorus girl Iris (Astrid Allwyn) picks him up and he’s in no hurry to be put down again, Connie, Schmonnie. This leaves Connie very unhappy, which makes Sherry very unhappy, which means Bake had better do something if he hopes for his own happy ending.
The joke played on Iris (involving a negligee, a hidden Bilge and a perfectly-timed skit) is exactly the sort of hare-brained scheme Bertie Wooster would need Jeeves to save him from when it inevitably blew up in his face. Having read and seen this sort of thing deconstructed so often and in material contemporary to Follow the Fleet, I have to say I was a little disappointed to be done out of my unflappable butler saving the day.
The problems with the plan are not that it fails but that it succeeds. Bilge is angry and scuttles Bake’s shore leave, which lands everyone in a pickle. But perhaps it wasn’t so smart to make a navy guy their lead performer?
And the winner is…
What it comes down to is the genre. A romantic comedy has a much higher bar to clear with its story whereas a musical or dance picture can get away with the barest, silliest plot, just something flimsy to hang the numbers on will do the trick. Obviously, there are musicals with strong plots but it’s not a make-or-break requirement. It’s like the love story in a war picture: there have been great ones but if it’s bad, you weren’t really there for it anyway.
Follow the Fleet solves several issues with Shore Leave’s basic structure simply by putting Connie and Bilge on the back burner. That being said, the Bilge-Connie romance doesn’t seem particularly healthy in either film. In both cases, the gent has to be tricked to the altar. And while movie producers of the day would likely have not seen Connie captaining her own vessel as a viable option, it does stick slightly in the craw to see her not even try.
That being said, “plain” Harriett Hilliard unable to turn the head of a sailor is even more ridiculous than Dorothy Mackaill being labeled a spinster. I am reasonably certain that some nautical gent would have been willing to look past the glasses at some point.
Shore Leave isn’t a terrific story but story matters far less in Follow the Fleet than it does in the 1925 film, so the talkie squeaks by as the winner. I’ll be honest with you, after a double feature of these films, I detoxed with Run Silent, Run Deep and that is my recommendation here as well.
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