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In the early '30s, Ginger Rogers kept busy juggling her Broadway commitments with her attempts to get a screen career underway at Paramount's Long Island studios; she knew where her priorities lay, though, and when RKO-Pathe floated a deal that would bring her to Hollywood, she leapt at it. Her second feature under the contract, Suicide Fleet (1931), is an odd little curio chiefly of interest today because of her admitted function as eye-candy in a jingoistic and gloriously improbable tale of macho heroism.
The story opens at Coney Island just prior to America's entry into WWI, where taffy-stand salesgirl Sally (Rogers) is the object of desire for a rivaling trio of carny Casanovas; shooting gallery operator Baltimore Clark (William Boyd), tour guide Skeets O'Riley (James Gleason) and souvenir photographer Dutch Herman (Robert Armstrong). She enjoys the attention, and though her preference runs to Baltimore, she's not about to let him know. The fun and games come to an end, of course, with the news that the U.S. is joining the global fray; all three men head off to enlist in the Navy. Baltimore, by virtue of his prior stint in the service, is made a chief petty officer.
Sally waves good-bye as they put out to sea; their destroyer is off the coast of Tangiers when it encounters a schooner flying Norwegian colors. U.S. intelligence, however, is aware that the vessel is in fact a German "mystery ship," and the gobs prepare to board her. Baltimore manages to rescue a stack of coded communiques before the German captain (Frank Reicher) successfully scuttles his craft. The naval brass is sufficiently impressed that Baltimore is given the assignment of commanding a faux "mystery ship" in order to intercept vital German stratagems, and he hand-picks the less-than-grateful Skeets and Dutch as his crew. Whether they can successfully maintain this pose, alone in hostile waters, is for the viewer to find out.
Rogers, as one might expect, was pretty much window dressing for this testosterone-fueled tale; in her autobiography Ginger: My Story, she described her one musical number, Dream Kisses, as "really like a commercial jingle...Musically, I was a long way from Embraceable You." Still, she's game and amusing, particularly when she semaphores "I love you" to the departing ship for Baltimore's benefit, and the message is dreamily accepted by all the crewmen who catch it.
Boyd would be cast again as Ginger's love interest in her follow-up, Carnival Boat (1932); he was a few years away from finding his niche in Hollywood history, making dozens of "B" oaters and TV shows in his persona of cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy. It's amusing to see Armstrong and Reicher together, two years before they'd put out to sea in another RKO production that's had something more of a shelf life, King Kong (1933) .
Producer: Charles R. Rogers
Director: Albert Rogell
Screenplay: Lew Lipton; F. McGrew Willis (dialogue and continuity); Commander Herbert A. Jones U.S.N. (story "Mystery Ship")
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Film Editing: Joseph Kane
Cast: Bill Boyd ('Baltimore' Clark), Robert Armstrong ('Dutch' Herman), James Gleason ('Skeets' O'Riley), Ginger Rogers (Sally), Harry Bannister (Commander), Frank Reicher (Captain Holtzmann), Henry Victor (Captain Von Schlettow), Hans Joby (Schwartz).
by Jay S. Steinberg