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Historians studying the work of Frank Borzage often dismiss his two Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler musicals as so much work for hire. In truth, Shipmates Forever (1935) and its predecessor, Flirtation Walk (1934), revitalized the team at a time when the big, garish Busby Berkeley musicals were falling out of fashion. The director, who had been partly responsible for establishing Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as the top romantic team of the late '20s, was put in charge of Powell and Keeler's next vehicle when their previous Berkeley film, Dames (1934), underperformed at the box office. Although he couldn't exactly turn Keeler into the next Gaynor - her style of tap dancing didn't exactly lend itself to mystical romanticism - he at least helped them find a new formula that worked.
In place of the putting-on-a-show storylines of their earlier films, like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933), Flirtation Walk put the team back on top by simply adding music to a Warner Bros. staple, the buddy picture. Powell starred as a callow young man who doesn't appreciate the traditions of West Point until the camaraderie of his fellow students and his love for the commander's daughter (Keeler), helps him grow up. The film did so well that for the follow-up Borzage and Warner's simply moved the plot to Annapolis and the action to the sea. They even cast two other actors from the previous film, Ross Alexander and John Arledge, in similar roles, assigned the script to the same writer, Delmer Daves, and sold the film with the line "Hats off to the Navy's Flirtation Walk".
To flesh out the cast of Shipmates Forever, Warner's borrowed Lewis Stone, one of Louis B. Mayer's favorite actors, to play the Annapolis commander, a firm fatherly figure that anticipates his later work in the Andy Hardy films. They also cast film newcomer Dennis O'Keefe in an unbilled role as one of the trainees. William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures handled the production reins, allegedly because Hearst's mistress and star, Marion Davies, had a crush on Powell. As with Borzage's other Warner Bros. films, however, the director also took a producing credit.
Although noted for his ethereal, romantic approach to filmmaking, Borzage probably knew better than to try adding mystic elements to the Powell-Keeler love scenes. Although their innocence charmed audiences, it was always better expressed through youthful enthusiasm than soulful yearning. Instead, he imbued Powell's character growth with a spiritual element that gave hints of just how good an actor the singing star could be. In fact, some have called his silent scene standing at a comrade's grave the best acting of his early career, before he pulled a dramatic turnabout as the tough detective in Murder, My Sweet (1944).
As they had done with Flirtation Walk, Warner's arranged to shoot Shipmates Forever on location, this time at Annapolis. The location shoot was so lengthy, they even had to arrange to have Powell's weekly radio show, Hollywood Hotel broadcast from Annapolis. The studio also arranged to borrow an officer and two midshipmen from the Navy to act as technical advisors.
The location shooting was one of the most praised elements of the film, with Variety stating, "The views of campus life at the naval academy are highly interesting and the inside Navy stuff is presented in absorbing fashion." The musical numbers, however, were less well received. Some reviewers felt they were shoehorned into the plot and part of the problem may have been that the plot could only make room for three original numbers, none of which became standards. Nonetheless, Warner's would draw on the songs again for their cartoon unit. "I'd Love to Take Orders from You," sung by Powell and later danced by Keeler, provided the title and central number for a 1936 Tex Avery cartoon. Two years later, another of Powell's numbers, "Don't Give Up the Ship," was sung by an animated Powell in Friz Freleng's Hollywood parody "A Star Is Hatched."
Producer-Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Delmer Daves
Based on a story by Daves
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Leo F. Forbstein, Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Dick Powell (Richard John 'Dick' Melville III),Ruby Keeler (June Blackburn), Lewis Stone (Adm. Richard Melville), Ross Alexander (Lafayette 'Sparks' Brown), Eddie Acuff (Lincoln 'Cowboy'), Dick Foran (Gifford), John Arledge (Johnny 'Coxswain' Lawrence), Joseph Crehan (Spike), Bess Flowers (Nurse), Dennis O'Keefe (Trainee), Mary Treen (Cowboy's Girl).
BW-109m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller