SECOND CHORUS (Paramount, 1940), directed by H.C. Potter, from an original story by Frank Cavett, was an unlikely production for which song-and-dance man Fred Astaire ever appeared. In spite of its backstage musical sounding title, Astaire doesn't enact the role of a dance director, which wouldn't have been a bad idea, actually. Unlike some of his earlier works where he would play a dancer by profession, SECOND CHORUS provides Astaire with a new kind of role, that of a college student (!) with a flare for trumpet playing. While much of the plot devotes itself to the current phase known as "the big band era," featuring band leader Artie Shaw as himself, and with more emphases on comedy during the non musical portions, for a Fred Astaire film, this might prove disappointing for having the least amount of dancing of any Astaire musical up to this point.
The story starts off with a social function of a New England university where students and guests are being entertained by the band called Danny O'Neill's University Perennials. Roommates Danny (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith), trumpet players who've remained in college for seven years to take advantage of lucrative college band bookings, take notice of their friend Stu's (Frank Melton) date, a young brunette named Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard). Danny immediately believes Ellen to be interested in him until given a piece of paper by her that turns out to be a summons from the McKinley Encyclopedia Company for unpaid bills totaling $110. Coming to Dunn & Dunn Collective Agency, Danny and Hank meet up with Ellen where she works as secretary for Mr. Dunn (James Conlin). Instead of straightening out matters about the bill, the boys manage in getting Ellen fired instead, only to hire her as both their secretary and manager. Under this newfound profession, Ellen succeeds in obtaining the boys interviews with band-leader Artie Shaw in New York. Instead of landing them jobs, Ellen is offered a position as Shaw's personal secretary instead. As Danny and Hank each compete for both Ellen's attentions and a job in Artie Shaw's band, misunderstandings occur as Ellen becomes involved with a middle-aged man, J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth).
With music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Hal Borne, Bernie Hannigan and Artie Shaw, the motion picture soundtrack includes: "Second Chorus," "Sugar" (instrumental); "Everything's Jumpin'" "I Ain't Hep to That Step" (sung by Fred Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Paulette Goddard); "The Ivy Shuffle," "Sweet Sue," "Love of My Life" (sung by Astaire); "I'm Yours," "Double Mellow," "Poor Mr. Chisholm," "The Moon is Shining," "Hoe Down," "Swing Concerto" and "Poor Mr. Chisholm"
Marked by none of the visual scales of the RKO Radio musicals where Astaire peaked during his six year screen partnership (1933-1939) with Ginger Rogers, for his Paramount debut, the script finds him, along with dramatic actor Burgess Meredith, in their only pairing, enacting that as friendly rivals, in something much better served by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, playing tricks on one another in order to either get the girl or land the job in Shaw's band. One amusing scene occurs where Hank (Meredith) rearranges the musical notes of Danny's (Astaire) song sheet prior to his audition with Shaw, and trumpet playing out of synchronization with the other players to offbeat tunes causing him not to get the job. There's also another scene where Astaire dressed up like a cossack singing with a Russian accent sounding very much the way he had spoken in SHALL WE DANCE? (RKO, 1937) in a sequence where he poses intends on fooling a girl (Ginger Rogers) by pretending to be Russian dancer, Petrov. As for the dancing sequences, which are very limited, Astaire does a jive number with Goddard. While her dancing was adequate, but no match to the style of Rogers, Goddard never danced on screen again; and the "Swing Concerto" finale where Astaire not only conducts the band, but tap dances and plays the trumpet simultaneously. Charles Butterworth, in his usual droll manner, even has a song, "Poor Mr. Chisholm" dedicated to his character.
Later reissued in 1947 by Astor Pictures, SECOND CHORUS became a public domain product during the birth of home video in the early 1980s, most distributors acquiring poor quality prints taken from its reissue. Around that time, SECOND CHORUS turned up as an overplay product on various local or public TV stations as well as cable Television, notably on Nickelodeon's "Nick and Nite" Movie during the after-midnight hours prior to 1992. There was even a motion picture soundtrack of this film distributed in record stores at or about 1979-1980. The best available print to SECOND CHORUS, however, with original Paramount logo intact, can be found on Turner Classic Movies where it premiered June 14, 2004.
Regardless of its reputation being one of Fred Astaire's lesser efforts, SECOND CHORUS is still watchable, especially when fortunate enough to view it from a crystal clear print. (***)
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