Fred Astaire wasn’t immune to the occasional turkey and one of them is 1940’s Second Chorus. Astaire plays Danny, a trumpet player in a college band. It sounds all right on the surface, except that Astaire was forty-one at the time. At least Artie Shaw was along to make it all better. Oh, wait…
Why is my brand bad movies and Broadway? Not that I’m complaining; they just seem to find me. Sigh…
Anyway, Danny and his roommate, Hank (Burgess Meredith) have been collegiates for seven years, purposely flunking their courses so they can stay with their college band, the University Perennials. It makes them a healthy living, so why mess with a good thing?
Being in the band has certain perks. Danny meets Ellen (Paulette Goddard), a flirty lass who hands him what he presumes is her phone number, but is actually a summons. Ellen works at a debt collection agency, and it just so happens that her boss fires her while Hank and Danny are still around. It’s no big deal, says Danny. She can work for him and he’ll pay her twice as much.
It’s all perfect at first. Ellen books gigs for the band and has mild flirtations with Danny. Then calamity strikes. Hank passes his exams and the dean has decided Danny’s been around too long as well, so they’re out. To make matters worse, Artie Shaw poaches Ellen away from Danny and Hank and she leaves for New York.
Naturally, Danny and Hank follow Ellen, and since their band isn’t a thing anymore they try to break into Artie Shaw’s band. There’s now an unspoken competition between them for Ellen as well, so the usual hijinks ensue. Hank changes some notes on Danny’s sheet music. Danny pulls Hank’s chair out from under him. When they start brawling backstage, Artie has both of them thrown out and Ellen tells Danny and Hank she doesn’t want to see either of them ever again.
With Artie Shaw out, Danny and Hank try (seperately) to get jobs with other orchestras. Paul Whiteman. Tommy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Pretty much anyone who’s anyone.
And…well, there’s no dummy like an arrogant dummy. Each time Danny and Hank talk to a new secretary they drop Artie’s name as a reference, only they don’t count on anyone checking them out. Put it this way: Fully five minutes of the movie is devoted to Artie Shaw picking up the phone and saying, “No,” or “Throw ’em out.”
Since they’re blackballed from every swing band in New York, Hank and Danny look into alternatives. To Ellen’s chagrin, she spies Hank blowing a bugle at the racetrack, and then she sees Danny playing trumpet in a Russian nightclub. It’s just too much for Ellen to take, and she has Mr. Chisolm (Charles Butterworth) take her home.
Who is Mr. Chisolm, you ask? He’s a middle-aged, well-heeled Cleveland transplant Ellen’s schmoozing on Artie’s behalf. Artie would like to put on a super-prestigious concert and Mr. Chisolm has the money to make that happen.
Danny may just have a way to help with that. He’s written a song about Mr. Chisolm and his mandolin and he wants Artie’s band to play it, with Mr. Chisolm and his mandolin as added attractions. Only problem is, Mr. Chisolm is kind of a sucky mandolin player, so Hank spends long hours tutoring him with the aid of a metronome. Everything hinges on the big concert, so will the guys have all their ducks in a row?
Second Chorus was not originally a musical, but once Fred Astaire signed on it was rewritten and replanned, with Hermes Pan taken on as choreographer and Johnny Mercer as lyricist. Studios in Hollywood were losing the European market in 1940, so they tried to play it safe in terms of subject matter and expenditure. Paramount was no different, and I’m sure they thought they had a sure thing with Fred Astaire.
Too bad the movie isn’t better. It could have been cute but it’s not. Some have compared Meredith and Astaire to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in their Road pictures, which I think is a tad optimistic. Second Chorus’s plot is all over the place, and its three main characters are underdrawn and pretty unlikeable. Artie Shaw is just kinda there. His acting is OK, but he’s nothing more than the brass ring.
Paulette Goddard’s Ellen is a big missed opportunity. Goddard was, of course, famously fun and flirty, so she could have really done more in this part, yet she’s reduced to being charming eye candy who dabbles in scheming and schmoozing. It must have felt like a comedown after her turn as Miriam in The Women. Goddard also had to dance with Astaire in one scene, and she may have the distinction of being the only actress who didn’t enjoy dancing with Astaire. Not that Goddard didn’t like him; she wasn’t a dancer, so preparing for the scene was incredibly hard work. Fortunately, she only had to endure one take.
Burgess Meredith’s Hank is another misfire. He and Danny seem to be firm friends, but most of the time it’s hard to tell what side he’s on. Is he still Danny’s buddy after Ellen comes into the picture, or is he Danny’s rival? Who knows, but either way, Hank is so important that when he and Mr. Chisolm fall asleep during a certain crucial moment no one misses them.
As for Fred Astaire, his Danny is…interesting. He has a habit of dancing around the stage while he’s conducting because Fred Astaire, but as a bandleader this would be a nightmare because musicians can’t follow a baton when the conductor won’t stand still. Well, maybe they can, but it’s significantly harder. It stands to reason that if Astaire was going to be a conductor in this film, the dances should have been separate, or at least someone else could have conducted while Danny tapped.
Oh, and we can’t forget the Russian band scene, where Astaire, in full folk costume, does a combination of tap and traditional Russian dancing. It’s impressive but slightly weird, seeing as Russian costume is notoriously heavy. And then Astaire puts on a really bad Russian accent. It might be people’s favorite or least-favorite scene. Maybe both. I just sat there thinking, “What even?”
On the plus side, though, as Hermes Pan biographer, James Franscescina noted, Second Chorus allowed Astaire to break out of the formal dancing he did with Ginger Rogers and try newer styles. One sorta-innovative number, “Me And the Ghost Upstairs,” was cut because it was a little too obvious that the supposed ghost was Pan dancing in women’s heels.
It’s good that Astaire got to experiment, I guess, but it reduces the movie to rebound status, and as we all know about rebounds, they’re usually disappointing and, thankfully, temporary. Nowadays, Second Chorus is in public domain and not many film sites seem to want to touch it. Astaire himself always called Second Chorus his worst movie. Still, for the Fred Astaire fan it might be a fun watch, if only to see Astaire in an unusual off-the-game moment.
For more Fred and Gene, please visit Heidi at Along the Brandywine. Thanks for hosting, Heidi, and thanks for reading, all! Hope to see you on Wednesday, when I’ll be posting my entry for Tiffany and Rebekah’s Claude Rains Blogathon…
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Franceschina, James. Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012.