Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
After his series of unbroken musical delights at RKO, and before his later Technicolor dazzlers at MGM, dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire moved from studio to studio, refusing to sign a standard contract. He seemed to be searching for harmonious working conditions, worthy collaborators and perhaps even a new career direction. When Astaire found a terrific dance partner like Rita Hayworth, the script might sub-par, and some of the films couldn't muster music worthy of his talent. Paramount's Second Chorus is one of Astaire's better efforts. The dialogue is snappy, Artie Shaw's music is fine, and Astaire shows his comedic chops to be in fine working order, even if he only dances two or three times!
Amusingly disloyal college buddies Danny O'Niell and Hank Taylor (Astaire and Burgess Meredith) have kept their college band intact by purposely flunking seven years in a row. They both fall for an irresistible summons server Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) and arrange for her to lose her job so as to be more available. Ellen proves to be a whiz at band management, and their band is soon competing toe to toe with the big names, like Artie Shaw (Artie Shaw). Kicked out of college at last, the boys are delighted when Ellen reports that Shaw is coming to see them perform, but the famous bandleader wants her talent, not theirs. Ellen manages to get Danny and Hank auditions with Shaw, but they predictably sabotage each other's efforts!
Second Chorus is, as the disc liner notes observe, the tail end of the 30s campus comedy, just before it was swept away by the war. Artie Shaw's swing band provides the music and the comedy retains the anarchic and carefree quality of earlier efforts like College Swing. Fred Astaire plays a trumpeter and not any kind of dancer per se. Although a couple of tap numbers come out of nowhere and the ending sees him dance-conducting Shaw's orchestra, they are just 'dance relief' in a standard comedy enlivened by some great casting.
Astaire and Burgess Meredith could easily have become a screen comedy team. The best of friends, they battle constantly, trading dirty tricks and underhanded schemes with greater ease than Hope & Crosby. Frank Cavett, Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter's crisp screenplay has a number of pitch-perfect scenes, such as a walk across campus in which both the boys learn, in stages, that they've thoroughly double-crossed each other. Doubtful situations become funny highlights, as when one partner hides under a bed, only to find that the other is already there. The mutual deceptions naturally make both of them look like idiots, yet they never let honesty intrude on a perfect relationship.
Comely Paulette Goddard provides the fuel for the rivalry. While Danny and Hank are egotistically blind to any talent but their own, Ellen Miller is the competent realist with skills that provide the link to the big time. She even opens doors for Artie Shaw by schmoozing with the infantile millionaire played by Charles Butterworth. After ruining each other's auditions and working in demeaning jobs, Hank and Danny return and almost spoil Ellen's plans as well. They atone by using their devious skills to set things straight.
Ms. Goddard eventually chooses Astaire, which is interesting because three years later in real life she married Burgess Meredith. Despite losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara, Goddard was at the time enjoying a major career upswing. She was both a talented comedienne and the perfect height for Astaire and Meredith, but she had no formal dancing experience, at least not at Astaire's level. Nevertheless she dances in an extended one-take number, I Ain't Hep to That Step but I'll Dig It and comes across just fine. She keeps up with Astaire, who adjusts his steps to flatter her good moves. Actually, if we hadn't read that Goddard worked like the devil to perform the number and barely choked out one good take, we'd never know that she wasn't a seasoned pro.
The battling partners eventually cooperate to make Artie Shaw's concert a success. If Second Chorus didn't go soft at the finish, it might be a classic perverse buddy film, the musical equivalent of Vera Cruz. Goddard's importance to the plot wanes as we're set up for Astaire's final number. Artie Shaw is fine playing himself, but Charles Butterworth's tiresome ditz is no substitute for Edward Everett Horton. Preston Sturges favorite Jimmy Conlin has a great bit as a collection agent incensed at being offered a $2 bribe, when $10 is his going rate.
Hal Roach Studios' DVD of Second Chorus is a clean transfer of this original Paramount release that (wild guess) might have reverted to other hands over music rights. Oddly, the fine print on the package lists Paramount as the copyright holder. Artie Shaw's music comes across well. Earlier Roach releases came from iffy sources or suffered from terminal time-compression, as with the Frank Sinatra thriller Suddenly). This title is fine in all the basics.
Roach's graphics and packaging design are unexceptional, but the brief, unattributed liner notes are unusually good. We're told that Frank Capra once called director H.C. Potter (who certainly doesn't crimp the comedy here) "the most humorless person I ever knew." Potter apparently had an argument with Artie Shaw, claiming that the bandleader didn't understand the character he was playing. Shaw fumed, shouting, "You idiot! I'm playing myself!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Second Chorus rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 15, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson