Second Chorus (1940)
Director: H C Potter
Cast: Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard, Artie Shaw
Synopsis: When perennial college students Danny O’Neill and Hank Taylor are forced to make it on their own, the competitive pair get jobs with Artie Shaw’s band and reunite with ex-manager Ellen Miller.
Apparently, Fred Astaire considered Second Chorus to be his worst movie. He was certainly struggling to find a partner to fill the dancing shoes of recently departed former partner Ginger Rogers when he made it. Paulette Goddard plays opposite him here, and while she looks ravishing, she’s certainly no Ginger. Not that she’s called upon to do much dancing, featuring in only one number as far as I recall. There again, Fred isn’t asked to do that much, either — there’s only three dance numbers in the entire picture which is a criminal waste when you think about it.
Astaire plays Danny O’Reilly who, with his best friend Hank Taylor (a miscast Burgess Meredith), plays trumpet for the University Perennials. In fact, Danny and Hank deliberately fail their exams each year just so they can continue playing for the Perennials. Despite this, they still look way too old to be in college — unless it was to drop off their kids or something. In one of the film’s cuter moments, Danny gets served with a summons from a collection agency by the delectable Ellen Miller (Goddard). Danny thinks she’s giving him her phone number, so when he discovers her real motive he pays her a visit at work with Hank, and the boys eventually succeed in getting her fired from her job so that they can get her to work for them.
Although Second Chorus is a musical comedy, and you therefore don’t expect it to be rooted too deeply in a realistic world, this irresponsible behaviour soon becomes to be an irritation as it continues throughout the picture. Both boys are smitten by Ellen, so Danny ensures that Hank graduates from college and must return home to work in his father’s textile mill by submitting a copied piece of work for marking under Hank’s name. Then Hank engineers Danny’s departure so that he must return home to his father’s concrete business — ‘You’ve got concrete in your bones!’ he exclaims triumphantly, which seems a highly inappropriate description of Astaire when you think about it.
When Ellen is lured away from the boys by big bandleader Artie Shaw (playing himself) they both decide they want to be in his band and do everything they can to derail the other’s attempts to impress him. While these antics do raise a few laughs they also make it practically impossible to like either of the two men, and leave you wondering just what Ellen sees in them. Of course, neither character takes their so-called friend’s treachery to heart, and they remain friends at the end of the movie.
Second Chorus was bandleader Artie Shaw’s final movie, and it has to be said that his premature departure was no great loss to cinematic history. He’s as wooden as his clarinet (assuming it’s made of wood) and looks ill-at-ease throughout. Astaire comes across as likeable as he always does, despite the fact that he plays a fairly selfish piece of work, but Meredith can’t shake off the retrospective legacy of countless bad guys, so never comes across as sympathetic. In fact, the only particularly likeable character is that of Mr. Chisholm, the prospective backer of one of Shaw’s concerts, who is played with a pleasing touch of whimsy by Charles Butterworth.
(Reviewed 6th August 2013)