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SECOND CHORUS (director/writer: H.C. Potter; screenwriter: from the story by Frank Cavett/Elaine Ryan/Ian McLellan Hunter; cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl; editor: Jack Dennis; music: Artie Shaw; cast: Fred Astaire (Danny O’Neill), Paulette Goddard (Ellen Miller), Artie Shaw (himself), Charles Butterworth (J. Lester Chisholm), Burgess Meredith (Hank Taylor), Frank Melton (Stu); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Boris Morros/Robert Stillman; Paramount Pictures; 1940)
“Second-rate Fred Astaire film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This modestly budgeted musical is snappily directed by H.C. Potter (“Hellzapoppin'”/”The Cowboy and the Lady”/”Mr. Lucky”); the slight story is by Frank Cavett and it’s written by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter without much wit or purpose or finesse. The first one signed onto the project was the hot bandleader Artie Shaw, who had a mega hit in 1938 with “Begin the Beguine” and had dethroned Benny Goodman to become the new “King of Swing.” Noted Broadway songwriter Johnny Mercer provided the lyrics for the film’s feature song “Love of My Life” and the music was by Bernie Henighen. Fred Astaire came on board when there wasn’t a script ready; he wanted to do some jazz dance numbers with Artie Shaw’s band. There was high hopes that this would be a winner, especially when the lovely Paulette Goddard, fresh off a separation from Charlie Chaplin, and the talented Burgess Meredith were signed on. It turns out Goddard was not a gifted dancer; she did one dance “Dig It” with Astaire and seemed relieved to just get through with it (I enjoyed the dance, it was my favorite scene in the film; but evidently Astaire didn’t think much of her as a dancer as he wrote years later in his autobiography). Evidently Goddard did enjoy working with Meredith, because when her divorce finally came through she married him in 1944 (their marriage lasted four years).

Overage college roommates and battling friendly rivals always trying to upstage each other, the oldest students on campus, the college orchestra leader Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and trumpeter Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith), plot to stay in school by flunking their courses for the last seven years because their college band earns them more wages than if they were working on Wall Street. When they receive a summons on the cute from bill collector Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) for an unpaid encyclopedia set they bought seven years ago, they meet her again in the collection office where she doubles as the secretary and are so attracted to her that they connive to get her fired so that she can become their secretary manager at double the wages she was getting before. To their surprise she gets them gigs they couldn’t get before and starts taking away gigs from Artie Shaw’s popular band. This forces Shaw to make a counter move, and he hires Ellen away from them to work as his secretary in New York. Ellen then talks the boss into giving Danny and Hank an audition, but the boys don’t get hired because of their childish antics as their intense competition for Ellen’s affection annoys the band leader.

As a result Hank becomes the race track bugler and Danny gets a gig as a Russian dancer. But Ellen tries once more to help the boys when she gets eccentric elderly bottlecap tycoon J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) to sponsor a concert with the boys playing with Artie Shaw’s band. This only leads to further mischief between the friendly rivals, and through a dirty trick by their benefactor one of them wins the gal and achieves success with the Artie Shaw band.

It turned out to be a second-rate Fred Astaire film, with him hardly dancing (just three short numbers) and playing, to boot, an irritating character. In fact, Fred called it “The worst picture I ever worked on.” He might be right, but if expectations are lowered it seems more average than terrible. But it was just not possible to accept the middle-aged looking Astaire and Meredith as college students or accept the ridiculous story on its terms. It also seemed almost criminal to waste Astaire’s talent by not letting him do more dancing. Instead of dancing we get a lot of shrill dialogue and Artie Shaw in a leading role, who proves to be a stiff as an actor though as a clarinetist he shines. Since none of the characters were appealing or funny, it was hard to find any love for this ungainly film or any sympathy for the characters.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”