Top positive review
Second Chorus needn't mean second-rate
on 17 May 2015
In later life, Fred Astaire claimed that Second Chorus was the worst film he ever made. However, no film in which Astaire dances can be wholly written off and there is still much to delight his fans in this frothy caper. Fred was no mean musician and song-writer himself and he welcomed the chance to work with Artie Shaw and his band, one of the leading outfits of the day. In the film, Shaw plays a fictionalised version of himself. Fred and Buster Meredith play Danny O’Neill and Hank Taylor, two college non-graduates who keep flunking their exams in order to continue earning a living with the college band. They are, by turns, good friends who connive together and rivals who do the dirty on each other, either to gain a place with Shaw’s band or to win the heart of Paulette Goddard, who plays Ellen Miller, Shaw’s manager-cum-secretary.
When Shaw agrees to audition both men for a spot as trumpet-player, Danny and Hank jeopardise each other’s chances, due to the fact that Danny has told Hank that Ellen has agreed to marry him. In revenge, Hank alters the music for Danny’s piece, resulting in a disharmonious cacophony, while Danny pulls Hank’s chair off the back of the orchestra set. Ellen is embarrassed and disheartened by their behaviour and says she doesn’t want to see either one again.
Hank takes a job at the race-track while Danny finds work with an inferior band in a Russian café. Meanwhile, Ellen has struck up a platonic friendship with Mr Chisholm, a charming bumbler and would-be mandolin-player (played by Charles Butterworth) who just happens to take her to the café where Danny is playing. On seeing Danny, Ellen realises she still has romantic feelings for him, while he believes that her friendship with Chisholm is something more. When Ellen persuades Chisholm to provide financial backing for Shaw’s upcoming concert, she discusses the details with him at her home. Danny and Hank turn up there on the same evening and each brags to the other about how well they are doing in their musical careers. This leads to one of Astaire’s best lines from the film: “I’ve just hooked up with a terrific European outfit. I never dreamed such things could be done to music.” Upon seeing Chisholm, Danny and Hank leap to the wrong conclusion about his and Ellen’s friendship and come up with a ruse to scare Chisholm off. When Ellen tells them they have alienated Shaw’s backer, they make amends by confessing to Chisholm that they were trying to protect Ellen and convincing him to include one of Danny’s compositions in Shaw’s concert. We now see one of the gems of Astaire’s acting career in his cajoling of Meredith to “come clean” to Butterworth, which he does in the style of a gangster, even down to putting his hand in his pocket as though he were fingering a pistol. James Cagney once remarked that Astaire had a “little of the hoodlum” in him and this vignette shows how great he might have been in the kind of role normally played by Cagney himself.
There is also a delightful little exchange when Danny plays his song for Chisholm and says: “Why, that’s the spirit of New Orleans….I can almost smell the delta.” Hank remarks: “I can smell the delta!” To which Chisholm replies: “I have a slight cold.”
Having been placated by Hank and Danny, Chisholm agrees again to back the concert, which of course is a success. Hank and Danny get places with Shaw’s band and Astaire (who else?) ends up with Paulette. Unlike his films with Ginger Rogers, he does get to kiss the girl in the final frame.
The dance numbers can stand up with the best of anything Astaire did in his other films and the fact that Second Chorus slumped at the box-office and is not rated more highly today is not down to him. The first dance is “Dig It”, to music by Hal Borne, Astaire’s rehearsal pianist, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Although Goddard was not in Rogers’ league as a dancer, she deals with the number more than adequately and, as ever, Astaire tailors his style to the capabilities of his partner while relinquishing none of his expertise. There are some sprightly sideways skips, turns and joke sequences, plus some jitterbugging, before Astaire and Goddard twirl out of the rehearsal room in a move reminiscent of his exit with Ginger Rogers in “Pick Yourself Up” from Swing Time.
Astaire next performs a brief prisiadka routine at the Russian café, showing both his physical and mental flexibility (in his willingness to tackle various form of dance).
The grand finale, which lives up to its billing, is where Astaire conducts Shaw’s band and dances at the same time. Of course, it is difficult to do both for the entire dance, although even when not using the baton, Astaire still endeavours to conduct by using different parts of his body. The sequence involves some enchanting spins, leaps, floor-slams and truly virtuosic tapping from this sultan of sprezzatura, before Astaire finishes the number by deftly catching his trumpet and executing yet more spins with trumpet in one hand and baton in the other.
Depending which version of the DVD you buy, you may also be able to see the routine to “Me and the Ghost Upstairs”, as far as I know the only time that Astaire and Hermes Pan were filmed dancing together (although it’s difficult to recognise Pan under the ghost costume). It’s such a shame that it was cut from the final film, as it’s pure joy, with Pan and Astaire doing some humorous mime and close partnering, a brief, discreet Lindy Hop and a conga-type finale to a Latin beat.