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Having spent nearly a decade making films with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, in 1940, was ready to try something new. "At this point" he wrote, "I decided that one picture a year was all I should make. With so much preparation necessary, it was really all I could do to get even that much done....It took seven to eight months and sometimes more to complete one of my films. Each one seemed to get increasingly difficult. More dances and musical sequences crept into them as we went along, mainly because the audiences wanted it that way. Next on the slate for me was Second Chorus . Artie Shaw and band had already been signed for this one by Boris Morros, to be produced independently with a Paramount release. No story was yet written but I wanted to do it as a sort of departure, because there was a war going on [in Europe] and it had become necessary to consider doing smaller-budget pictures with so much of the world market gone. Things were in an uncertain state in Hollywood at that time. My main reason for doing this one, however, was that I had an idea for a solo number in which I would dance-conduct Artie Shaw's band. The jazz background of the whole thing interested me- it was the first real swingin' outfit I had hooked up with. As the show developed it looked promising, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Bernie Henighen and Artie Shaw and direction by Hank Potter. [Choreographer] Hermes Pan on the [dance] numbers [Pan, who also choreographed Astaire's films with Ginger Rogers, would play a clarinetist in the film]. Lovely Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith, Artie Shaw and I tackled the job with hopes."
Artie Shaw was riding high in 1940. He had had a huge hit in 1938 with "Begin the Beguine" and he and his band were in demand. His musical collaborator on the film was legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer. Among the songs Mercer and Shaw would write for the film was "Love of My Life". As John Mueller wrote in his book Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films of Fred Astaire, "according to Shaw, they had agreed to do a song called Love of My Life...They finished the song in about a day but waited three weeks to show it to the studio executives. As the experienced Mercer explained to the bewildered bandleader, "If you bring a song right in, the movie people don't place any value on it."
Fred Astaire wouldn't place any value on Second Chorus; although he had kind words for the film in his autobiography, he also referred to it as the worst film he ever made. Part of the problem lay in the story, which was being rewritten even as it was being shot. The story of two battling trumpet players (played by Astaire and Meredith) was flimsy and only served to hold the film together in between musical numbers. Another problem, as Astaire would discover, was that Paulette Goddard was not an experienced dancer. "Paulette was a swell sport about the dance we did together. She had not done any dancing to speak of up to that point, except in the chorus some few years previously, as she told me. We worked hard on that little thing called "Dig It" and I thought it turned out fine. After the number was finished and she had seen it on film, she remarked, "I know one thing - I loved it!" Privately, he would say, "She's a lovely girl, with a breathtaking figure, who couldn't dance and somehow resisted every attempt to break down her handicap." Goddard later remembered, the number was shot all in one take "just once, one Saturday morning...I'm glad it was all right for I couldn't have done it again!"
Paulette Goddard may not have enjoyed dancing with Fred Astaire but she obviously enjoyed working with Burgess Meredith. While filming Second Chorus in 1940, Goddard was separated from her husband Charlie Chaplin. After her divorce she would marry Burgess Meredith in 1944.
Producer: Boris Morros, Robert Stillman
Director: H.C. Potter
Screenplay: Frank Cavett (story), Elaine Ryan, Ian McLellan Hunter
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Film Editing: Jack Dennis
Art Direction: Boris Leven
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).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Steps in Time by Fred Astaire
Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films of Fred Astaire by John Mueller
The Internet Movie Database