Cast & Crew
H. C. Potter
Danny O'Neill, the leader of his college orchestra, and his roommate, trumpeteer Hank Taylor, are the oldest students on campus. One day, they meet bill collector Ellen Miller, who serves them with a summons for an overdue bill. After getting Ellen fired from her job, the pair offer her a position as their agent, and she becomes such a success that she begins to sell the band against Artie Shaw and other name bands. In self-defense, Shaw hires Ellen away from the boys and she moves to New York. There Ellen convinces Shaw to audition Danny and Hank for spots in his band, but they fail to get the job when they all but ruin the band's performance because of their childish rivalry for Ellen's affections. Forced to become musical outcasts, Hank takes a job as a bugler at a race track while Danny dresses up as a Russian dancer to get a job. Salvation comes to them in the form of J. Lester Chisolm, an elderly businessman with the soul of a musician, who becomes Ellen's benefactor. The boys finagle Chisolm into sponsoring them for a spot in Shaw's concert. When Chisolm drugs Hank at the last minute, he sleeps through the concert, but Danny achieves success at last.
H. C. Potter
Willa Pearl Curtis
Howard J. Green
E. Y. Harburg
Ian Mclellan Hunter
Second Chorus on Blu-ray
Paulette Goddard, surely one of the most underrated stars of the classical Hollywood era, is Ellen Miller, is a smart, savvy woman who plays on Danny's vanity to great effect in the opening scene and goes on to manage their band to even greater effect. She shifts personas with every sales call and comes off just as dazzling with each role, more playful than mercenary as she applies her sex appeal to the art of making a deal. Under her management, their college swing band, Danny O'Neill's Perennials, becomes a hot regional favorite and the only thing that could ruin their success is graduating college, something they been able to put off for years. Sure enough, professional and romantic rivalry sends Danny and Hank sabotaging one another, first in school, then in auditions with Artie Shaw's band. Ellen is one of these sweet and sexy screen women whose affection for these tirelessly competitive and annoyingly (and unjustifiably) arrogant two men allows her to forgive the most juvenile, self-centered, and cruel behavior, but their feud finally pushes past her limits when they go about sabotaging her own life and career out purely selfish, short-sighted reasons.
That kind of brutal edge is nothing new to comedy partners out of the vaudeville tradition -- it's the foundation of such classic team-ups as Abbott & Costello and Hope & Crosby -- and Fred Astaire is no stranger to playing the cocky opportunist, but these boys (and these actors are playing men much younger than their actual years) are utterly self-centered, ruthlessly mercenary, and reflexively destructive. They aren't pals, they are unstable elements in a combustible relationship that explode upon contact with any outside object or force, be it success, opportunity, or a pretty girl. The only time they manage to work together is when they have mutual goals. In those instances they manage to double-team with the best of them, whether it's a dual onslaught of double-talk or a scheme worthy of con-artists targeting a patsy.
Artie Shaw, who has a sizable role in the film, isn't as wooden as many of the real-life bandleaders who appeared in Hollywood musicals as themselves, which is to say he's adequate to the task but hasn't the natural charisma or acting chops to suggest much personality to his character. But he's surrounded by a good cast that keeps the film moving and the patter rolling. Along with Astaire (the romantic), Burgess (the wild-eyed con-man), and Goddard (the born businesswoman) is Charles Butterworth as Mr. Chisholm, a would-be hep-cat of a middle-aged millionaire who adores music and stumbles over swing lingo like a doddering but harmless square. Butterworth plays him as a born sucker, guileless and utterly unthreatening, which allows Ellen to charm him into backing a "serious" concert by Shaw, another project that Danny and Hank trample in their reflexive scheming.
While this is more of a big band musical than the usual Astaire project, with Astaire miming trumpet solos from a bandstand (Bobby Hackett dubs his playing), the film manages to fit in a couple of dance numbers, including an easy duet with Goddard and a finale where he conducts the Artie Shaw band while tap dancing up a specialty number, and he sings a couple of songs as well. Shaw provides the music for the film and Johnny Mercer the lyrics to the songs, and the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Score and Best Song ("Would You Like to Be the Love of My Life?," sung by Astaire to Goddard). Mercer also receives a special credit for "contribution to screenplay," which is otherwise credited to Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter. H. C. Potter, who helmed The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle with Astaire in 1939, directs the independently produced film on a budget tighter than most of Astaire's more lavish projects. Like many classic films produced outside of the studio structure, it fell into the public domain in the 1960s and has since shown up in scores of poor-quality editions on TV, VHS, and DVD.
The rise of Blu-ray has created yet one more opportunity for labels to dip into the public domain titles that once filled up the bargain bins of VHS and DVD, usually haphazardly transferred from second- or third-rate prints, many of them rough or damaged and many generations from the original. The difference with Blu-ray, however, is an expectation of superior quality. Those scratchy, hissy, blown-out editions of $3 bargain basement discs just aren't going to fly at 1080p.
Some labels are making an effort to rehabilitate the PD catalogue by seeking out good quality archival 35mm prints, making high-quality digital masters, and using software to digitally stabilize shaky images, clean up scratches and scuffs, and repair torn and damaged frames. The results aren't always top drawer, but many are quite good (Kino has been notably successful working with film archives and institutions) and even lesser efforts are invariably a significant improvement over previous incarnations.
Film Chest is among the newer players in the realm of PD on Blu-ray, boasting 2k digital scans of 35mm fine grain nitrate prints. Those prints aren't necessarily archival quality, mind you, as the restoration demonstrations show, and heavy digital clean-up is used to scour away the wear and tear of the image. Because of the 35mm source, the base image gives them something to work with, however, and Second Chorus is one of their better efforts. It's not a restoration in any real sense of the term -- some portions are cleaned to the point of removing film detail, there are some damaged patches that all the digital scrubbing can't repair, and some scenes have a tinny echo to the audio -- but it is still much cleaner and sharper than any previous version I've seen, and more sensitive to the original texture of the film than many previous Film Chest releases.
The Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack features commentary by Hollywood historian Tom Santopietro and a trailer, plus a brief before-and-after "restoration demonstration" and a movie art postcard.
By Sean Axmaker
Second Chorus on Blu-ray
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
Second Chorus - Fred Astaire in SECOND CHORUS on DVD
Synopsis: 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!"
For more information about Second Chorus, visit I mage Entertainment.
by Glenn Erickson
Second Chorus - Fred Astaire in SECOND CHORUS on DVD
The trumpet part for Fred Astaire was dubbed by Bobby Hackett.
The trumpet part for Burgess Meredith was dubbed by Billy Butterfield.
The dance number "Me and the Ghost Upstairs" was cut from the film.
Although Fred Astaire is listed as associate producer in all pre-production credits and on the release dialogue script in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library, and a Paramount production information sheet noted that Astaire had acquired a financial interest in the film and assisted on it, only Robert Stillman is listed as associate producer onscreen. Other items in the Paramount Collection indicate that prior to the press preview, Paramount re-cut the film. While Paramount records do not indicate how many scenes were cut, they do indicate that a dance sequence featuring choreographer Hermes Pan and the song "Me and the Ghost Upstairs," composed by Bernard Hanighen and Johnny Mercer, was cut from the film prior to its national release. The college scenes were shot at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA.
This was the first film produced for Paramount by Boris Morros, formerly the head of Paramount's music department. Modern sources add the following music credits: musician Bobby Hackett doubled on trumpet for Fred Astaire, Billy Butterfield doubled for Burgess Meredith, and Perry Botkin was the instrumentalist on "Dig It" and "Poor Mr. Chisolm." Modern sources add that choreographer Hermes Pan appears in the film as a musician with the college band. According to his autobiography, Astaire agreed to appear in the film because he wanted to work with Artie Shaw and his swing band. In an interview dated approximately 25 years after its release, Astaire called this the worst film he ever made. According to modern sources, the script, which originally included no dance numbers, was rewritten for Astaire after filming had already begun. Paulette Goddard noted in her autobiography that she spent many hours training for her dance sequence with Astaire and then shot the number in one take. Shaw received an Academy Award nomination in the Music (Scoring) category, and he and Johnny Mercer's song "Would You Like to Be the Love of My Life" was also nominated for an Oscar.