Second Chorus

Second Chorus is a 1940 Hollywood musical comedy film starring Fred Astaire, Burgess Meredith, Paulette Goddard, Artie Shaw and Charles Butterworth, with music by Artie Shaw, Bernie Hanighen, Hal Borne and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The film was directed by H.C. Potter and produced independently for Paramount by Borris Morros.

In a 1968 interview Astaire described this effort as "The worst film I ever made"; from a dance perspective, however, it greatly surpasses either Dancing Lady (1933) or Finian's Rainbow (1968) and benefits from the musical presence of a leading swing band in its prime: Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Astaire admitted that he was attracted to the film by the opportunity to "dance-conduct this real swingin' outfit". From a musical standpoint, the film contains a fine partnered dance, an important Astaire tap solo, an Academy Award nominated song and a classic extended piece by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.

In an interview shortly before his death, Shaw admitted this film put him off acting. In spite of a striking series of personality traits in common: an obsessive perfectionism and seemingly endless appetite for retakes, profound musicality and love of jazz, personal modesty and charm, Shaw and Astaire do not appear to have hit it off on set.

The film's copyright lapsed in 1969 and is now in the public domain, with the result that prior to its recent restoration at least, it has tended to circulate in seriously degraded prints.

Danny O'Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) are rival trumpeters with the Perennials, a college band, and both men are still attending college by failing their exams seven years in a row. In the midst of a performance, Danny spies Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who ends up being made band manager. Both men compete for her affections while trying to get the other one fired. Artie Shaw, playing himself, comes to hear the band and poaches Ellen to become his secretary and manager. She tries to get Danny and Hank an audition for Shaw's band but they again undermine one another. Ellen befriends J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) who agrees to finance a Shaw concert, and Danny convinces Chisholm to persuade Shaw to include one of Danny's tunes in the concert. Hank and Chisholm end up missing the concert by giving each other champagne and sleeping pills. Danny successfully dance-conducts his own composition and secures Ellen's affections.

Hermes Pan collaborated with Astaire on the choreography. In a minor lapse, Astaire's impersonation of trumpet playing is often unconvincing. There is a folk-parody theme throughout - with Mercer satirising the slang associated with jazz dance, Russian folk songs, and folk songs of his native American South.

* "Sugar": Astaire is shown leading a college band in a jazz standard by Marceo Pinkard. For sheer lack of conviction, Astaire's trumpet playing (dubbed here by Bobby Hackett) vies with that of Meredith's (dubbed by Shaw's bandsman Billy Butterfield).

* "Everything's Jumping": Brief number for Artie Shaw and his band.

* "I Ain't Hep To That Step But I'll Dig It": This delightful comic song and dance duet for Astaire and Goddard was, according to Goddard - whose dance ability and experience was limited - done "just once, one Saturday morning,..., I'm glad it was all right for I couldn't have done it again". It was the last of Astaire's duets to be filmed entirely in one take. The dance incorporates a new step, the "Dig It" which involved snapping both feet together and then hopping while keeping them together. The rest of the dance involves some very original use of partnered teetering, scooting and dodging steps with some jitterbugging thrown in. In his first film appearance, Hermes Pan can be seen as the clarinettist in the band (standing furthest back).

* "Sweet Sue": Another Astaire (Hackett) and Meredith (Butterfield) mime routine, this time to a Victor Young standard.

* "Love Of My Life": Mercer and Shaw wrote this delightful song one day over lunch at Mercer's house, and when the excited Shaw wanted to show it to the studio, Mercer persuaded him to wait three weeks explaining: "If you tell them you just wrote it over lunch they won't think it's any good". It is delivered by Astaire to Goddard and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Song.

* "Russian Cafe Number": A brief comic number for Astaire, who plays a Russian doing a Moiseyev-style dance while singing a pseudo-Russian version of "Love Of My Life" in a thick accent and clowning around with a trumpet.

* "Poor Mr. Chisholm (song)": Accompanying himself on the piano Astaire sings this folk-parody Mercer-Henighen number for Shaw's approval (he had previously played the music for Butterworth, calling it "Hoe Down The Bayou").

* "Concerto For Clarinet": Like many jazzmen of his time: Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington among them, Shaw occasionally produced pieces with titles more commonly associated with classical music; Shaw, however is characteristically modest about this attractively episodic extended piece, composed specially for the film: "I never intended it for posterity...It filled a spot in the picture". It features the use of strings- Shaw's "mice men" as he liked to call them, an innovation he had just begun to incorporate into his big-band compositions - most famously in "Frenesi" - the year before.

* "Hoe Down The Bayou/Poor Mr. Chisholm (dance)": In this ground-breaking "conducting" tap solo Astaire addresses head-on the issue he had approached tentatively in the "I'd Rather Lead a Band" number from Follow the Fleet (1936), namely, how to conduct a band while dancing. The challenge becomes particularly acute when one considers that as a jazz tap artist Astaire was famous for dancing before, after and around the beat. His answer was to choose a swing band used to following the lead of a jazz soloist. The dance begins with Astaire satirising the moves of a conventional symphony orchestra conductor, discarding the baton once he discovers such moves are inadequate to his purpose, indicating the beginning of his tap solo. This solo can be seen as a broadening and deepening of the unaccompanied tap solo section of "I'd Rather Lead a Band", this time covering wide arcs of space with the most complex of syncopated tap link steps, with the orchestra expected to keep up as they would to Shaw's soaring clarinett. In a witty parody of big-band endings Astaire is tossed a trumpet from behind a side curtain and proceeds with a series of sharp turns to camera while miming a wailing trumpet, ending with a sudden slam into place as the music and dance simultaneously vanish.

* "Me And The Ghost Upstairs" (deleted number): Hermes Pan, shrouded in a sheet creeps up on Astaire and begins to mimic him. The two then dance a riotous number involving Lindy lifts and jitterbugging. The only number involving Astaire and Pan - possibly the most important choreographic collaboration in the history of filmed dance - was cut from the final film, but is currently included in some regional DVD versions of the film. It is not really up to Astaire's usual standard, and this, combined with the fact that the figure under the shroud is obviously male, and is also obviously wearing women's high heels, may have strengthened the editor's hand. Hermes Pan regularly featured this footage in his lectures, a practice which has helped ensure its survival.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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