Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Second Chorus (1940)

Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard, and Burgess Meredith.
The world of classic cinema is full of buried treasure. How many times have I watched a film only to wonder how it could have slipped under my radar for so many years? Suddenly this little movie I'd never heard of a week earlier I now can't imagine living without. That's the dream of course, and we do find them every now and then, but in spite of these rare fantastic discoveries, we don't really go scuba diving looking for sunken ships. We go diving to see the fish, or the way the sunlight dapples the water, or the coral formations. We go diving to see what we can see. We marvel over what our favorite performers did before or after they found or lost their stride, silent actors in talkies, strange experiments that didn't work.

Second Chorus is no life changing discovery, but while it belies the substantial talent of its principals, there's definitely enough punch left in the performances to make it an entertaining hour and a half. The script is far too weak to support the weight of its cast. There's not much of a plot, far too little music and almost no dancing,  and hardly any acting required from anyone involved. This may actually be something of an advantage for Fred Astaire and Artie Shaw, but the lovely Paulette Goddard and a shockingly young Burgess Meredith could have easily filled out more substantial roles, and character actor Charles Butterworth could, I am convinced, play anything you put in front of him.

Big Band films proliferated in the early 40's, and Artie Shaw was well set up to have a starring vehicle after his spectacular successes of the late 30's. This is not that film. Artie Shaw and his orchestra function in Second Chorus much like Baby the Leopard in Bringing Up Baby. The plot revolves around him, but you could also tweak the script a little so he never had to appear on camera and it wouldn't really change it much. The music sequences, such as they are, are neither well-filmed nor well-integrated, so they simultaneously do not seem to belong in the film and are not interesting enough in themselves to justify their inclusion on their own merits. The sounds Shaw milks out of a clarinet are stunning as usual, but need more visual punch in the stagings to hold them up on screen, and in this case it just isn't there.

Astaire himself cited Second Chorus  as his personal least favorite of his films, and while I haven't seen all of them yet, I imagine he wasn't far off. He plays a small-time college band leader, which sounds promising enough to start with. Personally I am really only prepared to accept Astaire in about four different types of roles: dancer, band leader, producer/promoter, or millionaire playboy. Anything too far beyond this falls a bit flat, like his abysmally unprofessional psychiatrist in Carefree. Of course, no one watches Fred Astaire to see him act, but unfortunately that's about all he does in Second Chorus. He has a paltry two dance numbers, in one of which we are expected to believe that he is simultaneously tap dancing, conducting an orchestra, and playing the trumpet, but even setting aside the plot holes it's a weak performance compared to almost any Astaire solo dance. "I've Got My Eye on You" from Broadway Melody of 1940, which was made the same year, shames this number to hell in a hand basket.

Fred and Paulette, having fun.
The other dance number in Second Chorus, however, is something rather special. It's a spontaneous little swing number with Paulette, who looks adorably leggy in a short flippy skirt. Certainly the technical difficulty is nothing much. Paulette is a charming actress and a very capable dancer, but set against Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse or even Judy Garland, her steps just don't stack up. But there's more going on here than just the steps. The pair twirl and tap around the set with an ease and fluency that make it a delight to watch. On top of this, the routine has a wry comic note to it, without being outright funny, that I have never seen Astaire quite hit with any of his partners after Ginger, but it was a big part of what made that pairing the stuff of legend. It sort of makes you think of all the films that could have been if anyone had had the foresight to see what seems so obvious to me now.

The absolutely delightful Charles Butterworth.
While I'm here, a nod of deepest respect is due to Charles Butterworth, for his performance as the music-loving, (talentless) mandolin-playing bottle cap magnate. His character is of course ridiculous, but Butterworth carries the role with dignity and somehow keeps him from being pathetic, reminding me somewhat of an aging Buster Keaton. There's nothing special or interesting about the part, but the performance is spectacular, and he all but steals the show.

Sometimes you really do find buried gold, but more often what you see is just a flicker of light and shadow, beautiful for a moment, but insubstantial. Second Chorus is by any objective criteria a terrible film, but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching.

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