|Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard, and Burgess Meredith.|
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 absolutely delightful Charles Butterworth.|
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.