Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Second Chorus (1940)

Continuing our Big Band/Jazz Movie series is this pleasant musical comedy, always a favorite of yours truly.
Second Chorus contains the usual silly Hollywood cliches and an equally silly plot.
However, there is some great music by Artie Shaw, wonderful trumpet playing by Bobby Hackett and Billy Butterfield , the radiant beauty of Paulette Goddard and of course, the always delightful dancing and singing of Fred Astaire.

The slim plot involves Danny (Fred) ,a trumpeter and bandleader and his buddy Hank (Burgess Meredith), also a trumpeter. These two have managed to keep flunking in college to keep the band going. (Fred was 41 and Burgess 32 at the time!). Ellen (Paulette) enters as Band Secretary and object of both boys' affections.
When Artie Shaw steals her away,the boys try to get jobs with Shaw and get involved with eccentric millionaire Mr. Chisolm (Charles Butterworth) who is sponsoring a Shaw concert and yearns to be a Professional Mandolin player! After several silly misadventures, Fred gets the girl and a big solo number in the film's climax. Despite all of this nonsence, we get a lot of good music via Artie, his band and trumpet stand-ins, Bobby Hackett and Billy Butterfield.

Over the years there's been a lot of misinformation on who dubs for who. Bobby plays all of the Meredith solos and Billy dubs for Fred except for on Sugar ,where it's obviously Bobby's mellow tones.
There are some hilarious moments for musicians- On Sweet Sue,(played at a college dance) Fred and Burgess think they're auditioning for Shaw who has actually shown up to hire Paulette (who could blame him!). The ensuing trading of fours features glorious contrasts of the pure,Louis-ish Butterfield horn against the melodic cascades of Bobby(still into his Bix bag at this part of his career). Unfortunately, no one bothered to coach the two actors on fingering a horn-their wild flailings are a riot! (Before Shaw enters there's a bit of a blues with Bobby on lead,then Billy riding over him).

Later they get a chance to audition again at a Shaw gig. Fred chooses Artie's pretty arrangement of I'm Yours. Meredith has sabotaged his part backstage, writing in wrong passages and a wild, atonal held note that Fred thinks belongs in the piece!(this is probably Billy or a studio man) Meredith starts off okay on Lady Be Good (his break is played by Bobby) but is pulled off the band riser by an irate Fred just as he's about to solo! Artie has both trumpeters thrown out!

Astaire himself thought this was one of his worst films.The main problem is that he doesn't get to dance enough. When he does we're suppose to assume that Danny also can dance as good as he plays!
His duet with Paulette on Dig It!(Hal Bourne and Johnny Mercer) is a fun jitterbug routine done at a band rehearsal. (You can spot Fred's collaborator/choreographer Hermes Pan holding a clarinet).
Although Paulette has been listed as one of Fred's worst partners, she does a nice job and it doesn't hurt to have Fred as a partner. Her beauty and great legs also don't hurt a bit.
The production number Me and the Ghost Upstairs was cut from the film, although it survived via a Youtube clip and features some great Fred dancing assisted by Pan as a girl ghost!

We see plenty of Artie's 1940 band featuring Billy Butterfield, Vernon Brown (trombone), Les Robinson (lead alto) and a great rhythm section of Johnny Guarneri(piano), Al Hendrickson(guitar), Jud DeNaut (bass) and Nick Fatool (drums).We hear a good portion of Everything's Jumping played early in the film. Artie also had a full string section who appear on the Concerto for Clarinet sequence. This is the musical highlight of the film. Set in a club during rehearsal we get a good portion of the recorded version featuring Butterfield, Nick Fatool's drumming and Artie's virtuoso clarinet inprovisations on what is basically a blues.

Artie also contributed a lovely composition, Love of my Life with Johnny Mercer's lyrics. Fred sings this song to Paulette during the audition scene. Artie also recorded the tune for Victor that year and years later the New Artie Shaw Orch. conducted by Dick Johnson recorded it. Artie was obviously fond of the tune and it garnered a Best Song Oscar nomination.
The song Poor Mr. Chisolm (Bernie Hanighen and Mercer) is a comical number named after Butterworth's mandolin playing character. It's later used as Fred's big number in the concert finale.

As a sidelight, on Sept. 22, 1940 Fred recorded Dig It, Mr. Chisolm,Love of my Life and Me and the Ghost for Columbia with a fine studio band directed by Perry Botkin (who dubbed Mr. Chisolm's mandolin ramblings). The band consisted of quite a few members of the Hal Kemp Orch. along with such studio pros as Mannie Klein (trumpet), Dick Clark (tenor), Charlie LaVere(piano) and Spike Jones on drums. Spike was still a few years from forming his City Slickers, but uses his famous tuned cowbells on Me and the Ghost.
This selection surfaced on Youtube and has some nice singing by Fred and a politely swinging band. We hope to hear the other sides soon.

Over the years Artie has been lambasted for his acting, but I thought he did a nice job and played himself
without a lot of Hollywood "jive" talk and some humor.He was a very bright, sensitive guy and I'm sure he wanted to present himself as the consumate musician he was.
Paulette Goddard is a delight as a great beauty and works well off the boys. Meredith is a bit corny, but still fun as the eager Hank who tries to best Fred musically and romantically.Butterworth was a fine comic supporting actor but gets a bit too much to do here. His act gets a bit stale after a while. Still the film is good fun and the music saves the day when things get too silly.(Incidentally, Paulette and Meredith must have connected during the filming, they were later married for a time).

Second Chorus is one of many films that ran out of copyright. It has been put out in numerous budget VHS and DVD packages,all usually using an old, grainy print. The recent TV version on GET TV had a beautiful print, so there are pristine prints available.

Till our next Jazz/Big Band film-Keep Swinging!

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