The Bootleg Files: Second Chorus

BOOTLEG FILES 832: “Second Chorus” (1940 musical comedy with Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

Not likely, although in theory there could be a rescue it from public domain hell.

In 1968, Fred Astaire returned to films after a six-year absence to star in the big-budget musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” In the media push for the film, Astaire was asked by a reporter which one of his film’s was his worst – the star stated without pause that the 1940 “Second Chorus” was the low point of his career.

In retrospect, one could argue that Astaire spoke too soon. “Finian’s Rainbow” was an erratic endeavor with a young Francis Ford Coppola (in his first big-budget Hollywood movie) creating reverse alchemy in spinning 70mm lead from Broadway gold. “Second Chorus,” in comparison, was a modest but forgettable film that emerged as a mild distraction instead of the attention-grabbing hit it should have been.

“Second Chorus” certainly had a lot going for it. Besides Astaire, the cast included Paulette Goddard (who almost snagged the Scarlett O’Hara role in “Gone with the Wind” and was on a career upswing), Burgess Meredith and bandleader Artie Shaw. Behind the camera was director H.C. Potter – who would follow up this film with the surrealist comedy masterpiece “Hellzapoppin’” – and choreographer Hermes Pan. Producing the film was Boris Morros, a mysterious Russian-born character who transitioned from being a musical director to producing the Laurel and Hardy comedy “The Flying Deuces” in 1939. Morros took on “Second Chorus” as an independent endeavor for release by Paramount Pictures.

So, what went wrong? “Second Chorus” wasn’t supposed to be a musical comedy. According to Artie Shaw biographer John White, the film’s script was written with the decidedly non-musical John Garfield as its leading man, but Morros wanted to helm an Astaire vehicle and the script was rewritten to accommodate him.

But even by the low standards of the 1940s musical comedy, the story for “Second Chorus” was absurd. Astaire and Meredith play college students who repeatedly flunk each semester but stay in school so they can perform in a college band – Astaire was 41 and Meredith was 33 when the film was made, and they clearly look their ages. During one of their band performances, a pretty audience member (Paulette Goddard) catches their attention – only to serve them with a summons notice to collect a debt for an encyclopedia set they never paid for.

Through a series of twists and turns that could only exist in the world of musical comedy, Astaire and Meredith get Goddard fired from her job and hire her to be their manager. She is so good at booking their band that Artie Shaw is concerned that he is losing gigs to this unlikely group – so Shaw hires her. But when she tries to get Astaire and Meredith jobs with Shaw, they sabotage each other’s efforts – and the remainder of the film finds them trying to get into Shaw’s good graces and to win Goddard’s heart.

On its own terms, “Second Chorus” is a standard-issue entertainment that was churned out back in the day – a happy distraction with some tunes and laughs that filled the gap between the newsreel and the second feature. The problem with the film – and one reason why it is not fondly recalled today – is because of Astaire. After coming off a skein of champagne and caviar features at RKO opposite Ginger Rogers, “Second Chorus” feels like a soda pop and pretzels offering. You expect better from Astaire, but he rarely has the chance to go full-throttle here.

The relatively few dance numbers in “Second Chorus” are not memorable. Astaire and Goddard did one dance number together, even though she was not a dancer. Goddard would recall she rehearsed five weeks for a mix of then-trendy dance moves under the song “”I Ain’t Hep to That Step But I’ll Dig It” – and their number was captured in a single take on the first go-round. Astaire dialed down much of his dance power so as not to overpower Goddard, a graceful act that he would repeat several times later in his career with female performers who did not rise to his level.

Astaire’s two other dance numbers included the mock-Russian “Kamarinskaya” where did Cossack-style moves and sang in Russian – actually, Morros dubbed his Russian lyrics, marking the only time that Astaire’s singing was dubbed. Astaire also danced while conducting Shaw’s band in the climactic “Concerto for Clarinet,” which might have been one of his most uninspired dance numbers. A fourth dance number called “Me and the Ghost Upstairs,” where Hermes Pan wore a white sheet to dance with Astaire, was cut from the film, although the footage miraculously survives – and when watching it, you can see why this uninspired and silly interlude was scissored out.

Astaire wasn’t the only one unhappy with “Second Chorus” – Artie Shaw thought the film was going to launch him into an acting career, but the script changed against his favor and he had a dismal relationship with director Potter. As a result, Shaw never acted in films after “Second Chorus.” The only ones who seemed to come away from “Second Chorus” happy were Goddard and Meredith – they married in 1944 but divorced five years later.

“Second Chorus” snagged two Oscar nominations – for the song “Love of My Life” by Shaw and Johnny Mercer and for Best Scoring by Shaw – but did not win in either category. Morros would later be exposed as a double agent who was initially employed by Stalin’s KGB but later joined J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to spy on his Moscow comrades, and that was funnier than anything that passed for humor in his films.

As for “Second Chorus,” Paramount would later license the film to low-rent Astor Pictures for a theatrical re-release and ultimately forget to renew its copyright in 1968 – the year of “Finian’s Rainbow” – thus dooming the movie to the public domain, where it circulated for years in lousy prints (mostly from the Astor re-release). The film could be saved from this state if the copyright owners of Shaw’s music score stood up for their material. But this has yet to happen.

If you’re curious, you can find “Second Chorus” on YouTube or a multitude of public domain DVD labels. There are worse ways to spend your time…and, yes, there are also better ways.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.