New DVD also includes Ezio Pinza, Lena Horne, and Duke Ellington
“The worst picture I ever worked on.” That was Fred Astaire’s overly sour take on Second Chorus. It’s easy to see why Fred was so grumpy. Instead of starring in a film specifically written for him and featuring songs by Broadway’s greatest composers, he was shoehorned into a role that, except for the dancing, any of a number of other actors could have handled. The sets, while not low budget, were a long way from the art deco masterpieces of Top Hat and Swing Time, not to mention the overripe extravagance of Broadway Melody of 1940. The cast included other strong performers who seemed more likely to compete against him than support him. And he spent more time pretending to play the trumpet than he did dancing.
There are, in fact, only two dances in Second Chorus. Fortunately, they’re both first-rate. In addition, there’s lots of first-rate jazz supplied by clarinetist Artie Shaw and his band. Surprisingly, the script is fresh and clever too, although it runs out of gas towards the end.
Why is Second Chorus so ungainly? Because the film was originally conceived as a vehicle not for Fred but for Artie, whose 1938 recording of “Begin the Beguine” was hugely popular and made him in the eyes of many the new “King of Swing,” dethroning Benny Goodman.1 But things got out of hand, as they so often do in Hollywood. One guesses that Shaw simply couldn’t act, so a plot had to be constructed around him instead of featuring him, with a new cast imported to make it all work. Fred got top billing, along with leading lady Paulette Goddard, most famous as the “gamin” in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.2) Fred’s competitor for Paulette’s affections is Burgess Meredith,3 far more famous today as Mickey in the Rocky films than for his early work.
When the film starts, Fred and Burgess are friendly rivals, trumpet players in a college swing band led by Fred, “Danny O’Neill’s University Perennials,”4 so named because they’re both still students after eight years in college. When they first meet Paulette she turns out to be a process server (they owe a little money), but she’s so damn cute they just don’t care. They sweet talk her into becoming their band’s manager, but such is the power of a babe that she destroys their friendship. Fred maliciously arranges for Burgess to graduate, so that he can have Paulette all to himself.5 Paulette smells a mouse somewhere about the house, but Fred woos her in an excellent song-and-dance number, “I Ain’t Hep to That Step, but I’ll Dig It.”6
Goddard’s so sexy in this dance that, frankly, we don’t miss Ginger at all. Unfortunately, Fred and Paulette don’t get together on the dance floor again.7
Most of the rest of the film is taken up by a contest of oneupsmanship between Fred and Burgess to win Paulette’s hand, which only serves to alienate her from both of them. She takes a new job managing Artie Shaw’s band and helps Artie achieve his dream of a “jazz symphony.”8 Much of the infighting between Fred and Burgess is quite funny – both actors seem to have a good time playing petty, self-important men about town – although the script really can’t tie up all the loose ends in time for Fred’s big number,9 which serves as the film’s climax.
Fortunately, the number (officially known as “Poor Mr. Chisholm”10) makes up for any number of faults, displaying Astaire’s fondness for taking a physical activity from real life and gradually transforming it into dance. Fred starts out as the conductor of the band, elegantly gesturing as the strings swoop through an out-of-tempo introduction. His “conducting” broadens to the point that he is more or less mimicking the music, entering into a world of pantomime, half reality and half art. He’s still bound to the music. He can only dance when the music lets him. As the tension builds, he ultimately bursts the bounds of reality entirely and takes control of the dance, dashing off a brilliantly flowing tap routine with effortless nonchalance.
But wait, there’s more
Second Chorus is one of the two Astaire films on which the copyright has expired. It’s available on DVD with another expiree, Mr. Imperium, a truly bizarre 1951 musical starring Ezio Pinza and Lana Turner. Pinza, a longtime star with the Metropolitan Opera, achieved national fame opposite Mary Martin in South Pacific, which opened on Broadway in 1949. Presumably, he was paid big bucks to take time off and star in this Technicolor turkey, playing a roguish Italian prince who woos Lana, painfully miscast as an innocent, small-town gal from Texas. The producers hired Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields to write the songs, but they sure didn’t get their money’s worth, because none of the four is a keeper. The Italian scenery is terrific, but nothing else in the film is worth looking at.
Black and Tan, a dramatically absurd but musically invaluable 1929 short, gives us a taste of Ellington when he first became famous, through his nightly broadcasts from the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was a singular fraud, invented in the twenties to give white tourists a taste of Harlem without having to undergo the inconvenience of actually meeting any black people.11 Nonetheless, it allowed Ellington and many other black performers to reach a national audience, which is almost sufficient penance for its sins.
The short starts with Ellington and trumpeter Arthur Whetsel playing a famous early Ellington number, “The Black and Tan Fantasy,” which Ellington co-wrote with trumpeter Bubber Miley.12) Ellington always cited Miley as one of the musicians who taught him about the ability of music to express human passion (the other was Sidney Bechet), and the number seems to have had a particular significance for Ellington, for he recorded it over and over again.13
Black and Tan also contains “dancing” by Fredi Washington and a number of other Cotton Club dancing girls. The Cotton Club dancers were really showgirls dressed up in exotic costumes that catered to white fantasies about black women. They were expected to throw their bodies around in a manner suggestive of “darkest Africa,” although their performances have nothing to do with the art of black Africa and everything to do with the neuroses of white America.14
Boogie-Woogie Dream is similarly absurd and invaluable, and also not quite as racist. Today, Lena Horne is so famous for being Lena Horne that we forget what a wonderful singer she was. Viewers who are only familiar with Horne as a frozen-faced diva are in for a surprise when they see her as a joyous young woman, singing in the company of boogie-woogie masters Ammons and Johnson, as well as Teddy Wilson and his band.
Despite an extensive sound track, Second Chorus only introduced three new songs, and two of them were essentially novelty numbers. Astaire recorded them anyway, along with a fourth song, “Me and the Ghost Upstairs,” which was cut from the film. They’re available on the Columbia double CD Presenting Fred Astaire.
“Fredastaire.net” is a near-exhaustive site dedicated to Fred that even includes Fred Astaire jokes! (Just one, actually.)
If the four songs from Mr. Imperium were ever recorded, I’m not aware of it.
The world of Duke Ellington is so large, it’s difficult to know where to start. The “Rude Interlude” site maintained by Robb Holmes seems to be the best source available on the web. (A frustrating number of Ellington web sites have gone dead.)
Lena Horne is seen to great advantage in the 1941 film Stormy Weather, which also starred Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers. For more information on Lena, check out this link.
Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons helped start a boogie-woogie craze when they appeared in the great “Spirituals to Swing” concerts organized in 1937 and 1938 by John Hammond. Both concerts are now available in their entirety in a wonderful three-CD set available from Vanguard.
Teddy Wilson was best-known to the public as the pianist in Benny Goodman’s small groups, and his work is available on many Goodman CDs. However, his greatest contribution to jazz came as pianist and musical director of the numerous small-group sessions organized in support of Billie Holiday in the late thirties. These sessions, recorded for Columbia, have been reissued on CD in their entirety by several companies.
The Second Chorus/Mr. Imperium DVD is produced by Slingshot Entertainment, one of several companies that specialize in offering budget versions of uncopyrighted material. These companies tend to compete on price, which means that little money is spent on restoration. The sound and picture quality for Second Chorus are no more than adequate. A faint but persistent hiss is audible on the soundtrack. Picture and sound for Mr. Imperium are both great, although the film is essentially unwatchable. Picture quality for the two shorts is not very good, but the sound isn’t bad.
The Cotton Club has been revived, apparently at the original address of 42nd Street and Lenox Avenue. For information, go here.
- Shaw was an exceedingly temperamental performer, quitting music a number of times and forming and discarding five different bands. He also had five wives, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. He quit jazz for good in 1954 and is still alive today, recently appearing in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on jazz. [↩]
- Properly, it should be “gamine,” but Chaplin didn’t know any more French than I do and was even more resistant to criticism. Goddard was a remarkable character. Before she came to Hollywood she worked as a shill for a high-stakes gambler on trans-Atlantic cruises, picking up sugar daddies and delivering them for the plucking. Her greatest accomplishment was not her film career but becoming Chaplin’s third wife. (Quite possibly, they were not ever legally married, but they lived together as man and wife throughout the thirties, and Goddard got a nice settlement when they separated. She was certainly the only woman who ever got the better of Chaplin. [↩]
- Meredith and Goddard clearly liked what they saw of each other on the set of Second Chorus, because they got married in 1944 (it lasted four years). Meredith’s career suffered in the fifties because the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t like his attitude, but he came back strong, in film and TV, and on Broadway (in 1960 he won a Tony for helping to bring “A Thurber Carnival” to the stage). As he grew older, Meredith’s husky voice acquired an unctuous tone that I personally found loathsome but which won him endless voiceover gigs. Meredith, who won a lot of fame in the sixties as “the Penguin” in the Batman TV series, had a definite flair for the offbeat. In 1970 he directed and starred in The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, the only film to feature both Broderick Crawford and Liv Lindelind (the first Playmate to show pubic hair – but you already knew that). In 1987 he appeared as “Don Learo” in King Lear, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, working from a script Godard wrote with Norman Mailer. The film also featured Godard as “Professor Pluggy,” Woody Allen as “Mr. Alien,” Norman and Katherine Mailer as “themselves,” and Molly Ringwald as “Cordelia.” [↩]
- Fred’s trumpet work is dubbed by Bobby Hackett, while Burgess’ is done by Billy Butterfield. Both were excellent swing trumpeters. [↩]
- Fred’s performance has a definite edge to it. His Danny O’Neill is a good-natured guy who likes to have a good time but also likes to come in first. If that means giving his best friend an occasional elbow in the ribs, so be it. [↩]
- By the late forties, it was seriously unhip to say “hep.” Hepcats, who listened to swing, gave way to hipsters, who listened to modern jazz. [↩]
- It’s not clear why, but maybe she didn’t like Fred’s obsessive rehearsing. [↩]
- There were lots of “jazz symphonies” in the thirties, and this one is typical, consisting of alternate swatches of saccharine strings and good jazz. Big band composers and arrangers simply did not know how to write for strings, but insisted on doing so because violins were “class.” Shaw, more pretentious than most, started using violins quite early in his career, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Once the strings shut up, the band shifts to a boogie-woogie beat and things go better. [↩]
- At the end of the film, Paulette simply pronounces Fred worthy of her: “You’ve changed so amazingly in the last week I’ve decided to make you my manager.” [↩]
- “Mr. Chisholm” is a hepcat wannabe played by Charles Butterfield who hopes to break into show business playing jazz mandolin. Fred uncharitably writes a song that ridicules the old man – “you disgrace your kin on the mandolin every time.” [↩]
- Please do not see The Cotton Club, Francis Ford Coppola’s wretched film, which is even more exploitative of blacks than the real Cotton Club. [↩]
- “Black and tans” were nightclubs that accepted both black and white customers. (The Cotton Club was not a black and tan. [↩]
- Miley, who was extremely unreliable, only stayed in the Ellington band a short time. Ellington used a variety of trumpeters to handle the growl trumpet lead created by Miley. As we see in the film, growl trumpet involves the use of both a regular mute and a rubber plunger held over the trumpet’s bell to vary the tone. We also see growl trombone in Black and Tan, played in a long shot by “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who was a famous part of the Ellington sound for many years. [↩]
- To further cater to white obsessions, the Cotton Club girls had to have very light skins, but not so light that they actually looked “white.” It is one of the unsung triumphs of the nineties that the infamous “one drop of blood” theory has actually disappeared. Many Cotton Club girls would not be considered “black” today. [↩]