Fred Astaire reportedly considered Second Chorus his worst film, and after seeing it I have to agree. Other lesser films like Belle of New York, Let's Dance and Yolanda and the Thief were wildly uneven films but had some great moments between them and utilised Astaire's talents better. Second Chorus is far from a terrible film, but it should have been much better and Astaire fans may find themselves short-changed.
Astaire does have the least likable character in his whole career in Second Chorus and he was too old to pass for a flunking college student, but he does make a real effort to bring to the role his usual poise and charm. His dancing is superb, especially in the dancing and conducting the orchestra number Poor Mr Chisholm and the Russian Café Number, though generally there was not enough of his dancing talent in this film, and is charmingly tender in the Academy Award-nominated Love of My Life. Artie Shaw is no great shakes as an actor, but his performing and musical talent cannot be denied and is brilliantly put on display here, especially in the fascinating fantasia Concerto for Clarinet, which has never been performed more excitingly than with Shaw. Paulette Goddard has very little to work with mostly is not the best of dancers, a contender for Astaire's worst partner in this regard, but she looks entrancing and some of her comic timing amuses, would have done even more if the material was stronger.
Second Chorus has some nice songs (if nowhere near the most memorable score in an Astaire film), especially Poor Mr Chisholm and Love of my Life, and a whimsical and suitably energetic incidental score. Choreographically, it's not the most inspired but it's far from leaden or amateurish either, while it is not classic Astaire Poor Mr Chisholm is a lot of fun and I Dig It is cleverly choreographed and charmingly danced (even if Paulette Goddard's inexperience as a dancer does show at times here but her personality shines). The 'completely re-written' trumpet solo scene makes for some delicious comedy, the only scene in the film that I found really funny. A large part of me does wish that Me and the Ghost Upstairs was kept in the film, it is a delightful scene and would have been the clear highlight if kept intact, a number so good that it deserved more than just being featured on regional DVDs.
Charles Butterworth does bring some pleasing whimsy to his role and is the one character that we feel a small amount of sympathy towards, but mostly the comedy is not very well-written in Second Chorus and even Butterworth struggles in making it funny and some of his humour grates. Burgess Meredith was an immense talent, but here is a role that doesn't do it justice. Meredith is occasionally amusing here in a role where his sense of comedy is not very well-used but his character is even more loathsome and irritatingly grating than Astaire's, another victim of not-so-good writing, and anybody who knows him from his numerous villain roles will find it very difficult to shake off that feeling here.
While there is nothing wrong with the music, singing and dancing, there should have been much more of them. It didn't feel enough and occurred too far and between, not a complete waste of Astaire's talents but not giving them anywhere near the amount of justice they should have done. Second Chorus is not a very well-written film, the comedy- with the exception of that one scene- grates far more than it should have sparkled, and the characters fail to be interesting and are very difficult to engage or empathise with, with the small exception of Mr Chisholm. Apart from the I Dig It number, the chemistry between Astaire and Goddard is lacking, it charms in that number but comes across as forced everywhere else, and surprisingly the chemistry between Astaire and Meredith is even flatter and lacks snap, some of it even juvenile in their attempts to sabotage each other. The production values are rather harsh and lacking in crispness and further disadvantaged by some pretty bad to dreadful regional DVD quality, with a lot of murk and jitter and some hissy sound quality. Where Second Chorus most falls down is in the wafer-thin and often insultingly ridiculous story, with pacing that was in serious need of a sharp kick sometimes and the ending is a little confused.
To conclude, a not terrible but lacklustre film where it is easy to see why Astaire would consider it his weakest. But even lesser or off-form Astaire is still watchable, and you can do with far worse. 5/10 Bethany Cox