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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Astaire That Was Everywhere In 70's TV/VHS Day

Public Domain Gives Second Chorus (1940) An Encore

Fred Astaire lamented that this was the movie of his that got shown the most often, thanks to its Public Domain status. I could add that Second Chorus is far from Fred's best, even as Blu-Ray now tenders first-quality image off 35mm nitrate, an Astor reissue print with original Paramount titles replaced. Para merely distributed for producer Boris Morros, who was too busy (at international espionage?) to renew copyrights on this and The Flying Deuces with Laurel and Hardy, another independent project he'd put together in 1939. Astaire and swing music seem an uncomfortable fit, as does moody bandleader Artie Shaw, disengaged from silliness around him. Paulette Goddard tends more to plot points than dancing with Fred, a loss for us, as who cares about the story? Paramount's deal with Morris called for financing of Second Chorus (he had formerly been the studio's music director), with the negative to revert to him after general release.

Getting Astaire was a real spike that enabled doubling of budget, the original plan having been for George Murphy (borrowed from Metro) to play the lead. Artie Shaw was a substitute for Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Adding to the independent's worry was Charlie Chaplin stepping in at an eleventh hour to withdraw Paulette Goddard, whose contract he owned. Was CC looking for more money? It's oft-forgot today that Chaplin reaped serious $ loaning his wife among the studios after she clicked in Modern Times. By 1940, Goddard was definitely a star well risen, and a profit center for the Chaplin outfit. Producer Morros took prints of Second Chorus around the country to entice holiday 1940 bookings. A number of these used swing bands as stage accompaniment for the pic, Artie Shaw's group for several key dates. Second Chorus was only the second film Fred Astaire made after leaving RKO. He and Burgess Meredith are double-crossing (each other) pals, a trope you'd think Astaire would have gotten beyond, especially heading into his forties. Vehicles for this artist would run hot/cold through a free-lance career with highs generally at Metro, and lows elsewhere, as with Second Chorus.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

SECOND CHORUS, THE FLYING DEUCES and many other bargain-bin VHS tapes and DVDs were sold by their owners to Commonwealth Film, a road show and (later) TV distribution company that somehow never knew they needed to renew copyrights. POT O' GOLD (1941) was another of theirs, but the most costly (to them) were the dozen Mutual-Chaplin shorts. Once those went P.D. in 1944-45, Commonwealth lost the exclusivity of their most valuable property, for which they held the best elements at the time. Sadly, they were just as negligent at preserving them physically as legally.

5:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Fascinating info, Michael, and occasion for me to again recommend your fine book, "Chaplin's Vintage Year," to GPS readers, it containing ALL the dope on afterlife of CC's Mutual comedy group.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Commonwealth was the 16mm (and later, television) arm of Mort Sikawatt/Sackett's Guaranteed Pictures, one of the many reissue merchants peddling independent releases that weren't owned outright by studios. Guaranteed secured the Chaplin Mutuals from the defunct Van Beuren Corporation in 1941.

THE FLYING DEUCES and SECOND CHORUS were handled by Astor Pictures (Bob Savini), which picked up the reissue rights from Boris Morros in June 1946. Morros was then trying to mount a new production of Victor Herbert's BABES IN TOYLAND, and presumably made the deal with Savini for some fast cash. (Morros's TOYLAND project was never made, and his intended distributor Bob Lippert wound up reissuing Laurel & Hardy's BABES IN TOYLAND instead.)

I like SECOND CHORUS but I could do without the constant backstabbing between Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith -- pals one minute and rivals the next. Astaire did much the same duty opposite Bing Crosby in HOLIDAY INN.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Thanks, John, for the background on how this wound up in all those bargain bins. I remember all the titles of the cheapie LLP VHS tapes ('cause I was suckered into buying most of 'em), and the same titles now comprise the entire catalogues of several freebie-movie Roku channels.

Surprised to hear somebody has done a Blu-Ray -- doesn't being in PD so long disincentivise any restoration?

And does anyone know how two of Hope's Paramounts (They Got Me Covered and Road To Bali) fell into PD? Their inclusion in the bargain bins has always baffled me.


11:39 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Neely, I'm pretty sure that Hope's They Got Me Covered is still protected by copyright. His My Favorite Brunette is in the public domain, though. Maybe that's the one you're thinking of. Brunette was the first of several of his pictures that Hope produced and held the copyrights to, his agreement with Paramount being that rights would eventually revert back to him. In the case of Brunette, he just failed to renew the copyright. Copyright on Road to Bali was shared jointly by Hope and Bing Crosby, and as with My Favorite Brunette, neither man (or his heirs, in Crosby's case) renewed their copyright.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Thank you for the info Randy, and you're absolutely right, I was thinking of My Favorite Brunette, not They Got Me Covered.

And I recently found a copy of My Favorite Brunette that, while hardly a restoration, is at least superior to the bargain bin version we'd been stuck with.

And though it's a lesser effort, I'd love to see a nice clean Bali emerge one day...

Thanks again!

12:08 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I remember Commonwealth distributed the Van Beuren cartoons to TV (some with new animated wrap-arounds under the title "Tales of the Genie"), as well as silent Paul Terrys with music tracked from the Thomas J. Valentino library.

Boris Morros' adventures in espionage were dramatized in the film "Man on a String" with Ernest Borgnine.

11:23 PM  

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