'Second Chorus' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you H.C. potter's 1940 musical comedy, "Second Chorus," starring Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith as college trumpeters who convince a bill collector to start booking them shows. Trouble arises when the two friends start getting booked against the famed Artie Shaw, and they vie for the affection of their agent, played by Paulette Goddard. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Second Chorus" on January 3, 1941.

When Fred Astaire was first partnered with Ginger Rogers in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio," he had reservations about whether or not it was a wise career move.

The reason?

Only two years earlier, Fred's sister and long-time dancing partner, Adele, retired from show business to marry a British aristocrat. The pair had been dancing together since they were kids.

Here's Fred and Adele Astaire in a publicity photo from 1906 when he was just 7-years-old:

They became a dynamite vaudeville act, then a Broadway tandem in shows like George and Ira Gershwin's "Funny Face," helping to put that pair of siblings on the musical theatre map.

Fred took Adele's retirement hard. He was determined to move to Hollywood and prove that he could make it as a solo act. Astaire and Rogers were only cast as minor characters in "Flying Down to Rio," but their dance number was an audience favorite and the film was a hit at the box office.

The rest is history. Moviegoers in the 1930s flocked to see Rogers and Astaire dance as a relief from the economic woes of the Great Depression. The duo appeared in nine more films together and became one of the most iconic on-screen couples in cinema history.

This is a scene from their 1936 film, "Swing Time":

But only a year later, "A Damsel in Distress" was the first of their movies to lose money. By 1939, Astaire and Rogers were arguing over studio fees and decided to go separate ways. They wouldn't appear together on screen again until 1949's "The Barkleys of Broadway."

So when 1941's "Second Chorus" came along, Astaire was once again at a crossroads in his career. With his RKO contract up, Astaire again tried to redefine his persona after losing a partner. His fame allowed him to keep making movies, so he worked at several studios and with many different leading ladies including Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell and Paulette Goddard, whom he starred with in "Second Chorus."

While his career was in flux, Astaire's personal life was stable. He married socialite Phyllis Baker Potter shortly before moving to Hollywood in 1933, and the couple had two children together, Fred Jr. and Ava. The couple remained married until Potter succumbed to cancer in 1954.

Here's Fred and Ava Astaire at her debutante ball in 1959 alongside Anthony Quinn and his daughter, Catalina:

Take a closer look back:

Astaire and Rogers weren't the only ones going through bitter contract disputes in World War II-era Hollywood.

In 1941, the A.F.L. Screen Cartoon Guild went on strike at Walt Disney Studios. Its members were angry that Disney wasn't a union operation. The bitter strike became even nastier when Walt Disney sent photos of certain picketers to the House Un-American Activities Committee claiming they were communists. The federal government eventually settled the strike while Disney was out of the country, forcing the studio to employ union workers.

Here's a photo of the striking cartoonists in 1941:

Click here to read previous installment of Classic Cool Context.


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