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Second Fiddle

Second Fiddle(1939)

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teaser Second Fiddle (1939)

The list of professional and amateur athletes that have sought to forge a second career as a movie performer runs somewhat longer than the list of those that actually made a go of it. After Esther Williams, the next most successful that comes to mind is Sonja Henie, the three-time Olympic gold medalist figure skater from Norway who headlined assorted popular Fox vehicles from the late thirties to the mid-forties. These slight but profitable projects understandably leaned less on Henie's acting skills than her natural charisma, and the readiness to have her lace up her blades at the first opportunity. Representative of her star run is Second Fiddle (1939), which cast her for the second time opposite onetime paramour Tyrone Power.

The springboard for the story is premised in a dig at producer David O. Selznick's much-hyped casting hunt for Scarlett O'Hara. Jimmy Sutton (Power), a young flack for Consolidated Pictures, has been tasked with promoting the studio's search for the ideal lead to anchor its anticipated adaptation of Girl of the North. His first assignment is to track down and interview one of the many unknowns that applied: Trudi Hovland (Henie), a schoolteacher from a tiny Minnesota town. He has to bring all of his charm to bear in order to convince Trudi's overprotective Aunt Phoebe (Edna May Oliver) that Hollywood isn't the snake pit she believes it to be. With her aunt's blessing, the skating schoolmarm flies westward for a screen test--and sticks the landing, winning the part.

Jimmy's next assignment is to ballyhoo the actual production, and he does so by fabricating a blossoming romance between Trudi and her leading man, Roger Maxwell (Rudy Vallee). Unfortunately, Trudi is the only one who doesn't realize that it's all a trump-up, believing the flowers and love notes to be genuine. Jimmy, for his part, has grown smitten, and is pouring his soul into his Maxwell-signed epistles. When she learns that it's merely been an angle, the heartbroken Trudi storms back home, intent on marrying long-suffering boyfriend Willie (Lyle Talbot). Of course, the completed film is a smash, and the studio heads tell Jimmy to go and bring her back under contract, or not come back at all.

Ironically enough, by the time Second Fiddle went before the cameras, the studio-encouraged and -touted romance between Henie and Power--from the time of their first pairing in Thin Ice (1937)--had run its course. Biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles stated in Tyrone Power: The Last Idol that "It was difficult in the Hollywood of that day to tell the real from the fake, even among some of Tyrone's friends...Sonja was headed for a major disillusionment. Tyrone was a congenial, attentive escort in whom love seemed to have no existence." The songs provided by Irving Berlin for the soundtrack don't rank amongst his most memorable, but "I Poured My Heart Into a Song" wound up procuring Second Fiddle its one Oscar® nomination.

Producers: Gene Markey, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Screenplay: Harry Tugend (writer); George Bradshaw (story)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Richard Day, Hans Peters
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge, David Raksin (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Sonja Henie (Trudi Hovland), Tyrone Power (Jimmy Sutton), Rudy Vallee (Roger Maxwell), Edna May Oliver (Aunt Phoebe), Mary Healy (Jean Varick), Lyle Talbot (Willie Hogger), Alan Dinehart (George 'Whit' Whitney), Minna Gombell (Jenny), Stewart Reburn (Skating Partner), Spencer Charters (Joe Clayton).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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