Despite his love for it, James Cagney didn’t get to sing and dance a whole lot in the movies. Warners wanted him to be a gangster and nothing but with very few exceptions. So of course when Cagney got the chance to be a song-and-dance man, he ran, uh, danced with it. One of those chances was during Cagney’s indie period, when he did a couple of films for Grand National Pictures. The second of those movies was 1937’s Something To Sing About, a low-budget navel-gazer that probably ruffled a few executive feathers. Or it would have if the film wasn’t so danged fun.
Terry Rooney (James Cagney) is a successful bandleader who’s bound for Hollywood, where there’s a film contract waiting for him. Everyone is sad to see him go, but he promises to be back in two weeks, and at the sendoff party, Terry gets engaged to his lady love, Rita (Evelyn Daw), so the evening ends on a high note.
Once off the train in Hollywood, Terry is met by the Eddie Mannix character of the film, Hank (William Frawley), who whisks him off to Galor Studio, where he meets the president, Bennett O. “B.O.” Regan (Gene Lockhart). Wherever your brain goes with that “B.O.” bit, just roll with it. Whether you think of body odor or box office, it begs to be snickered at. Anywhoo…
Right off the bat, B.O. thinks Terry is arrogant and needs to be remade into a star, so he brings in diction coach, Mr. Farney (Marek Windheim), makeup artist, Mr. Easton (Dwight Frye) and wardrobe man, Mr. Daviani (Johnny Arthur), or as Hank calls them, “Grief, Trouble, and Worry.”
Terry regards the star-making machine with bemused annoyance. His eyebrows are fine. He won’t wear a widow’s peak, thank you very much. Besides those dictums, he’s pretty docile. Farney wants his vowels to be pear-shaped, and Terry dutifully repeats his lesson while getting fitted for a suit and sitting in the barber’s chair: “The duke blew on his hunting horn and laughed ‘Ha, ha,’ when the hounds came running.”
After a hard day in Tinseltown, Terry meets his valet, Ito (Philip Ahn), who starts out bowing and scraping in broken English but who quickly drops the charade. Ito is a former actor who couldn’t make it because no one knew what to do with him and his perfect diction. Thrilled to discover a friend, Terry invites Ito to join him for dinner, but Ito has a date with a young lady. They’re going to get wienerschnitzel.
Soon it’s time to shoot Terry’s new movie, and he’s not the most willing participant. His first scene has him dressed as a merchant seaman and fighting in a bar brawl, but soon he throws punches for real. The director and the crew are horrified; Ito is delighted, and Terry is fed up, but not enough to quit. He misses his band like no one’s business, Rita in particular.
What would a stint in Hollywood be without a Hollywood romance? Read: a highly tweaked and faked romance. Right when Terry has Rita come out to California for a visit, the studio cooks up a liason for him with his costar, exotic diva Steffie Hayos (Mona Barrie), with a little assist by the Hedda Hopper of our little play, Miss Amy Robbins (Kathleen Lockhart). Steffie turns up her nose at Terry at first, but as she sees he’s going to be a big star, she goes along with the ersatz romance.
That all can wait, though, because once the movie wraps, Terry and Rita sneak up to San Francisco, where they get married and spend their honeymoon on a freighter. There’s lots of raucous guys, plenty of music, cats fighting (with mittens on, natch), and most importantly, privacy.
Back in Hollywood, Hank and B.O. are frantic. As far as they’re concerned, Terry’s disappeared to goodness knows where, but on the plus side, it’s a natural publicity angle for the studio. Much to everyone’s relief, Terry and Rita come back just in time for Terry to find out his movie is a big hit.
Unfortunately, though, Terry and Rita getting married is a problem for the studio. Terry can’t possibly be happily married and a desirable leading man at the same time, so the studio gives Rita a sham job as Terry’s secretary. Terry squires Steffie to various Hollywood functions, and meanwhile tries living his real life with Rita at a cute little hideaway cottage.
How does it all work out? As well as can be expected in a place where nothing is real and everything has to give.
Cagney made Something To Sing About during a contract dispute with Warner Bros. In 1937 he was already a major star, and he thought the studio was working him way too much for what he was getting paid. He not only walked out, but sued.
The film had a budget of $450,000 and included some topflight talent. Besides Cagney, Fred Astaire was an uncredited dance instructor, and Johnny Boyle and Harland Dixon, Cagney’s buddies from vaudeville, danced with him in the freighter scene. According to TCM, Boyle had worked with one George M. Cohan for several years and passed on what he learned to Cagney. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Something To Sing About suffered the fate of many indie films, especially during the studio era; a low budget and even lower advertising and distribution options. Grand National didn’t have a lot of capital anyway, and this film about broke them despite mixed reviews. Even today the film is a low-budget wonder, residing in public domain limbo and widely available in media of various quality. Why did the film get meh’d? Well, critics seemed to think Cagney wasn’t quite himself. Ann Ross of Maclean’s, for example, said that for the majority of the movie Cagney was “softer” and “not always convincing.”
I have to disagree with Ms. Ross. Given the circumstances, Cagney’s not that bad here, and he plays himself–scrappy, determined, with a fine hand at comedy and able to switch between all of his best qualities as an actor without batting an eye. It’s not a terribly deep part for him, but it’s a treat to watch him dance, and he must have taken sly pleasure in poking fun at an industry he only worked in because he needed a job. Farming was his first love. Well, farming and his wife, Billie.
Anyway, Cagney’s flight of independence was a brief one, as Warner Bros. hired him back to make Angels With Dirty Faces, a property that, coincidentally, was acquired from the struggling Grand National. Cagney made $150,000 for that film and further cemented himself as a formidable actor who was equal parts class and moxie.
Something to Sing About is incredibly dated, especially the Ito accent thing and the catfighting scene. It might be Cagney lite, but it’s still a fun look at an unique time in his Hollywood experience, as well as a great example of what was being done in Hollywood outside of the studio leviathans.
Tomorrow is National Classic Movie Day, so I hope you’ll come back tomorrow to see how the blogosphere is celebrating. Thanks for reading, all…
Something to Sing About is available on DVD from Amazon.