Monday, October 17, 2016

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT" (1937)

Judging solely by its plot, Something to Sing About isn't much to sing about. New York bandleader Terry Rooney is promised movie stardom by Galor Pictures. Temporarily leaving his fiance/band singer Rita Wyatt back East, Rooney falls victim to studio machinations and a manipulative press. 

Even when Rita marries him in Hollywood, contractual obligations force her to pretend that she's Rooney's personal secretary. Some men would prefer their wives to at least pretend they can cook.

Further bollixing their marriage is studio diva Stephanie Hajos, who tells a gossip columnist that she and Rooney are engaged. A heartbroken Rita goes back to New York. When Rooney realizes that he's become a patsy in his road to fame, he joins Rita back at the New York bandstand. 

Your average game of Chutes & Ladders probably provides more suspense. That's why it's necessary to go behind the scenes to the making of the picture, and discover just how fascinating the unjustly neglected Something to Sing About really is. 


Cagney jumps for joy when he tells Jack Warner
to shove it.
In 1936, James Cagney, feeling underpaid and misused by home studio Warner Brothers, became a free agent He was quickly signed to Grand National Pictures in a bid by the studio to rise above its poverty row status. Something to Sing About was Cagney's second and final Grand National production before returning to Warners, proving you can go home again if you're offered $150,000 per picture plus script approval and profit sharing.

While offering Cagney plenty of dance numbers, Something to Sing About lacks the familiar, welcoming faces you'd look forward to from a Warners musical -- Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Una Merkel, Hugh Herbert, Ruby Keeler, and about a dozen or two more. 


Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think these three
actors would appear in the same scene.



The only recognizable supporting actors Something to Sing About offers are William "Fred Mertz" Frawley as the Galor Pictures press agent, and Dwight Frye (the evil sidekicks in Dracula and Frankenstein) as a snippy make-up artist who, at the time, would have been described as a "swish." (LGBTQS, perhaps?)

Also missing are memorable songs, which is unfortunate if you're making, you know, a musical, along with the overall glitz and polish you'd find in a Warners picture. It's rather strange, in fact, to see an A+ actor like James Cagney in what looks like a PRC movie -- which makes sense since PRC took over the Grand National studio three years later. 


"Oh, my secretary always makes out with me after work."
What Something to Sing About does offer, however, is a brutal takedown of the studio system Cagney wanted to escape. In order to keep his character, Terry Rooney, in line, Galor Pictures does everything it can to make him think he's a no-talent nobody whose movie career will be over before it even begins. Studio peons mock him behind his back. His marriage is kept under wraps so female fans aren't jealous.

Even contract players are eager to see him fail, with one stunt man refusing to pull his punches during a fight scene. Cagney must have found that bit particularly cathartic, since it allowed his character to not only fight back, but literally destroy the set, and throw bricks at the director and tech crew. You've wanted to do that work at least once, right?

The Asian guy speaks better English
than Cagney.
Yet the most interesting scene involves Rooney's Asian servant Ito, played by Philip Ahn. Ito is initially presented as the usual humble, pidgin-English gofer. Only when feeling comfortable around Rooney does he admit, with perfect, non-accented diction, that he wanted to be an actor, but no studio would hire him because of his race. This, too, must have been cathartic for the Korean-American Ahn, who was forced into stereotypical Asian roles for most of his career.
Sweetest of all, however, Rooney continually addresses the studio head, Bennett O. Regan, by his initials, B.O. No wonder Cagney considered Something to Sing About one of his two favorite movies. He got to stick it to Jack Warner and his former studio in front of the world and get away with it. You'd have to wait for The Sweet Smell of Success and The Bad and the Beautiful for such a savage show business expose.

You won't leave Something to Sing About humming the songs. In fact, it's better to skip through the musical numbers where Cagney doesn't appear. Just concentrate on his wonderfully athletic choreography and the take-no-prisoners story he's happily wallowing in. That sound you'll hear from time to time is Jack Warner rolling over in his grave.

                                                       ********************

The strangest moment in Something to Sing About: the interracial cat boxing scene. I don't think they could get away with this now. (If the video doesn't work, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oqwvt-h0V6s. It's unforgettable, whether you like it or not.)

                                       


















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