By 1936, James Cagney was one of the top ten moneymaking stars in Hollywood. He was also one of Warner Bros.' most versatile stars, equally effective in musicals, gangster films, and comedies. But he was unhappy with the studio's recent choice of material, and its demand that he make five films a year instead of the four his contract stipulated. So he took them to court, won, and walked out, shocking Hollywood by signing with Grand National, a newly formed independent company. His first Grand National film, Great Guy (1936) was well received. His second was Something to Sing About (1937), Cagney's first musical since Footlight Parade (1933).
Playing opposite Cagney was Evelyn Daw, a 20-year-old newcomer from South Dakota with a terrific soprano voice. Daw made only one more film before disappearing from the screen, although she continued to work in theater and opera. Standouts in the supporting cast are William Frawley (the future Fred Mertz for those of you who are I Love Lucy fans) as a publicist, and Gene Lockhart playing the studio boss, a conniving blowhard who cons Cagney's character into an unfair contract. Some Hollywood insiders noted the resemblance to Jack Warner. Sure I did enjoy the many satirizations of Hollywood but they weren't satirical enough to fit my tastes.
Critics were glad to see Cagney back in tap shoes, and playing a romantic lead for a change. Otis Ferguson of the New Republic gave Something to Sing About points for effort, saying "much can be done by good people who break away and bring the industry up short by independent accomplishment." But in spite of all the freshness and energy that Cagney and his colleagues brought to the film, they couldn't overcome the fact that the budget for Something to Sing About was skimpy (it was all the fledgling studio could afford), the music wasn't memorable, and the film didn't receive wide distribution. This film was no Singin' in the Rain or Anchors Aweigh since it didn't have any memorable scenes as well. (I always get Anchors Aweigh and On the Town mixed up: is the scene where Gene Kelly dances with the cartoon mouse in AA or OTT?) In an era of studio domination, an independent didn't have a chance (a proven point of the phrase "There's just no room for the little guy").
If Something to Sing About can be said to have any interest at all, other than as a curiosity in a great star's career, it is for the conscious analogies it permits one to draw between Terry Rooney's fictional movie career and Cagney's genuine one. Cagney walked out on Warner Bros. many times, like his character in this film did once, but he always came back and signed a new contract, just like his character in this film signs a seven-year contract (which also says that he has to be a bachelor in case his many female fans wanna sleep with him [sorry if that was a little off-color but it was implied] but that really has no connection with Cagney's film career). And if any of you have seen this movie, you'll know that Terry Rooney's real name is Thaddeus MacGillicudy and if ur also an I Love Lucy fan, u'll know that Lucy Ricardo's maiden name is MacGillicudy. So u can see that this movie has some connections with I Love Lucy, with the future Fred Mertz and the name MacGillicudy.
This movie also offers a glimpse of some of Cagney's comedic ability that we never really got to see. According to the book "Cagney" by John McCabe:
One of Cagney's key characteristics as a performer is too briefly and
tantalizingly touched on in Something to Sing About: his essential status as a
comedic actor. There is no performance in the first two thirds of his career
that is marked by comedy, even if sardonic and bitter. In the present film, as
he and his wife are walking down the street, he is explaining film comedy and
brilliantly illustrates five of its staples: a double take, a triple take, and a
triple take with a slow burn and one-eyed fadeaway, this last done in the style
of its great master, Jimmy Finlayson, Laurel and Hardy's prime stooge. Cagney
then caps these with veteran Keystone comic Charlie Murray's famous
mouth-ends-down grimace, which causes a lady passing by to scream in fright.
With regrettable brevity we glimpse Cagney the Clown, of whom, alas, we see
little in his career.
I would recommend this film to any James Cagney who likes seeing him in musicals. Happy commenting!! And have a wonderful holiday season!!
Clips from Something to Sing About: