Ring a Ding Ding
Something to Sing About had a number of things going against it when I sat down with it last weekend. The DVD was one of those cheap three-movies-in-one discs and the picture quality was choppy from the start. I certainly thought to myself at the beginning “this is a bad movie.” I was far from correct, however.
Despite the majority of his fame as gangster and tough-guy types, James Cagney had a background as a song-and-dance man in New York, where he grew up. Besides living in that grand and diverse city, he did not actually have the rough upbringing one would expect of the man who assaults a female character with a grapefruit. Nevertheless, Hollywood liked him best in those tough roles and the public had a hard time accepting him in light-hearted dancing parts. It is often said Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly ended his career.
In Something to Sing About, Cagney plays the singing and dancing leader of a band popular in New York who has been recruited by Hollywood for a one-picture contract. This Terry Rooney proposes to his girl before leaving town and has no grand ambitions about making it big. Once out west, the studio big wigs find he has many shortcomings: his hairline is terrible, his dialect is poor and his wardrobe leaves something to be desired. In the picture Terry is to fight a couple of goons and rehearses the close but fake punches before the film starts rolling. The other actors, apparently, like to have some fun with “greenhorn” actors and so actually sock him. Terry responds as we would expect a Cagney character to and starts throwing punches and breaking all the furniture on the set over the goons. The director keeps the film rolling.
Terry assumes he’s through in Hollywood and so returns to New York where he and Rita (Evelyn Daw) get married and take a honeymoon to South America. While they are on the boat, the Terry Rooney picture becomes a major hit and the studio is set to sign him to a long-term contract, but no one can find the star. The studio puts out a public notice to help track him down, and after being mobbed by fans near a theater, Terry finally returns to his employer.
The contract itself presents a problem, however, as it requires Terry to remain single. Rita and the studio heads agree that if the wife pretends to instead be the star’s secretary, they can remain married. The romance gets complicated, however, because the studio wants Terry to star with –and appear to be romancing– their star actress Stephanie (Mona Barrie).
I thought I had Something to Sing About pegged from the start: Terry would go to Hollywood and become a star and the excessive female attention would have him forget all about the girl back home. That certainly is far from the case. Terry never once suggests he is anything but in love with Rita; the circumstances just make things look bad. Cagney’s character remains appealing to audicnes because being a dancer has not softened his character from the one to which we are accustomed. He still has the fight and gruff of his gangster types, only he’s in a more legitimate racket.
On a more important note, however, is Cagney’s dancing. He opens the picture with a tap number on the stage of a nightclub that would blow your mind. His footwork is more impressive here than I have seen in his other musicals. He is not just tap-dancing, he’s doing jazz and ballet-type moves as well. Cagney’s performance here rivals Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as far as I am concerned and (as a former dancer myself) is among the best dancing I have seen in classic movies. Cagney allegedly worked off-screen with Astaire to practice some of the routines and his choreographer was one he worked with before getting into movies.
I cannot emphasize enough that any Cagney fan or anyone loving dance or musicals MUST see Something to Sing About. You will not believe what talent this often-gruff actor had.
- Watch Something to Sing About in its entirity on YouTube.
Source: Legends: James Cagney by Richard Schickel, TCM.com