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Monday, November 26, 2018

Cagney Still Off The Reservation


Something To Sing About (1937) Is Grand National Up From Poverty Row

What did the James Cagney pact achieve for Grand National? Plenty, judging by trade reportage. Imagine a biggest of stars jumping a major ship to sail with barely a skiff. It was beyond an anomaly. Grand National went from a jack to a king overnight. Their product would be welcome in top venues, seldom the case for independents before. Broadway example was a deal worked between GN sales management and circuit owner Harry Brandt, whose Globe and Central Theatres became “home of all Grand National pictures,” beginning with Something To Sing About for a September 20, 1937 Globe opening (Film Daily, 9-13-37). With Cagney at their service, Grand National might actually crack barriers protected by the eight majors, his name leading an assault on doors too long shut to outsiders. It wouldn’t quite work out that way, but GN sure raised a sweat on status-quo the behemoths thought they had solidly in place, and the trades, plus showmen nationwide, made a loud cheering section. Helping too was the good movie Something To Sing About turned out to be. This was no cheapie salvaged by its star, but a vehicle lush as possible for underdog circumstance in which it was made, allowance happily given by a show world solidly in Grand National’s corner.




The company was a year old, “under the guidance of 39-year-old president Edward L. Alperson" (Boxoffice, 5-22-37). Like any industry David, they hung on by threads relentlessly sawed by mainstream Goliaths. Grand National was formed to host outlaw Cagney, who had breached Warner walls after hard-won expungement of his contract. GN’s first with him, Great Guy, was less great shakes as a film than announcement to theatres that little guys could play with big leagues too, whatever blocks an establishment tossed in their way. Grand National would look to a harvest moon for 1937, sixty-five features announced for a coming season at a first annual convention held during May in Los Angeles. Cagney was ahead for not only Something To Sing About in September, but another, Dynamite, to follow. There would be twelve “special productions,” twelve “Class A” features, a series of twenty-four to be developed around radio, book, and newspaper cartoon characters, along with sixteen westerns (Tex Ritter, Ken Maynard). There were comedies with Stuart Erwin and dramas toplining Anna Sten on tap. Series stuff included The Shadow, Wallaby Jim, Renfrew Of The Mounted, a “Federal Agent” group, and others. Attendees to the L.A. confab likely saw the grandiose forecast as so much pipe smoke, but knew theirs was a business run on confidence, even if misplaced. Whatever Grand National could deliver, they’d try darndest to push through a marketplace.




James Cagney was a champ to exhibitors for his stand against Warners. He wasn’t just taking them on, but a whole allied, ingrained system the bane of independent operators everywhere. Cagney for these became a one-man trust buster. To book Something To Sing About gave showmen something to show solidarity about. That this was a musical gave pause perhaps, but Cagney sang/danced before in Footlight Parade, a most successful of WB shows he did from earlier in the 30’s. Grand National was where the actor could tweak a persona he’d become bored with. Some, but not enough, were refreshed by JC hoofing it, his being an action audience, so advertising had to play up whatever punches might land in this otherwise civilized vehicle. Opening reel of Something To Sing About is entirely set on expanded stage that is “Terry Rooney’s” bandstand and club, a designer’s creation to do proud beside any that WB, Metro, the rest, could devise.




Budget filmmakers often led with a lushest backdrop to fairly shout “A” treatment ahead. Something’s nightspot, dense with extras and mile-high ceiling, lets us know, or at least imagine, that no expense will be spared. Thrust of story is Terry/Jim being lured to Hollywood for star-making process, basis of comedy and further music from there.  “Galore Pictures” is the pincushion for venality of big-time moviemaking, the sort of place Cagney felt well rid of, Something To Sing About an “insider” rake over a studio system as viewed by outsiders. Terry/Jim is swindled and lied to by toadies who don’t know their business, but try to mind his. A support cast is out of odd drawers to emphasize kooks in back of movies we watch --- Johnny Arthur, Dwight Frye, William Frawley as time-honored demon press agent. These and other familiar faces link Something To Sing About with output from majors that regularly featured them. Take the Grand National logo off this show and you could figure it for something out of Paramount, or at least RKO, maybe Columbia. Something To Sing About, for years in the Public Domain, is available from a number of labels, the Hal Roach or Roan Group’s a good choice, and there is streaming option at Amazon.

4 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The problem as the founders of United Artists found out when they banded together in the 1920s is not how great the stars nor how great the movies. The problem then and now is access to theaters.

9:30 AM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

Since the picture was so expensive, it didn't make money and was a primary reason the company soon sank beneath the waves. The Wolf, man.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The company did not make back their money because they did not have access to theaters. Loewe's Theaters were MGM. Famous Players Theaters were Paramount. Ditto across the board. Balaban & Katz were Paramount. First National Theaters were Warner Brothers. RKO Pictures were Keith-Albee-Orpheum. Independents could make excellent motion pictures. They just could not get them shown. Columbia, Universal, Fox, United Artists did not own theaters.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I enjoyed how the movie took on (and took down) the industry, although there was something about it that looked just a little underbudget. Still, it was allegedly one of Cagney's favorite pictures. I'm surprised you didn't mention the cat-boxing scene, though:

http://theolfisheye.blogspot.com/2016/10/movie-of-day-something-to-sing-about.html

4:04 PM  

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