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JAMES CAGNEY GRAND NATIONAL PICTURES DOUBLE FEATURE

James Cagney with a prissy Dwight Frye YEAR: 1937
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT: The better of the two and the last picture Cagney did with the independent Grand National Pictures before he returned to Warner Bros where he got to play by his own rules is SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT, showcasing Cagney's ability as a song and dance man with his own East Coast big band show...

This is one of the earliest makings of a movie-within-a-movie to poke fun at the phony shenanigans centering on the hypocrisy and downside of Hollywood, a place Cagney's character wants nothing to do with the further he progresses on set in a star-making role as a smooth, romantic, crooning leading man. And for Universal Horror Fans it's great seeing Dwight Frye, in his second Cagney picture... Frye played Renfield in DRACULA... he steal the movie from Bela Lugosi himself, and Dr. Frankenstein's loony, hunchback assistant (who isn't named Igor) in FRANKENSTEIN. Here with Cagney he's a "suspiciously feminine" makeup artist — something you probably wouldn't see so upfront and obvious during the Hays Code. But the real standout is Philip Ahn, a kind of Chinese stereotope assistant who eventually shows he knows more than he lets on...

Something to Sing About Score: ***1/2
The plot shadows an earlier Cagney programmer from Warner titled LADY KILLER where he plays a con man/thief on the lam, winding up an Extra on a studio lot and then becomes an overnight star on the big screen... Only here he has practically no fun at all, leading to a dragged-out finale about this dream job turned nightmare nearly ruining his marriage...

In a film without a genuine antagonist, I LOVE LUCY landlord neighbor William Frawley is a sneaky agent who plays up to the media that his client is having a possible affair with the movie's movie starlet, who can't hold a candle to singing actress Evelyn Daw: that marriage, according to his contract and to appease female fans, has to be kept secret. Like any lighthearted romantic comedy, the initial breezy setup is the most fun while the task of fulfilling a buried plot detours slowly into a dead end. Still though, as a whole, the movie works just fine.

Great Guy 1936 Score: ***
GREAT GUY: Perhaps James Cagney left Warner Brothers for Grand National Pictures to change his image. After all, the first of two films is titled GREAT GUY, and in most of his previous ventures he's either a gangster, an endearing con artist or both. It's ironic that GREAT GUY didn't differ much from what he became famous for — only instead of conning or playing tricks on people he's protecting them as the new Chief Investigator for the Bureau of Weights and Measures...

Doesn't sound exciting on paper, but the first half makes use of Cagney's quick wit charm and especially his intrepid attitude as he cleverly reveals a crooked delicatessen and gas station for cutting and thus charging customers more money — during the Depression. The actual plot in a picture without much of one is connected to how he got the gig in the first place — the friend he replaced had been severely injured by mysterious thugs, so while cleaning up the city he's got them to contend with, all leading to a third act taking place almost entirely at an upper class society party, giving our man a chance to strut around in his usual devil-may-care rhythm to out-maneuver both intellectuals  and crooks.

The Grand National Logo: the big hand unveiling the leetters
But tough mug Joe Sawyer (THE KILLING) makes for a difficult bulwark. There are wild spurts of rat-a-tat dialogue with only a few punches pulled. And last but not least, the major difference between Grand National and Warner is the quality. If watching Cagney's films in order, you'll suddenly come across this duo hintered by grainy aesthetic and snapping, crackling audio.

But no matter how the screen looks in any of these older projects, and with fast-motion opening credit music straight out of an antique cartoon short, Cagney mesmerizes with the kind of spontaneity lacking in other actors of that era, and still remaining relevant in style and substance. And remember, not long before his reign there was nothing but Silent Films — until "modern" technology and actors like Jimmy Cagney put an end to that.
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