'Something to Sing About' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you Victor Schetrzinger's 1937 musical comedy, "Something to Sing About," starring James Cagney as a New York band leader who heads to Hollywood with his wife, played by Evelyn Daw, to make it big in the movies. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Something to Sing About" on September 30, 1937.

Hollywood stars have always toiled away in unglamorous jobs before making it big.

James Cagney was no different.

Growing up on New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century, vaudeville was a natural starting point for the young entertainer.

But the future on-screen tough guy started out in one of the raunchy theater circuit's most lowbrow jobs: a female impersonator. According to the New York Times, the actor who won an Academy Award portraying gangster Rocky Sullivan in 1938's "Angels With Dirty Faces," used to dress up as a woman for money.

What makes Cagney's vaudeville past more intriguing is that his 1931 star-turning role in "The Public Enemy," features a scene where Cagney stuffs a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke's face. His performance was hailed by critics as an example of Cagney's range, but also criticized for its misogynist overtones:

"Something to Sing About" came at a transition point in Cagney's career. The man producer Jack Warner dubbed "The Professional Againster," left Hollywood after suing Warner Bros. for breach of contract.

He was lured back when independent studio Grand National Films offered him a lucrative deal to appear in their films "Great Guy" and "Something to Sing About."

The movies weren't successful at the box office and Cagney wound up back at Warner Bros. a year later.

But Cagney's tenacity in standing up for actor's rights led him to form his own production company in 1942 and release films through United Artists.

Considered such an effective leader by his fellow actors, Cagney was elected president of the Screen Actor's Guild in 1942. He served a two-year term. The biggest issue Cagney dealt with during his tenure was the unionization of background actors.

Here's Cagney boarding a plane in 1944 with fellow actor representatives as they head to an American Federation of Labor meeting:

Take a closer look back

Cagney's political activism wasn't limited to Hollywood. In 1936, he joined an organization called the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, unaware that it was a front for the Soviet Communist Party.

Cagney may have been a labor leader, but he was not a Communist. Others in Los Angeles, however, were quite vocal about their sympathies with the political party.

This is a 1937 photo of female Young Communist League members protesting the Japanese Consulate during the Second Sino-Japanese War: