Thursday, January 10, 2008

Something to Sing About (1937)

(A brief excerpt from the movie, story by Victor Schertzinger and screenplay by Austin Parker, posted for Karen, Bois de Jasmin, Exiled in NJ, Peter Nellhaus, Gloria, J.C. Loophole, SurlyH, email correspondent C.M.R. and all other Cagney fans)

Terry Rooney (James Cagney), a bandleader, has gone to Hollywood to take up a contract and make a picture. The crooked studio people are conspiring to make him think he's lousy, when in fact Rooney is dynamite and a surefire hit. (Small wonder this plot, of a talented star being cheated, appealed to Cagney, who made this movie at Grand National while in the midst of a contract dispute with Warner Brothers.) In this scene, a dispirited Rooney turns to his manservant, Ito, for comfort, but Ito (Philip Ahn) has limited English, or so it seems.

Terry: If I'm as bad in the picture as they say I am, I'm going to do the sensational nosedive of the century.
Ito: (deep bow) It make honorable master very happy to joke with humble servant.
Terry: No joke, Ito. Even the director doesn't think so.
Ito: (another bow) Honorable master would like humble servant bring dinner?
Terry. No thanks, I'm sick and tired of eating in this joint.
Ito: (still stooped) Yes, please.
Terry: You know, Ito, you're the only one around this studio who'll even deign to talk to me, and all you can say is "yes, please."
Ito: (straightens up, makes eye contact, and in beautiful mid-Atlantic English says) Would you rather that I spoke ordinary English, sir?
Terry: (agog) Is that you?
Ito: Yes, sir. My former employers felt that the accent lent a certain dignity.
(Cagney's skeptical look at that is quite wonderful -C.)
Terry: Now look here. You're not going to stand there in all this heat and tell me this Japanese lingo is an act?
Ito: Very much so. (Especially since Ahn was Korean-American. -C.)
Terry: Pull up a chair. Siddown. I want to hear about this. Tell me about yourself.
Ito: (sits) I came here aspiring to be an actor.
Terry: Uh-huh. And they couldn't mold you, huh?
Ito: They didn't even try.
Terry: So tell me, how do you like being a gentleman's gentleman?
Ito: Oh, very much. As an actor it was a long time between meals.
Terry: What are you doing for dinner?
Ito: I know of a place on Hollywood Boulevard where they serve wonderful Wienerschnitzel.
Terry: May I come along?
Ito: It's a little embarrassing, but there's a young lady that I had, uh ...
Terry: Oh I'm sorry, don't even mention it. Forgive me, would you? Well, you're probably late for your date now. You go on.
Ito: (grabs hat, bows deeply, back to fake accent) Oh sank you please.
Terry: Go on, Ito. Stop kidding me, will ya?
Ito: (another bow) Sank you, sank you please.
Terry: Will you go? Go home!
(Ito leaves. Terry moves to the telephone, musing to himself)
Terry: There's the topper and the payoff. A Japanese who speaks better English than I do and has a weakness for Wienerschitznel. Too much for me in my weakened condition ...

The Siren is sorry to say that this refreshing scene gets undermined later by Ahn's being forced to slide in and out of the pidgin for reasons that aren't always in character, such as when Cagney gets embroiled in a fistfight and Ahn must stand on the sidelines clapping his hands and chirping, "Good for honorable master!" However, later on, William Frawley comes looking for Cagney for plot reasons that don't bear recapping, and Ahn stalls by repeating "No sir please." Frawley snaps, "Will you beat it?" and Ahn returns to his own cultivated voice: "I resent your tone. I came out here to Hollywood to be an actor, not a servant. I shall go. In your own vulgarism, I shall beat it, and I shall not come back. I bid you good day."

The Siren closes by repeating her favorite story about Cagney, one that illustrates the sort of hairpin he was. During World War II, the great cinematographer James Wong Howe was forced to wear a button reading "I am Chinese" lest anyone confuse him for a treacherous enemy saboteur. According to Howe's nephew, Cagney, a good friend of Howe's, responded by wearing one too.

More on Ahn, a charismatic and (when he was allowed to be) handsome actor here, also here and here.


Karen said...

Oh, Siren! A present like this, for little old me? And Christmas over, and all? You are a darling!

And, dear lord, that profile. How gorgeous is that??

Dume3 said...

"Oh, Siren! A present like this, for little old me? And Christmas over, and all? You are a darling!

And, dear lord, that profile. How gorgeous is that??"

A Cagney fan, huh? I just got the Warner Gangsters Collection so I've been watching a lot of his movies lately.

Pat said...

This is scheduled on Turner Classic Movies next Wednesday, 1/16at 10 pm EST. I haven't had much chance yet to catch the Cagney month lineup, but I'm going to set the DVR for this one.

Gareth said...

Thanks for posting the links to further reading on Philip Ahn: I first read about him 18 months after I saw the first of the "Mr. Moto" films - a film positively bursting with cross-cultural acting in true old-Hollywood style - but had not been aware of the book.

Peter said...

All sorts of great stuff. I have yet to see Something to Sing About. In addition to Ahn and Howe working with Cagney, there is also a Sam Fuller connection. Howe shot The Baron of Arizona to prove that he could work fast. Ahn is one of the doctors in Shock Corridor. Fuller's Crimson Kimono ended with Victoria Shaw choosing James Shigeta over Glenn Corbett.

Having seen many Asian films, I get to see casting of Caucasians in somewhat the same generic way as Asians are shown in western films.

Paper Battleships said...

HA! PB's dog is named Ito for this very movie (and Auntie Mame).

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria said...

Campaspe, thanks for the post and links: Ahn's story reminds me of another personal favourite, Anna May Wong, who likewise was limited in her choice of roles because of her ancestry.

Cagney's got, for me, the "Cary Grant syndrome", that is, I've rarely seen a film with him which didn't enjoy... Though my personal favourite is the frenzied "One, two, three"

BTW, here are my comments on Twenty-four eyes. I'm lousy as a reviewer, but the links at the bottom of the post -mostly proper reviews- are worth checking.