Yankee Doodle Dandy
James Cagney was typecast as a gangster. What a shame. In my opinion he was a brilliant singer and dancer and could easily compete with even Fred Astaire, certainly when you add his acting skill, which easily surpasses Astaire’s. We saw a glimpse of this in Footlight Parade, but not until I saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” did I get the full impact of Cagney’s talents. Instead of a gangster we get a showbiz man as there ever was one, with a certain roguishness yes, but also deeply sympathetic and with a smile and glint in the eyes so different from all the hardboiled gangster types he had been playing over the years.
James Cagney is George M Cohan, the man who owned Broadway and who was the first to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of his profession. The film is a portrait of his life and career, not so much as a drama but a homage to his contribution to his country specifically and showbiz in general. Because it is so linked to his life it breaks a number of dramatic rules, but I am only happy that it does as it makes the film much more interesting and frankly I am relieved that I do not have to watch another movie about some highly successful professional who gets where he is at high personal costs. Instead it pleases me endlessly that Cohan is able to juggle everything and gets great support from wife, family and friends, whose help is fully appreciated by Cohan.
What the film may lack in drama we get double up in music and dancing and an engrossing portrait of this very colorful man. Since this is all about Cohan we get to see a lot of James Cagney and he carries the film beautifully. The dancing is breathtaking and I am not particularly fond of dancing. We get a wonderful scene shortly into the film where Mary (Joan Leslie), Cohan’s future wife seeks out Cohan in his changing room and presents herself to him. She is shy and very self-conscious talking to what she believes is an old man with beard and wrinkles and feeble voice. Cohan pulls a prank on her and let her believe he is that old man so that when he demonstrates what real dancing is she is almost getting a heart attack. That is so hilariously funny seeing this apparently old stoopy man dance his shoes off.
The music is extremely catchy. Since I saw it I have been having the theme song constantly on my mind and find myself humming “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy…” and it is not alone. “Send my regards to Broadway” and “Over there” are big crowdpleasers and they are just a few of the songs the film serves us. Cohan was famous for his songs and I can confirm his skill. I knew none of his songs going into this film, but a single viewing later I feel very familiar with them. The songs are that strong.
A detail I love about this film is how the songs are presented. They slip seamlessly into the story and feel perfectly natural. We never get a character that breaks spontaneously into singing, it all has a purpose. The musical movie about setting up musicals is a classic and frankly overused theme and in the Busby Berkeley tradition the stage performance transmute into something you could never show on a theater stage. Not so in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. As a viewer you are there in the theater watching the performance. It is a brilliant show, but it does not take us beyond the stage and so the realism and thus the impact is intact. The focus is also somewhat different. Yes, this is about putting up shows, but it is first of all the story of the man who put up these shows. How he does it and why and so the shows become more of an explanation than the result itself. Cohan expresses himself through his shows, this is what he does so to explain the man we must see him perform.
There is a massive amount of flag waving in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, but somehow it does not bother me as much as these things normally do. Partly because of the context of the film. It was produced at the height of WWII and in such situations it is only natural to throw in a hefty dose of nationalism. But mostly it is because the patriotism is very much a part of the Cohan character. His production uses national symbols as a common theme and it is pretty clear it is very close to his heart. The film even hints at this being a bit over the top. It is not to everyone’s taste and the Fay Templeton character is a good example of this sentiment. His success is also very much a function of the strength of the national feelings in general as they blooms and wanes when America goes to war or in peacetime. It is that description of a patriotic man rather than a patriotism aimed at the viewer that makes the flag waving slide down. The end result is probably also more effective that way and definitely this movie was a strong bid to support the war effort in 1942.
Around Cagney is a strong cast of primarily Cohan’s family. Walter Huston as Cohan senior is very convincing and is as usual very good as I have come to expect from him. The only let down of the film is Douglas Croft as Cohan, the boy. He is a total pain in the ass as a character, but more so as an actor. Child actors of this era just do not do very well in general.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a good time and an interesting story that carries its years well. It is an excellent showcase for James Cagney and this very American musical was made by a Hungarian (Curtiz).