Conquering the Classics
Not long ago Bart realized he needed to expand his horizons beyond sequels and superhero movies. What could be better than tackling the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies list? At last count he’s only seen about half of them, so Bart’s goal is to watch all of them in a year’s time, and review every stinking one of them, placing each in their cultural context while bringing a modern sensibility to the viewing experience.
It’s hard to judge Yankee Doodle Dandy by today’s standards, and thus has to be considered within the context of 1942. It dallies in two genres that are very rare 72 years later: the musical and the propaganda film. In the case of the former, the music is restricted to the stage within the film, adding a degree of “acceptability” to those that enjoy stories about musicians performing in their natural habitat (everything from Eddie and the Cruisers to Crazy Heart), but oddly can’t cotton to music being performed on a different kind of stage, the silver screen. It’s all artifice within artifice, but for some it’s simply psychological. In the case of the latter, it’s hard to justify such overt patriotism in a piece of entertainment today without being accused of jingoism and blind flag waving, but it was a different time. Viewing Yankee Doodle Dandy through the lens of 1942, less than a year after the United States entered into war with Japan and Germany, and as a somewhat sensationalized biography of the famous song and dance man George M. Cohan, it’s hard not to get caught up in its uplifting message of unity and cooperation even if it comes down on the side of embracing popularity for the greater good over one’s passion.
Released on Memorial Day of 1942, production had only been started a few days before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. That certainly led to the cast and crew resolving to craft as patriotic a film as possible, but there are dirty rumors that James Cagney, playing the lead role, was hoping to dispel rumors of him being a Communist. This myth has, in fact, been debunked as this was years before the McCarthy Era, although the notoriously liberal actor had been accused of being a Communist in a 1940 trial. Regardless of hearsay, Cagney was chosen to play Cohan as they were both Irish-American, shared physical similarities, and Cagney’s natural dance style reflected Cohan’s own. Cohan, who was known as “The Man Who Owns Broadway”, served as a creative consultant on the film, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas), and the soundtrack has such classics as “The Yankee Doodle Boy”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and “Over There”, songs written by Cohan that have become synonymous with American culture.
The film’s framing device is Cohan has come out of retirement to play President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the musical “I’d Rather Be Right”. After the first night of the show he’s invited to the White House where he meets FDR himself (seen only from the back, played by lookalike Captain Jack Young and voice by impressionist Art Gilmore), and subsequently recalls his entire life leading up to that moment. This includes being born on the Fourth of July, his early days with his parents and sister as a cocky star on the Vaudeville stage, meeting and marrying Mary (Joan Leslie) and moving to New York, his failed attempts at breaking on to Broadway and historic partnership with Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf), his successful career, the writing of “Over There” when he’s denied entrance into the U.S. Army to fight in WWI, the death of his family, his travels and reluctant retirement, and finally his triumphant return. That the story is told mostly out of order from Cohan’s real life (he, for instance, received the Medal of Honor from FDR years before 1942) is inconsequential, as it’s fitting that the man so known for his stage life would be immortalized in a semi-fictional, hyperbolic rendition.
The heart of the movie is Cagney, who was 42 at the time of the movie’s release and plays Cohan from his late teens to age 64 (and in fact to the year of his death, as Cohan died not long after viewing the film and approving of Cagney’s portrayal). The loose-limbed performer brings Cohan to life, channeling his stiff-legged technique through his own repertoire. He also adds layers of pathos and complexity to what is, essentially, an earnestly written love letter to a good but flawed man. Cohan, in reality, had two wives and hated FDR, but that’s glossed over or ignored here. Screen Cohan is arrogant, impulsive, and verges on infidelity at times but where the screenplay shies away from moral gray areas Cagney embraces the many shades of this man in his stiff, hardened jaw, furrowed brow and piercing eyes. Mostly known as Hollywood’s quintessential “tough guy” after playing gangster roles through the ‘30s and ‘40s, scenes such as his flirtatious first meeting with Mary, his partnering with his father (Walter Huston), or on his father’s death bed show adept skill at both comedy and drama that earned him an Oscar for the role.
Although, it must be pointed out, just like Charlton Heston in Spartacus (1959) he hides his face from the camera when crying and is never shown with real tears in his eyes. The level of acceptability and expectation when it comes to actors and masculinity is fascinating in how it has evolved over the years. Whereas crying for men has become more commonplace, more often than not with the cliche “single tear” streaming down a cheek, dancing and singing onstage and onscreen has been rejected by the mainstream for the most part as being effeminate. Here, when Cagney as Cohan seeks to prove he’s fitter than any younger man to serve in the war, he breaks into a dance routine that is met by raucous laughter and applause.
Ironically, the song “The Yankee Doodle Boy” is inspired by “Yankee Doodle”, the well-known pre-Revolutionary War song. Although it is the height of patriotism today, it was first (believed to be) sung by British military officers who viewed the colonials as disheveled, disorganized, and womanly. After all, “doodle” means fool, and (as I learned from Robert Wuhl’s hilarious HBO special Assume the Position) the Macaroni Club in London was where extravagant young British fops spent their days, implying that to stick a feather in a cap and call it macaroni would be a demonstration of unsophistication at having misinterpreted fashion so profoundly. Americans, of course, appropriated the song and proudly made it their own, leading to its influence on “The Yankee Doodle Boy” which, as of now, is #71 on AFI’s Top 100 Years…100 Songs list.
The movie, however, is not without its problems. There’s the insensitive portrayal of African Americans with instances of the Four Cohans using black face and a cursory perspective from post-Civil War slaves being freed during Cohan’s shows. There’s the aforementioned whitewashing of the troubling aspects of Cohan’s life. There’s the odd and uneven pacing of the film that is lifted up by two extended sequences of Cohan’s shows being performed with filler scenes in between devoid of struggle. That’s a side effect of telling a man’s life as a series of events rather than as a dramatization of internal tensions and external themes.
Still, there’s beautiful music, enlivened actors, and cinematography ahead of its time. There’s a rather provocative instance of Cohan, having left the recruitment office, whistling along with a trumpet that fades into a solitary scene of him writing “Over There” on his piano. The angles and movement of the camera during this sequence anticipate Welles’ work on Citizen Kane, and for that and many other sequences Curtiz must be commended.
Yankee Doodle Dandy may be a product of the WWII zeitgeist, but what it can be regarded for is how well it articulates the power of the artist to affect culture. Cohan rallied the troops for years, never once wavering in his love of this complicated country. Perhaps the movie oversimplifies his conflicts, but sometimes people need to be reminded of every man’s potential for greatness, and Cohan was just that with his rags-to-riches story that exemplified the American dream.