January 9, 2010

#98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

The third film on the list is the George M. Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942 (Mr. Cohan, who had final say over his own filmed life story, passed away a few months after the film's premiere) starring James Cagney as the Irish-American song-and-dance man who authored, composed, produced and acted in many of his own musicals and musical revues. The film is about as patriotic as Mom's apple pie wrapped in an American flag on Memorial Day in Washington D.C. A whole lot of red, white and blue in black-and-white here, people.

Company: me, myself and I. Yep, this was my first of these blogventures as a solo act. I do prefer company, but it was nice to be on my own schedule here.

: the bottom dregs of that bottle of three-buck Cabernet. Classy.

Before we continue, it should be noted (or maybe it should never ever be noted) that I was in a musical of Cohan's life (called George M! Yes, with an exclamation point) in seventh grade. All I really remember of it was that I tap-danced badly. Noted.

The whole film acts as a flashback, allowing us to reflect back over a life already lived. We open on Cohan playing President Roosevelt in a Rodgers and Hart musical called I'd Rather Be Right, who receives a telegram from FDR himself requesting his presence. The President then asks him how he got where he was today. Aaaand cue the biography.


We see everything: his birth on the 4th of July (he's barely out of the womb and his dad puts a flag in his hand!), running the vaudeville circuit with his endlessly driven family, and George's discovery of his talent and what it will cost him. This is the point where I expected the story to take a Gypsy sort of turn, showing us the biz tearing the family up, but their dance sequences continue to be choreographed with no irony, and seemingly there was no conflict in their lives at all until little Georgie became James Cagney. Perhaps the family really was idyllic, or maybe their dissent is glossed over for the sake of nostalgia. I suppose either one works.

Maybe that's why I liked the scene after the young Cohan is finally given tough love by his dad, played commandingly and with nuance by Walter Huston. "I've never met a performer who in the long run wouldn't rather be a great guy than a great actor ... that is, until I made your acquaintance." Woah, Dad! I love how the senior Cohan is seated, arms folded as though keeping his pride and love for his son back while he says it like it is, and maybe also to shield his own ego. The kid deserves it: he's already pretty full of himself, and has no trouble telling off adults who try to pay him less than what he knows he's worth. But how should he know anything else? From the start, his parents treat him as a businessman, a colleague, and an asset. To punish him, they don't hit him on the hand (he has to play the violin) or the face (he's got to sing) but on the ass. He doesn't need that to perform.

But perform he does, and perform perform perform. A contemporary take on this story might have asked that the stress of it all wore him down, or some similar angle to create a little drama, but in this happier and possibly truer version, very little gets in Cohan's way. He meets the girl, he has success (told through many fantastical montages! Oh, the montages!), he gets inspired for songs which invite more success, etc. Minor battles, like writing a song for his love only to have it taken away and premiered by another more famous actress, are treated lightly. It's a well-led life, to be sure, but maybe not the most interesting one.

Although that does beg the question: does it need to be any more interesting? George Cohan was a fantastically talented man who changed Broadway forever. His life is certainly worthy of adaptation, but do we as contemporary filmgoers now crave something more? Betrayal, revenge, greed, jealousy? Is it our modern cynicism that doesn't believe Cohan could have had it so easy? I say 'our' like it's collective and not just personal, but I really don't think I could be alone here.

James Cagney has charm for days (anyone else think he resembles Jeremy Renner? Maybe it's because I saw The Hurt Locker last night and it's on the brain), especially in the scene where a fan comes to his dressing room and believes him to be the age of his character. When he breaks out in a quickfire tap step, she cries out "Oh, your heart!" James Cagney can dance well, but honestly, he's no Gene Kelly. He seems to be concentrating a little hard, or maybe the songs just don't allow him much room to really shine, but he is joyous all the same.

And maybe that's the point, stupid. (Me, stupid. Not you.) The point is that it's joyous. The country needed to be reminded of why we were great in 1942, to make sure we were still the good guys. Maybe this movie was the antidote. It may not have started out so over-the-top but filming had begun on this film only a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the film's cast and crew apparently resolved to make the film as uplifting as possible.

And the film ends that way, with one of the true lovely moments. Forget all the musical numbers. When George leaves the President's office, tapping down the stairs in a fit of joy, my heart jumped. Would that the whole film could have been as sublime as that one moment, but I'm glad it was there.

Now for a slew of much newer movies -- nothing before 1970 until #90 (Swing Time) -- including #97: Blade Runner! Get ready for Ridley and Harrison, folks. Until then, happy moviegoing -- and catch up on your Oscar bait! Now's the time -- less than a month before nominations are announced. To the cineplex!

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