Recently, I took a look at the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list and decided, since I am always open to a new challenge here at Gabbing Geek, particularly ones I give to myself, to watch and write up something about all of them.
As it is, I’ve already seen about three-quarters of these movies at least once before, so this will be a rewatch for most of the list. Plus, I’ll be starting at the bottom of the list and working my way up. As such, here’s #100, Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942.
Truth be told, I’ve never much cared for musicals for most of my life. I couldn’t tell you why. That said, as a kid, there were two I actually did like that I saw a couple times beyond The Wizard of Oz and whatever Disney cartoon someone plopped me in front of. One was The Music Man. The other was Yankee Doodle Dandy.
I think my main issue with musicals is often, well, the singing and dancing often threw me off in film. Movies are often meant to be more realistic as opposed to a stage show (I actually like stage musicals when I get the chance to see one, though that isn’t often). I lose a bit of suspension of disbelief as I ask myself how everybody all broke out in the same song at the same time, one they are presumably making up on the spot. Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn’t have that problem because the movie is a biography of George M. Cohan, a Broadway singer and dancer who wrote most of his best known plays and songs. As it is, when someone in Yankee Doodle Dandy is singing or dancing, it’s part of a stage show. We’re seeing one of Cohan’s shows, or he’s written a song and is singing it so someone can hear it, or something along those lines. These aren’t songs meant to advance the plot. These are songs meant to show the passage of time while getting as many of Cohan’s best known works into the movie as possible. There’s probably only about 30-45 minutes worth of movie if you take out the songs at most.
And that works fine for me.
Cohan here is played mostly by actor James Cagney (obviously, Cagney only plays the adult version of Cohan). Cagney in 1942 may have been a bit of an odd choice as most of his best known movie roles were as gangsters and tough guys. Cohan is, well, nothing like that. As it is, Cagney got an Oscar for this part, and I’d say he earned it. For all that he was known for his mobsters, that man could freakin’ dance. He can sing well, too, but really, it’s his dancing that in full-on display here.
The story has an aged Cohan summoned to the White House to meet the president (never shown from the front or named directly, but it’s obviously FDR). Cohan doesn’t quite know why, though he has just played a singing and dancing version of the man in a musical comedy, so there might be that. It turns out the President is a big fan and the two get to talking, during which Cohan relates the story of his life, beginning on the day of his birth on the Fourth of July. His family were all vaudeville performers, and he grew up on the stage with his parents and sister (as a nice touch, Cohan’s sister is played by Cagney’s own sister Jeanne). Though he began life as a cocky kid who deserved a good metaphorical beatin’ once in a while (and even got literal one at one point), George had a lot of ambition, drive, and talent, one that pushed him to becoming a star, bringing along a shy singer girl he later married, his family, and a business partner he met as the two were scrambling to find someone to produce their respective solo works.
Much of the good stuff from the movie comes from recreations of Cohan’s shows, big time spectacles with more than a little patriotic fervor to them. Cohan made a lot of flag-waving shows, and at various points in the movie, it appears as if America needs what he has to offer very much so. Even the opening scene with the President highlights Cohan’s patriotism, as the President notes that Irish Americans like Cohan (and Cagney for that matter) seem to have a special love for America, and Cohan agrees, underlining the points on America’s greatness as the movie wraps up as well and he learns why he was summoned to see the top man in the Oval Office.
I had a lot of fun with this, and I know most of the movies on the AFI list I haven’t seen appear to be more musicals, so we’ll see how this turns out. Apparently, the movie started production the day after Pearl Harbor, so the cast and crew had a special patriotic glow as they worked. It shows. True, I did wonder just how big Cohan’s stage was supposed to be during some of the more elaborate song-and-dance numbers, but if a musical can’t exaggerate reality once in a while, what can? And yes, aside from the youthful cockiness, the movie does shy away from the darker aspects of Cohan’s life (he was married twice, and you wouldn’t know he had any kids at all if the movie is all you have to go on). Much of the movie can also be seen as a product of its time, as there is that (possibly needed) patriotic glow to it that would seem appropriate for the early days of World War II, but Cohan made a big deal out of being born on America’s birthday, so we should expect that as well.
NEXT UP: We skip to 1967 for a story on interracial love with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.