YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942)

  • Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Writers: Screenplay by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, Songs by George M. Cohan
  • Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, and Jeanne Cagney
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#98), 3 Oscars (Best Actor – James Cagney, Best Score, Best Sound), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Michael Curtiz, Best Supporting Actor – Walter Huston, Best Story, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

In one sense, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a great individual achievement on the part of its star, Jimmy Cagney, who threw his whole self into becoming George M. Cohan, imitating his unique singing style and even hiring Cohan’s own choreographer to make sure he got the steps right. One of the great joys of going through old classics is coming upon Cagney’s dancing in this movie and being utterly gobsmacked. Fred Astaire (who the producers originally wanted for the role of Cohan) could make dancing look effortless. Cagney, who was of course known for his roles as gangsters, does not. He looks like he’s trying harder than you could ever try at anything, and that’s why he’s so good at it.

So that’s why Yankee Doodle Dandy is still floating around the zeitgeist today, despite the fact that it completely doesn’t work as the “biopic” it purports to be. This is a case study when you give someone a lot of input on telling their own story. If even this movie has bits that get through about how big George M. Cohan’s ego is, can you imagine how big it actually was? This is a movie that resolutely eschews anything resembling conflict. The dramatic arc is that George does good, then does better, then does better and better and better until the President gives him the Congressional Medal of Honor, and then the movie ends. At one point he tries to do a serious dramatic play instead of his usual musicals, and it is a failure, but then the Lusitania sinks and everyone forgets about it. In reality, the play was in 1906, eight years before the sinking.

George M. Cohan was a “song and dance man” who started performing on the vaudeville circuit with his family at a time that I might describe as “The Gilded Age” and that this movie calls “The Horatio Alger Age,” which tells you basically everything you need to know about where this movie is coming from. He was eventually involved with a long series of popular musicals that became known for their exuberant patriotism and “rags to riches” stories. His hits included “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” At one point he was nicknamed “The Man Who Owns Broadway.”

So this movie, with Cagney in the role of Cohan, is basically a jukebox musical of hit songs, songs that would have been, at the time of its release, nostalgia pieces for people that were currently alive. As with jukebox musicals today, audiences ate it up. This was the biggest box office hit of 1942 (not a weak year for movies, its competition included Casablanca, with which it also shared a director). The episode of the Unspooled podcast about this movie called it “the Bohemian Rhapsody of 1942,” and that’s probably not far off, especially given the liberties both of those movies take with the lives of still-living people. Except imagine that there’s literally a scene in Bohemian Rhapsody where Freddie Mercury met with the Queen of England and said, “My whole life has been a… Bohemian Rhapsody” and you get a good idea of how this whole movie is. The plot is aggressively pointless. Maybe it’s more the Rock of Ages of 1942.

Today, the aggressive flag waving (not to mention the very brief blackface that happens at one point) in this movie can come off as sickening for some of us (or not, to each their own), but it makes more sense in context. In the opening fifteen minutes alone, we watch Cohan literally be born on the 4th of July and immediately clutch onto an American flag and start waving it around with his tiny baby hand. In reality, Cohan was born on the 3rd. You know who really was born on the 4th of July… Post Malone. You’re welcome. Anyway, this was a time when studios were trying to give audiences what they wanted at a time of great wartime patriotic fervor. For his part, according to legend Cagney had been advised by his brother that he needed to star in the most patriotic movie possible, in order to rehabilitate his image from accusations of communism. Cagney was pretty clearly not a communist, he was just involved in the Screen Actors Guild and supported FDR, but his brother’s advice turned out to work. Cagney ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar, though it didn’t help him break out of type-casting as a gangster as much as he had hoped.

Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz had a heck of a year in 1942, directing both this movie and Casablanca, his two entries on the current AFI Top 100 list from a long career. As we discussed in our article on Cabaret, here Curtiz makes a musical set in reality, as far as it goes. That is, to use the film jargon, all the music is “diagetic.” It all takes place on a stage during a performance that we’re just watching along with the audience, with occasional bits where someone is practicing at a piano or something. His cast includes Walter Huston (unrecognizable here from the role I most know him for, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Rosemary DeCamp as George’s parents, along with Cagney’s real-life sister Jeanne, as Cohan’s sister, who joins the family in their early stage act. George’s eventual wife (a combination of multiple real-life wives) is played by Joan Leslie. I have to say, I think I’d only seen her before in the context of film noirs, but she is so effortlessly good and charismatic in this. She is ebullient rather than mannered, we immediately understand that she is the exact right girl for the hero, even though she doesn’t have a huge number of character traits other than “plucky” and “pretty good at singing.”

The framing device of this movie, which is that George M. Cohan has been called to the White House to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt after playing FDR in a musical, is next level nuts for a number of reasons. It’s sort of like he’s Forrest Gump, telling his story to the people at the bus stop, except those people are the current President. In fact, no living President had ever had a speaking part in a Hollywood movie before. FDR is shown only from the back, his voice provided by an impersonator. What makes it even weirder is that, in reality, Cohan hated FDR with a fiery passion. Yet here he is, chatting amicably with him, even telling him how long’s been a Democrat. It’s as if Jon Voight’s biography was just him telling his life story to Barack Obama.

I am not usually one to get on a movie based on real history for not being completely accurate. I mostly care whether it tells a good story. The thing is, this isn’t. Things are mostly changed not to make things a better story but to make the people involved look good. Everything works out, everything is weirdly flattened from an emotional perspective. The only part of the movie that works for me is the singing and dancing, everything else is pretty ridiculous. Thankfully, that’s like half the movie, so I still had a pretty good time.

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