Friday, May 28, 2010

Review – Yankee Doodle Dandy

May 28, 2010

Yankee Doodle Dandy – U.S., 1942

I have a feeling that contemporary audiences may have a hard time relating to Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, which chronicles the life of one of the most successful performers of all time, George M. Cohan. First, I suspect that they have a hard time relating to classic musicals, especially ones in which the musical numbers do little to advance the plot, which unfortunately is true of Curtiz’s musical. In fact, almost every musical number in the film occurs as part of one of Mr. Cohan’s musicals, and if an audience member does not find these musicals particularly interesting (and musical tastes have changed greatly), that’s a problem. In addition, it’s possible that present-day moviegoers are not as knowledgeable of Mr. Cohan as previous generations were. To be honest, prior to watching the film, I had really only heard Mr. Cohan’s music in my middle school music class and my high school AP history class. In the middle school class, we were simply given a book to sing out of for thirty minutes, but not given any background knowledge of the songs we were singing. I don’t remember even being aware of the fact that “Over There” was about World War II. In the latter class, we heard “Over There” during a lesson about patriotic wartime songs, some of which were not what we would consider politically correct nowadays. However, even in that class, not much was said of the man who penned the legendary tune.

Yankee Doodle Dandy begins in 1936, the year in which Mr. Cohan made his triumphant return to the stage playing the then current president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the musical “I’d Rather Be Right.” After a performance, Mr. Cohan receives a letter from the White House saying that the President would like to meet with him. Mr. Cohan is not told why the President want to see him, and he’s a bit worried that the President may have taken offense to the way Mr. Cohan is portraying him on stage. Soon he is sitting in front of the President telling him his life story. Personally, I doubt whether the President would really have had a spare two hours to hear Mr. Cohan’s story, especially during the Depression and in light of events that were occurring in both Asia and Europe, but this is the technique the film uses to allow Cohan to tell us his life story.

We then see bits and pieces of Cohan’s early life. We see the day he was born, which according to legend was the Fourth of July in 1878 (he was actually born a day earlier). We also see him a few years later performing with his family as part of an act known as the Four Cohans. As the years go by, Cohan develops a bit of an ego, for which his family suffers somewhat. He grows wiser with the years, yet the ego never truly leaves him. He meets Mary, the woman he’ll later marry, and Sam Harris, the man who will be his business partner for fifteen years. He has countless hit shows, many of which have patriotic themes, a fact that leads some critics to contend that his shows are nothing more than sentimental song-and-dance numbers lacking both story and drama. Cohan responds to such comments by saying, “I’m an ordinary man who knows what ordinary guys want to see.” After the Lusitania is sunk, signaling the beginning of the U.S.’s involvement in World War I, Cohan tries unsuccessfully to enlist (he’s too old). The senior recruiting officer explains that Cohan is needed on the home front, and shortly after, he gets the inspiration for “Over There.” The song will become known all over the United States.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a rather ambitious film. It attempts to tell the story of Cohan’s family, from their early road shows, which included minstrels, to their later years in Cohan’s Broadway musicals. We also get the story of Cohan’s relationship with Mary, a love that starts sweet and remains so throughout the film. Last, we get Cohan’s solo career, from his unsuccessful auditions to his lavish patriotic productions. Oddly enough, it was this last part that I found least interesting. I suspect the reason for this is that the scenes did little more than provide visual evidence of Cohan’s patriotism and multiple talents, both of which had already been well established. However, watching the Four Cohans was like stepping into a time capsule and seeing a fascinating part of the American experience that simply no longer exists. In addition, Cohan’s wife, Mary, is perhaps one of the sweetest characters every put on film. Watch how she handles the news that a song her husband wrote for her has been given to someone else. It’s pure magic.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is sometimes hailed as one of the best American films of all time. The American Film Institute ranked it #98 on their list of the greatest films of all time in 2007, and renowned film critic Roger Ebert includes it on his list of Great Films. However, the film appears to not be appealing to people the way it used to. As evidence, the film currently only ranks 7.8 on IMDB, and while the film does have a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only 23 people have ranked the film. In contrast, Chicago has been ranked by over two hundred people. (The film is rated significantly higher on Amazon, yet so is a CD of William Shatner’s and Leonard Nimoy’s greatest hits.)

What do all of these numbers and rankings mean? Maybe nothing. It certainly says nothing about the quality of Yankee Doodle Dandy, for the film remains heartfelt, informative, and surprisingly moving. James Cagney delivers a truly superb performance, and it’s easy to see why he often cited the movie as his favorite of all his films. His dancing may be a bit stiff, yet it is still incredibly impressive. In fact, I find myself wishing I could move my feet as fast as he does in the film. Yankee Doodle Dandy may not have aged as well as other films, but it remains a film that is certainly worth watching. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*James Cagney won Best Actor for his performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

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