I’m a little ashamed to admit this was the first time I’ve viewed this movie. I’ve known of it for a while and have had wanted to watch it, but it just never happened. Truthfully, partly my doing this project was to get to those movies that I’ve said, “Oh yah, I want to see that” but never have. Silly excuses aside, I final sat down and watched Yankee Doodle Dandy. Released in 1942, the movie focuses on the life of George M. Cohan from birth to receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Despite the glossing over of many aspects of his life (divorce, children), the film successfully presents Cohan as one of the great Patriotic figures in American history and cemented James Cagney as one of the great performers of his time.
The film mixes facts with the myth that surrounds George M. Cohan’s life. The product of Irish Catholic parents, George grew up traveling with his parents as they worked the vaudeville circuit. He would go on to write over 300 songs and find great success on Broadway. Unable to enlist in World War I, he aided in the best way he could: his music. Writing “Over There”, he created an anthem that helped to buoy the spirits of the nation. He would become the first artist to receive the honor of the Congressional Gold Medal and left behind a legacy of music that is still important today. What struck me was how simple the plot is, especially considering his life wasn’t quite so smooth. The movie shows some struggle, but mostly glazes over it and focuses on the successes.
When you put the film in the context of the time it was released, it makes sense that they would chose to focus on the patriotic and positive aspects of Cohan’s life. Production began on the film soon after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and with it’s extremely patriotic themes, came at a perfect time in our countries history. It both inspired and entertained; something that was common in movies of the 40s. What makes the film interesting is just the simplicity of it all. If it was made today, it would probably resemble more of the De-Lovely bio pic and delve deep into the drama of his life. The blending of the real man and myth works so well because it’s easy to believe that Cohan could have been a larger then life person. It’s James Cagney’s performances that make you fall in love with Cohan.
James Cagney’s career spanned 60+ years and included a variety of roles. He started out in vaudeville (one of the many connections he shared with Cohan) and would experience a diverse career once he made his way to Hollywood. Known mostly for his tough guy/gangster roles, he gained a great amount of respect in his ability to shed that image to play George M. Cohan. His dancing is both unique and mesmerizing. At times it seems stilted and stiff, but once you begin to watch, it comes apparent only an actor with amazing physicality could pull off what he does. What else caught my attention was his way of speak-singing through the songs. Blending talking in rhythm to singing, it doesn’t take away from the music at all. Much like the physical genius he brings to the role, Cagney’s use of speak-singing makes the role more his. It’s almost hard to tell where Cohan ended and Cagney began. It’s his likability and charisma that has kept the movie loved by generations. This role also earned him an Academy Award; the first and last Oscar he’d win.
I’m glad I finally took the time to watch this movie. Being a former musical theater nerd, Leonard Cohan has always been interesting and important in the beginnings of the modern musical. I enjoyed the film, but what I think has kept it on the radar simply is James Cagney’s performance. While the whole package of the film is good, it’s the dedication and talent of Cagney that elevates it above just being another movie musical. It’s hard to imagine anyone else trying to tackle the role and if it was casted else wise, I feel it wouldn’t have left such an impact. The musical numbers are great and the score is lovely, but on the whole, the movie itself isn’t groundbreaking. If not for Cagney, there is no doubt in my mind that the movie would have faded into the woodwork.