"Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony.
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni."
I think the above is how it goes. Been a long time since I heard that old nursery rhyme. That's the impression in my mind when I'd come across a reference to the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. There is a loose association there, as it turns out, but only a loose one. And it's all I had until today.
If you think of that title, through the eyes of a present-day boy or male viewer, or any modern viewer for that matter, I'm not sure it's very enticing. It was never on my radar, I can tell you that. In this case, it was well worth looking under the hood. I was pleasantly surprised.
As with all movie reviews that I will do in this series, there are TONS of spoilers. I don't think it matters much here. Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan, is a reminiscence of the real-life actor, writer, dancer, and playwright. It goes from this birth until he is in his 60's, told in the first person by Cagney/Cohan to president Franklin Roosevelt.
I'm writing this based solely on what I witnessed. I don't yet know how accurate or truthful the movie was. It made for an enjoyable couple of hours of viewing. I intend to go look up some details about it after I write the rough draft here. Whenever I can, I like to avoid bias before seeing a movie. And a movie from 1942 certainly was outside any frame of reference I've ever had, save for the nursery rhyme. I assume the nursery rhyme came first.
James Cagney. I had certainly heard the name, but this might be the first of his movies I've seen. Maybe there was one other, I can't quite remember. Throughout my life, the stereotype of him was that mobster type guy saying, "you dirty rat". I look forward to learning more about him and seeing that other famous role, among others.
And so, I went into this Warner Brothers film knowing next to nothing about its star and even less about its main character. As I mentioned, the story is told in the style of flashbacks, though other than hearing the older Cohan's voice at times, we don't actually return to the present until the very end of the movie, where we find out why he has been summoned to meet the President.
The flashback, storyteller style is one we see a lot in movies and television. I'm glad this one didn't weave back and forth between past and present as so many do, as the linear progression of Cohan's life is easier to follow when the viewer knows so little about him, to begin with. I found myself thinking a bit about how odd it is that we see the life of an entertainer from a century ago, as portrayed by another entertainer also long dead, and the passage of time. Maybe we didn't capture it in moving pictures like this, but Cohan's story is told as I'm sure countless other people's stories have been told over the years. Each generation to the next.
An almost eighty-year-old movie like this seems so far removed from who we are today, and yet, there are such similarities too. People are born, they grow, they live their lives, they die. Only the personalities and circumstances change. I find myself wondering who a modern equivalent to George M. Cohan might be. He certainly spawned generations of others like him, just as he learned from his own parents and them from their predecessors.
We get to see early on that young George is a prodigy, born into the life of a stage actor. He and his younger sister Josie (played by Cagney's own sister Jeanne) grow up performing alongside their parents in the stage shows of the time, including vaudeville. This period covers the late 19th century into the early 20th century. George is brash from an early age and quite talented. His inability to keep his mouth shut, borne of lack of discipline by his parents, it seems (he gets his first spanking at 13), costs the family a good job.
Later, George and by extension the family, become blacklisted for a time when George again is a little too honest with his elders running the business. We find out in one scene that really it's George no one likes, and I actually like how he handled it when he overheard his parents being told so. He got on the phone with his parents and advised them to take whatever acting jobs they could get while he was off working on new songs and shows by himself. I'm sure he really was doing that, and it was a nice attempt by him to remove the shackles his earlier deeds had placed on his family.
Probably the biggest party of the movie, and certainly what gave it its title, is Yankee Doodle Dandy. This elaborate show, which only gets off the ground after some very shrewd sleight of hand by George and his new partner Harris (portrayed by Richard Whorf) results in duping a financial backer unaware of the blacklisting George was up against, is the definite highlight.
I must, at this juncture, state that I don't like musicals. I've never seen a play, and generally, avoid any movie featuring that style. I was gratified early in this movie that any dance numbers are fairly brief. Later in the movie, that still holds true, as there are so many hit shows that they only get shown in a time-lapse montage style. But Yankee Doodle Dandy is shown at much more length. And I must say, it's pretty enjoyable. The music is lively, the songs are clever, and it's just very well put-together. I guess that's why Cohan was such a force in show business, and it didn't hurt having the talented Cagney play the part so well.
The other part of the Yankee Doodle show (play? musical?) that I think must have resonated with the audiences of WWII-era America is that it's so patriotic. The symbolism is all there. I can imagine audiences ate this up at the time. Similar to later in the movie when George, turned down for WWI service himself due to being too old (39, the cutoff was 31), he derives the new tune "Over There" for the troops, and is shown to entertain with that in his show. Kind of like the USO tour stuff we see today. I'm reminded of Bob Hope's USO work from when I was a kid, but many reading this will just think, "who's Bob Hope?". Ahh...skip it, youngsters. On second thought, look it up. He was pretty funny.
It seems that many songs that we have some sort of knowledge in the modern-day were either born from this movie or showed where they came from. Cohan uses "Auld Lang Syne" in a way that is kind of "sampling" as is done today, all the time. Same with Yankee Doodle Dandy, the song itself. Turns out not all new ideas in music are new.
George meets his wife, Mary (played by Joan Leslie), early on in the movie when she is completely fooled by a young Cohan portraying an old man. She gets backstage to audition for who she thinks can help her get into the business (she was right about that part) and is shocked to see how young George actually was. It's funny when she asks him after he tells her he's going on a roller-skating date with a 17-year-old, "isn't she a bit young for you?"
Mary and George are together for the rest of the movie. George writes a song for her to sing as a lead in a play he and Harris are developing, simply called, "Mary". I was a bit dismayed when he winds up giving the song to a more-established actress to sing. But it was amazing how Mary handled it (was this really how wives acted back then?). George brings her flowers and candy to soften the blow of giving the song he'd written specifically for her away, only to find out Mary figured that's what happened anyway. "I knew it when you brought candy and flowers," she says.
Despite being so headstrong, George is very much loyal to his family. The Cohan 4 continues despite his success on his own, and poignant scenes are when first he learns his sister will leave the group to marry, and his parents decide to retire to the farm after many years. You can tell how he thought they'd continue together forever. It's only then that he starts to realize nothing lasts forever. Several times he thanks various people, always saying, "My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you." I thought that was pretty cool.
The movie ends with Cohan, now in his 60's, returning to perform in a production spearheaded by his old partner Harris, with whom he'd amicably parted ways sometime before. The show is a satire on President FDR, and George thinks he's in trouble when the President summons him to the White House. The summons was at the very beginning of the movie, and in the end, we see why he is with the President telling the story of his life, despite thinking he's in trouble for the satire, "I'd Rather Be Right". Quite the contrary. Watch the movie to see what I mean. I can't give everything away.
So, in conclusion, I was very glad to see this movie I likely never would have had it not been on the AFI list. You gotta figure that after 100 years of movies, the critics could come up with a pretty good list. Rather than me writing more words from extra reading I do after seeing the movies, I will link to one that provides a much more critical eye.
Thanks for reading!
Check out a contemporary review of the film.