Sunday, August 8, 2010

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Year: 1942
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 98
Writer: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph
Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a perfectly harmless musical portraying the life of a genius writer/composer/director/producer/actor/choreographer. It's enjoyable, but never manages to give us much insight into why its subject, George M. Cohen, was such a unsinkable legend. The movie tricks the viewer into thinking he or she has witnessed something monumental thanks to the indelible performance of James Cagney as Cohen, but everything else is just surface. I would have traded almost every elaborately staged musical number for a single quiet scene of Cohen speaking frankly about the creation of his music and why he has been so consistently inspired by America and its citizens.

The film opens with Cohen as an old-but-still-vivacious performer portraying FDR in a musical extravaganza before being summoned by the real FDR to the White House. Cohen arrives and decides to tell the President his life story. Sure, the President is overseeing America’s involvement in WWII at the time, but he’s got a few hours to kill. We cut to scenes of Cohen’s birth (the first thing he does is hold the American flag) and witness scenes of him as a young performer. He was part of a family acting troupe with his Father (Walter Houston), Mother (Rosemary DeCamp) and Sister (Jeanne Cagney) and learned to be stuck up because of his talent at a very young age.

These early sequences are some of the strongest in the film because they are in such a stark contrast to the humble version of the character we meet in the first moments. We begin to really dislike Cohen thanks to his bratty persona as a child. In one hilarious moment after Cohen has lost his parents a job because they weren’t giving him enough star credit (that’s not the funny part), Cohen’s father decides to discipline him. But, darn it, he can’t smack the kid in the face without making a bruise big enough to be noticeable on stage the next day. A jack to the jaw might hinder his singing. What to do?

Cagney takes over the role with inspired vivacity, putting his all into dancing (not bad) and singing (not good, but he fakes it well) when necessary, and bouncing off the walls with energy in scenes where he does not sing. There is a beautiful early scene where he is so good at portraying an old man onstage that when he meets his future wife when she comes to him seeking the advice of a seasoned performer about whether she should move to New York. His early cockiness is put to rest after he spends years pounding the pavement with good material only to discover no one in town will hire him because he has such a bad reputation. After a lucky encounter, he gets not only a show onstage but a producing partner, and faster than a screen wipe he becomes a sensation.

As Cohen’s success becomes more established the movie becomes less about the character’s life and more reliant on musical numbers. According to the film, Cohen only created one flop, a straight play with no national undertones, and on opening night he sent a wire to all the New York newspapers jokingly apologizing for the mistake and promising never to do it again. He loses all of his blood family, including his sister, but we don’t see how this affects his work or state of mind, though the movie does make time for a tearful goodbye to Cohen’s father on his death bed.

Look, I know absolutely nothing about Cohen’s life and how closely the movie held true to his life story. I make a point of doing no research or reading any critical analysis before writing the articles because it’s extremely important for any classic film to stand on its own. But I can safely assume that the real Cohen was alive when the film was produced and released, and that might be why the second half of the film portrays him so blandly and turns him into a two-dimensional hero. I believe that is why the film laughs off his one flop and does not linger on the tragedies in his family. Whatever the case, I wanted more and I wanted to see Cohen’s inner struggle balanced with his outer gaiety. Cagney is a fantastic dramatic actor and he could have easily handled darker scenes, but alas that did not happen.

Michael Curtiz never really made a point of showing off in his films, and the results were good (sometimes great), craftsmen pieces with a nice emotional core thanks to his penchant for perfection in his casting choices. There are one or two technically accomplished moments in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” like where we catch snippets of Cohen and his wife’s travels around the world by looking at the stamps on their traveling trunks, or when Curtis sums up nearly a decade of Cohen’s creative output by panning from show-name to show-name up in lights on Broadway. But mostly he keeps his camera steady and fixed on Cagney’s face and body, and he was smart to do it. Cagney is just aces here, emoting the quiet soul of his character (something not in any dialogue) and balancing it with his over-the-top public persona.

Many of the musical numbers are, of course, still standards most people are familiar with, and all of them are hummable, but the film often focuses on them for much too long. We don’t need to see the entire five-minute song with choreography when we can get everything we need from the performance from one chorus and a verse. We get two major songs and a whole slice of the plot from Cohen’s first major hit “Little Johnny Jones” and though it might not be 20 minutes long, it certainly feels that way.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” acts as the blue-print to almost every major bio-pic released on the market today. The movies are almost never very good, but the actors at the center are just so charismatic and embody their characters so well that the movie seems much better than it actually is. “Dandy,” I’m sorry to say, is no exception to that rule.

My score (out of 5): ***

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