Let’s get started with a bang! Or rather, with a trumpet blare and a wave of the flag. Last night I watched the first movie on my list, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and what a way to start this project: singing, dancing, and a whole lot of flag waving.
First, a synopsis for those of you who are unfamiliar with this movie. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” stars James Cagney in one of his most famous roles as the singer/dancer/actor/producer/songwriter George M. Cohan. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen or heard it tacked on to some of America’s most beloved patriotic songs including “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” among many others. This movie tells the story of his life. Pretty simple.
I had seen clips from this movie before last night but had never watched the whole thing, and I have to admit, I was a little unsure at first. I tend to dislike musical biopics. As soon as you recover from the shock of hearing me say there’s a kind of musical I don’t like, I’ll explain why. I feel a bit cheated when a musical doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s like when you pick up a murder mystery novel and find out at the end that the victim committed suicide. It’s not what you signed up for. And, unfortunately, real life tends to be quite a bit messier than life in the musicals. So, when I watch a musical biopic and the main character ultimately gets divorced or loses his business or dies, I feel cheated out of a happy musical experience. I either want to see a musical or a biopic, not both together.
However, this movie surprised me. Cagney’s character started at the bottom and went up, up, up ending with a happy marriage, a successful career in show business, and since George M. Cohan was still alive at the time of the making of this movie, no death scene (except for that of George’s aging father). After reading a short bio on Mr. Cohan, I can say that the movie’s uplifting effect was due to the fact that they left out or changed several important facts about his life, even completely omitting an early marriage. George M. Cohan himself, upon seeing the finished product, said, “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”
That being said, I am still grateful to everyone involved in the making of this movie that they made it exactly as they did. Whatever else may have happened in his life and whatever liberties the studio may have taken, George M. Cohan has had a profound effect upon anyone who’s ever heard his music. During wartime, his songs became anthems and boosted the morale of our boys abroad. I was perfectly okay with the fact that this movie chose to focus on the good, the uplifting, and the success of Mr. Cohan’s life because that was the legacy he left us with. This movie celebrates that legacy with a lot of heart.
To show you what I mean, I’m going to share a couple scenes that made the movie for me. The first one is a scene in which George Cohan writes a song for his future wife, Mary. Not only is the song as wonderful as you’d expect from Mr. Cohan (I went to sleep and woke up humming it to myself), but the scene as a whole is a perfect example of the warmth and the heart I mentioned:
The second scene I’m going to share is one that just filled me with awe, because of both the music and James Cagney’s talent. It’s a big production musical number of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and it had exactly the intended effect on me, that is, a huge swell of patriotic pride (unfortunately, this clip is colorized and cut out over half the number, but it’s the best I could find):
The final scene I wanted to take a moment to discuss was the ending scene. It really will only take me a moment, because I’ve decided not to give away any endings in any of my postings. If one of my posts inspires someone to go rent the movie themselves, I don’t want to spoil it. However, that being said, endings are often my favorite part of the movies. A good ending can make me forgive any sin committed in the rest of the film and convince me to re-watch it over and over again. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had such an ending. Again, I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that Cagney cried and so did I.
Now, before I finish, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about why this movie was so successful, both at the time and now, 71 years later. This movie was made in 1942 and the year speaks volumes about why it was such a success. First of all and most importantly, we were in the midst of World War II. Between the rousing wartime tunes like “Over There” and the overall feeling of patriotism in the movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” struck a chord with the movie going public and proved itself incredibly relevant to what was going on at the time. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards that year including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and it won 3 of those 8 for Best Actor (James Cagney), Best Music, and Best Sound/Recording.
Very quickly, there are two more reasons why 1942 audiences and critics loved “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The first is, in 1942 James Cagney was at the height of his popularity, possibly second only to Clark Gable in the public’s eyes. His draw at the box-office definitely gave this movie an edge. The second reason is that early Hollywood was very nostalgic about vaudeville, seeing as how many of them had gotten their start there. George M. Cohan was a vaudeville creation who made it to Broadway and gained worldwide recognition. It was the Hollywood dream.
Lastly, before I leave you, I want to end each post by giving my thoughts on why this movie has stood the test of time. Why did this movie make it onto the AFI’s Top 100 instead of another movie? For “Yankee Doodle Dandy” the answer is simple. It’s the music. We know these songs by heart and they’ve come to define American patriotism. They move us. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is all around a great film: superb acting, wonderful storytelling, and fantastic dancing. But the heart of this movie lies in the music. So, I end this post by saying as Cagney said, “everybody, sing!”