I remember way back in the days of high school I though it a worthy idea to take a web design class. The high school I went to at the time was far from exceptional and certainly lacked all the resources to actively and properly teach a class, especially since our professor insisted on the use of Geocities as a web server. While I did not learn anything worth value in relation to the art of html or designing of websites, we were fortunate to be provided with an assignment where we created a website for an actor or actress that had won an Academy Award, the only stipulation being that they could no longer be alive, thus limiting, rather considerably, who I could choose. When I was told that my choice of John Wayne would not suffice since he had only received an honorary Academy Award I decided, instead; to go with James Cagney. Knowing nothing of the man, I preceded to discover that not only was he an icon of the gangster picture of the thirties, but that he also happened to be in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a performance that netted him a deserved Oscar. This all happened well before I got into film, indeed, I think at that point I probably only cared about Lord of the Rings and could not be bothered to even acknowledge a world where other cinema might exist. Yet, in the back of my mind I had always had this curiosity about Yankee Doodle Dandy, looking at the stills from the film and hearing brief soundbites of the actor delivering lines. I have since then sought out the the film but never had the right moment to engage with it in any real way. This month of musicals, however, is such an occasion and it was a frontrunner for inclusion. Thankfully so, because Yankee Doodle Dandy within all of its grandstanding, jingoistic patriotism is something extraordinary, it is the forties musical at its most realized and absolutely fitting as a World War II propaganda piece that also doubles as an exceptional film. It is baffling to think that Michael Curtiz released this film in the same year as Casablanca. Other directors would work through their entire career just to obtain the success of one of these singular works. For Curtiz it was a matter of multiple occurrences in the same year. However, what is exceptionally phenomenal about Yankee Doodle Dandy, is not the work of Curtiz, although it helps, it is wholly the magic that the unlikeliest of performers brings to stage, the incomparable James Cagney.
Yankee Doodle Dandy focuses on the life of George M. Cohan (James Cagney) prolific songwriter and performer, known for his patriotic tunes "Over There" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," although it sets the narrative up within the context of the elderly Cohan meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jack Young) whom Cohan has recently played in a musical. Inquiring as to his thoughts on performing, Cohan begins to unfold his entire life story for the president, looking back on his time in vaudeville shows with his father, mother and sister, wherein he made a huge break taking on the role of Peck's bad boy, landing him in the curious eyes of agents and showman hoping to exploit his talent for huge financial gain. In a wave of precociousness, a young Cohan is able to negotiate highly for his family, so much so that they can live comfortably well into Cohan's late twenties when the performer takes a shift towards songwriting specifically. The Irish-American Cohan finding great joy in creating songs about the power and strength of America, making a name for himself in his rousing performances of revues that included songs like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Yet, Cohan seemingly always aware of the expectations of both audiences and critics strives to achieve the best possible in each scenario, answering the demands by critics that he branch away from his singular use of flag waving, or showy dance numbers. Through trials and tribulations, Cohan manages to find his niche, always bring delight to audiences, even stepping in to serve as a figure of morale to troops during World War I when he is informed his age is a severe limitation to his being able to join the service. Of course, age does catch up with Cohan, as does it with the rest of his family, both his mother and father stepping down from their jobs as performer to retire. As they do so, Cohan comes to realize that the world around him is moving into a world of moving pictures and popular music, his show tune days becoming as aged as his body. Yet, the spirit of resilience remains strong with Cohan, thus affording him a part in a play about Roosevelt. In this moment the narrative returns to Cohan's discussion with the president, wherein Roosevelt rewards Cohan with a medal thanking him for his service to the country. The elated Cohan dances down the stairs out into the streets, where marching soldiers are sing his tune, Cohan joining in the procession with tears in his eyes.
Jingoistic as Yankee Doodle Dandy may be, it is quite difficult to find a film with more inherent heart and good feeling within its structure. Sure the film exists in a time when racial identity and gender oppression were troublesome, yet unlike the earlier reviewed Show Boat, Yankee Doodle Dandy does not purport to make these elements part of their narrative only to turn around and destroy them for the sake of white privilege. The narrative of Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic first, afforded its musical status almost entirely as a result of its subject matter. Music here works in a very literal sense, as they serve as depictions of moments from Cohan's life, as opposed to non-diegetic intrusions into the diegetic world of cinema that become things with which characters react. Yankee Doodle Dandy, despite also being propaganda, also manages to tackle some issues of who is allowed to appropriate the American identity, particularly in a time when such actions took up layered implications. Cahon's Irishness within the film, while not wholly acknowledged, is integral to the text, his attempts to break into the larger revue field, requires that he and his sister perform a song about Irish individuals, wherein, Cohan delivers his lines with a severe accent, almost knowing performing this element to mock the listening agents. It makes within its narrative quite clear that the American mentality during World War II, even with something as seemingly inconsequential as music served as a state of heighten defensiveness, almost to the point of being confrontational. Hell, one only needs to read the lyrics to "Over There" to discover how exceptionally flag-waving and idealistic films of the era proved to be. It also works on layers, however, by showing Cohan interacting with a younger audience that to properly exert propaganda must require working within the space of the old ideas of entertainment (Cohan and his music) and new experiences within culture (the kids speaking adoringly of movies). In many ways this is what Yankee Doodle Dandy does so brilliantly, it manages to be a culture exploration of patriotism and pride that works for a generation living with film and one who is decidedly confused by its operations.
Key Scene: "He's a yankee doodle dandy...."
Buy this film. It is an important backbone in the narrative of American cinema.