Sunday, July 3, 2011

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) — It's a grand ol' film

This movie, on this particular U.S. national holiday weekend, is such an obvious title I'm almost embarrassed. Still, this musical biopic's apple pie Americana is to Independence Day what It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. Turner Classic Movies once again has it scheduled on the big day, as traditional as turkey at Thanksgiving.

Far be it from me to knock such a fine tradition.

It may be as corny as the Uncle Sam on stilts leading a Flag Day parade, but Yankee Doodle Dandy stars the irresistibly watchable James Cagney in a high-flying hagiography of actor-hoofer-songwriter-playwright George M. Cohan, the vaudevillian child star who grew into the brassy toast of the Great White Way. Today he's best known for composing standards such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Over There," "Grand Ol' Flag," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," songs that helped a nation get through World War I and beyond.

Now, in any alternate universe where this movie was never made, I wouldn't give George M. Cohan a second thought. Even a first would be a peculiar occurrence. And my personal patriotism, which comes with a benign foundation of measured cynicism, desires little truck with the sort of treacly sentiment that comes thick as Vermont molasses in January.

And yet. Every year at this time I give Yankee Doodle Dandy a spin and there's Cagney getting me to sing along — or at least hum and toe-tap — with his only-in-Hollywood incarnation of that bygone era's Broadway triple threat. It doesn't hurt that he comes packaged in the high level of movie-making craft that you expect from Warner Brothers in its era of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Hollywood never let facts get in the way of a good story (e.g., Cohan had two wives, neither first-named Mary), and this is Hollywood at its myth-making, revisionist best. Yes, the material is hackneyed. The opening setup with the the gray-haired, long-established Cohan meeting with FDR in the White House includes both a discomfiting black servant stereotype and FDR's voice unconvincingly overdubbed by an uncredited Art Gilmore. The way that scene kicks off the remaining film's structure — "It started with a pretty funny incident about sixty years ago..." cue flashback — might elicit a stifled chuckle.

But you can't take your eyes off that powerhouse Cagney for a second. He reached back to his Broadway roots to play song-and-dance man Cohan. He infuses his interpretation of Cohan with the ka-pow! energy and charisma that make his gangster roles so memorable. Favorite scenes include Cohan and his future wife Mary (Joan Leslie) meeting cute, the deathbed moment with his father (Walter Huston), and Cohan taking Broadway by storm.

Production began the day after Pearl Harbor, which the cast heard about huddled around the studio radio. When the movie premiered on Memorial Day 1942, the war was not going well for U.S. forces, so the upbeat story and musical numbers were the Fourth of July sparklers that World War II audiences needed. Yankee Doodle Dandy became Warner Brothers' top-grossing movie of the year and its top-grosser to that time.

Directed by Warner's versatile workhorse Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is as much a part of America-at-war 1942 as Curtiz's Casablanca, which premiered the same year. Like that Bogart classic, Yankee Doodle Dandy represents the best of its breed, in this case the rags-to-riches, feel-good story of success achieved through equal parts determination, talent, and good ol' American pluck.

Because Curtiz allowed him to improvise while the cameras rolled, Cagney proved that he was more than just the hard-bitten gangsters that had made him a top screen tough guy in hits such as The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces.

At only 5'-6" he was a nimble and agile dynamo. When his Cohan performs "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on Broadway we get one of the great Hollywood musical numbers. During the scene in which Cohan says goodbye to his dying father, Cagney's performance so moved the typically imperturbable Curtiz that the director began bawling and ruined a take.

A clear moment of Cagney's spontaneity occurs at the end when George, descending the White House stairs after a happy meeting with FDR, glides effortlessly into a tap-dance.

Said Cagney about it later, "I didn't think of it till five minutes before I went on. And I didn't check with the director or anything; I just did it." It's said to have been Cagney's personal favorite bit in the film. (I've stopped trying to replicate the moves while going down the steps to my Movie Room. It frightened the dog.)

Granted, besides Cagney the rest of the movie can be ... well, not a slog, really, but there is a reason why nowadays I do the Favorite Parts shuffle by fast-forwarding or chapter-skipping between the scenes where Cagney shows his stuff. Much of the narrative is too pat and by-the-book, and the hokum can get layered on like the dessert special at Applebee's. The romance between George M. and Mary is perfunctory, with Cagney and Joan Leslie generating little spark while still charmingly and obligingly fulfilling that requisite part of the plot.

Toward the end, the musical extravaganzas "Over There" and (the most shameless) "Grand Ol' Flag" (TCM clip) are magnificently produced but plainly aimed at rousing a movie-going audience to full-throated patriotic singalong — which is nice and "rah rah" and successful in their wartime, flag-waving, "America, Fuck Yeah!" aspirations, but they do shovel the corn into our laps while simultaneously hoping we stand up and cheer.

No matter. They're worth having if it means we also get Cagney's electric, spring-loaded, tour de force Broadway number surrounding the title song and "Give My Regards to Broadway," a scene that never fails to jolt me out of any torpor I might be in. A partial TCM clip is here.

I always love seeing S. K. Sakall again, the same year he immortalized Carl the headwaiter at Rick's Cafe.

As George M.'s showbiz family, the Four Cohans, rises from a traveling vaudeville act to bright lights fame and acclaim, Cagney's contribution to our collective Movie Quotes memory — "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you" — is a moving leitmotif, especially during Walter Huston's final scene, when George becomes the last of the Four Cohans left.

In George and Mary's "Harrigan" audition scene (TCM clip) Richard Whorf plays Sam Harris, Cohan’s long-time partner who ultimately became a famously prodigious Broadway theatrical producer. (My wife Elizabeth's mother, who as a young woman was a sometimes actress alongside Henry Fonda and Lloyd Bridges at the Westchester Playhouse summer rep, received an invitation to audition for Sam Harris, but her starched and conservative family forbade it; it's now one of our family's great "What if?" ponderables that always comes up during Yankee Doodle Dandy.)

Its eight Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Director, and Writing. It won three, with Cagney's only Best Actor statue being the biggie.

Cagney regarded this as his favorite film. The Budapest-born, English-challenged Curtiz described it as "the pinochle of my career."

Quaint and nostalgic and with no hint of postmodern irony, Yankee Doodle Dandy points to that More Innocent Time™ we keep hearing about but that never really existed outside of selective, revisionist memory. It delivers its red-white-and-blue patriotism to you by the exuberant bushel, yet this grand old film reminds us that there was a time when, for some, patriotism was more heartfelt and joyful than bullying and teabagged.

As a DVD, Warner Brothers' two-disc Special Edition stands up and salutes with a gorgeous print and transfer that make the black-and-white cinematography, by the masterful James Wong Howe, a thing of beauty all by itself. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio has been cleaned and bolstered to the hilt. (The film won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording.)

The disc's list of supplements starts with film historian Rudy Behlmer's enthusiastic, info-packed commentary track. 

James Cagney: Top of the World is a fine biographical documentary hosted by Michael J. Fox.  

Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy offers a comprehensive production retrospective with insights from Joan Leslie, John Travolta, Joel Grey, film historians Behlmer, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne, biographer David Collins, and more.

In a five-minute solo piece, Travolta movingly reveals how Cagney influenced his life professionally and personally.

Finally, Warner Night at the Movies takes us back to 1942, when a ticket stub bought you Looney Tunes shorts (in this instance a theme-matched pairing, Yankee Doodle Daffy and Yankee Doodle Bugs), a newsreel, and coming attractions before the feature. You, John Jones is an inspirational wartime propaganda short starring Cagney and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Music: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2
Near at hand: Pub sign reading "The Sherlock Holmes
, London, England"