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AFInity: Yankee Doodle Dandy

By Kim Hollis

June 26, 2009

There's nothing on Earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!

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Yankee Doodle Dandy sets the standard, though, as its flashy production values, elaborate set pieces, and big-time star turn for Jimmy Cagney all add up to something special, particularly for a black-and-white movie released in 1942. While it's not the greatest American musical or the greatest American biopic ever released, the fact that it combines the two genres into an upbeat, wholly entertaining movie does make it a worthy entry into the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list.

That's not to say that the movie doesn't have its flaws. If you're looking for a movie with real substance, Yankee Doodle Dandy is probably not the best choice. It's fluffy, fun and all about flag-waving (with a few tragic "Circle of Life" events). It glosses over the fact that Cohan was actually married before meeting his second wife, the woman he'd stay with until he died, and you get the feeling that there had to be some darker stuff in his life that the movie just doesn't cover.

Additionally, the movie is bookended with scenes showing Cohan as he meets with president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (rumor has it that Cohan hated FDR in real life), and it's a bit of a jarring experience since the actor portraying the 32nd president (Jack Young) is simply awful. It almost sounds as though he's reading his lines from a children's storybook. Fortunately, his screen time is limited to less than five total minutes, so it's easy to overlook in the grand scheme of things.

One other element that might take 21st century viewers out of the film is the treatment of African-Americans. We see a couple of servants in the White House, and they're exactly the stereotype that you might imagine, unfortunately. There's also a group that performs in a minstrel show being produced by Cohan, but it doesn't make money and has to be shut down. Once again, the people in these roles are caricatures of the time. Worst of all is the fact that the Four Cohans - the performing troupe comprised of Cohan and his father, mother and sister - appears in blackface at one point in the movie. While it was perfectly acceptable behavior during the time Cohan and his family were performing (and even when the movie was filmed), we all know that these people would be run out of town on a rail.




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But if you can get past the ridiculous-sounding FDR and the issue of the stereotypes of the day, there's a lot to recommend Yankee Doodle Dandy. Michael Curtiz, who was also the man behind the camera for Casablanca, Angels With Dirty Faces and White Christmas, directs with a deft touch. There's a similar tone and feel to all of his projects even with their disparate subject matter.

Other than the silly FDR portrayal, all of the performances in the film are solid, with special note going to the great Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan (George's father) and, of course, James Cagney as George M. Cohan himself. Cagney won the Oscar for Best Actor for this role, beating the likes of Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees and Walter Pidgeon for Mrs. Miniver (which won Best Picture). While I'm impressed with Cagney's ability to be fast-talking and confident (just as Cohan is reputed to have been), it's his dancing and singing ability that really knock my socks off. Since most of us know Cagney primarily for his roles in gangster movies like The Roaring Twenties, Angels With Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy, it's a delight to see him hoofing it up in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Most people will be surprised to learn that Cagney got his start as a dancer, and his talent is on full display here. Given the fact that I have a background in tap dance myself (and continue to dance today), I can testify to the fact that a number of Cagney's moves are really difficult - though he incorporates plenty of classic stuff into the mix as well. As for his singing style, he emulates the real Cohan's technique of both singing and speaking his songs, all while infusing the character with something that just makes the role all Cagney's.

Overall, Yankee Doodle Dandy is completely a product of its time. Production on the film was occurring when the attacks occurred at Pearl Harbor, and a decision was made at that point to give the movie its buoyant, patriotic qualities. It opened during the summer of 1942, at a time when the United States was fully involved in the World War II. It was exactly the kind of movie the country needed, released when news from the front was much harder to come by and movies were one of the only real sources of escape. It's a significant piece of Americana, and as such, its position on the AFI list is certainly justifiable.

On a side note, Cohan was able to see a private screening of Yankee Doodle Dandy while he was in the late stages of abdominal cancer. I think he had to have been pleased with the final result.

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