Yankee Doodle Dandy is a 1942 film directed by Michael Curtiz. It stars James Cagney in the lead role of George M. Cohan, with supporting roles by Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, and Richard Whorf. In the interest of full disclosure – I have no idea who these people are. I’ve heard of James Cagney, but couldn’t have told you a thing about him before watching this movie.
My most lasting impression of this movie is that it felt like a propaganda piece – much of it was glorifying the American way of life, including theater, hard work, retiring to the country, etc. It is certainly more than that, as it is a loose biography of George M. Cohan, who was once referred to as “the man who owned Broadway”. Cohan did own Broadway in the years before WWI, putting on over fifty musicals from 1904 to 1920. While the film did take some liberties with aspects of his life, it is mostly an accurate representation of Cohan.
The plot (no spoilers ahead, don’t worry) follows the life of Cohan from working as a little boy with his parent’s vaudville shows to his eventual dominance of Broadway. It is mostly a feel-good affair, with only a few scenes presenting a negative feel. Perhaps Cohan’s life was as easy as it is portrayed in the film, but I doubt it. At one point his family is living in a sort of actor’s bunkhouse, with the housekeeper preferring to put them at the end of the table so they received less food, due to their lack of work at the time (Cohan had essentially blacklisted them around town because he was a cocky asshole). Cohan quickly rights the situation by lying and saying that he has booked a play, then miraculously piggy-backs with his eventual partner, Sam Harris, to convince a theater to show “their” play. The rest, as they say, is history.
The film did well in splitting time between musical scenes and drama. I was initially pessimistic about watching this movie, as I was told it was a “musical…about musicals”. While true, it isn’t the whole story. Yankee Doodle provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look at showbiz in the pre-war years. Cohan is depicted as a witty, cunning man – always has a quick, sharp reply to both questions and challenges. He seems to say almost everything with a smirk, which bugged me at first but I got used to it. The family is shown to be universally loving and supportive throughout the movie, which makes them somewhat forgettable. Sam Harris’s character is also generally portrayed as supportive, and on occasion that he challenges Cohan, Cohan converts him with a witty remark and a smirk.
Yankee Doodle had many aesthetic aspects that I enjoy. I love black and white films because the lighting is always so dramatic and important. In particular, there is a scene with Cohan sitting alone at a piano on a stage, crafting a new song. The lighting is great, coming from only one side of the stage, so the shadows are long and dramatic. Cohan looks as though he is part of the piano at first, and as the camera pans in more and more nuance shows. It is just the type of scene that I love watching older movies for. As I mentioned earlier, Curtiz did a good job of showing the musicals without letting them overwhelm the film. Since I don’t know a lot about movie history, I could be wrong here, but I think that this movie was made during the time where many actors and actresses were crossing over from the stage to the silver screen. I see this movie as a bit of a bridge – many aspects showcased the “old” way of doing things, but it is a “new” movie. Indeed, at one point Cohan makes a remark about making his name in the “legitimate” theater – referring to Broadway.
I’m not going to rank or score these movies as I watch them – I figure AFI has already done that. I will say that I enjoyed this movie more than I expected, but it wouldn’t be at the top of my list.