Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942) It's the Fourth of July. Traditionally, I've stop-gapped the date by just tossing out James' Cagney's signature dance routine of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (and not to stop the tradition, it's below).

But, I've never reviewed it, musicals not being my particular cup of tea.

But, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a little different. The biggest reason: Cagney. That man's presence is enough to make me want to watch any movie. But, he had made his name in films playing tough guys and gangsters—smart-alecks, who were strangely likable although capable of extreme, often shocking violence. Maybe it was because he was so believable, and so damn confident. And he had a tough grace with coiled intensity, an economy of movement and a theatrical flair. That quality might have been inherent as Cagney considered himself more of a song and dance man—"a hoofer," as he described it, even if his singing wasn't the best, the man sold songs so convincingly and with such brio, you didn't much care.

11 years in vaudeville (his first on-stage role was actually in drag), then starting his career in movies,  the opportunities came more from acting than dancing. And he became—in the opinions of no less peers than Orson Welles and George C. Scott*—the best of the old studio actors, in that he was more than merely truthful and authentic, he was also theatrically interesting. But, his favorite performance was his Oscar-winning turn as George M. Cohan for the Warner Brothers bio-musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was a project born of a certain political necessity for the star, who considered it only after it had been tossed around as potential film material for years, owing to the difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of its subject, who was still alive at the time. With Cagney's enthusiasm assured—and studio-head Jack L. Warner had had issues with the star previously—Warner struck a deal with the stage entrepreneur to push the project forward.**
The film is told in flashback mode: George M. Cohan (James Cagney) has left retirement behind for the chance of playing President Roosevelt in a staging of a satirical musical "I'd Rather Be Right" and, after a night's performance, is called to the White House to meet with the sitting President. Fearing the worst (His wife Mary (Joan Leslie) reassures him "Don't worry, dear they don't telegraph you to come and be shot at dawn." Cohan is escorted to the Oval Office, where he is greeted warmly by the President—the first time in American films that a current President had been depicted—and is asked to tell him his story. Cohan is only too happy to comply—in the film, Cohan's rival Eddie Foy (played by his son Eddie Foy, Jr.), looking at how many times Cohan's name is mentioned on a show poster, cracks that the "M" must stand for "Modest."

Cagney's Cohan tells of being born on the fourth of July, 1878 (it was actually July 3rd, but....1) it's a musical not a documentary and 2) it's the legend, so...) to a variety performer, Jerry Cohan (Walter Huston) and his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp). With the edition of a sister Josie (Cagney's sister, Jeanne), the family becomes its own travelling troupe as per Cohan's narration:
I guess the first thing I ever had my fist on was the American flag. I hitched my wagon to thirty-eight stars. And thirteen stripes. You know, I was six or seven years old before I realized they weren't celebrating my birthday on the Fourth of July. Then my folks got a real break when my little sister, Josie, made her entrance. She grew to love show business just as she loved everybody and everything. We toured the kerosene circuit in a tank show called 'Daniel Boone on the Trail.' Everybody doubled in brass. Dad walloped the bass drum. For some reason they teamed me with a donkey. I was a good Democrat, even in those days. Mother and Josie threw out handbills. Their smiles would have sold tickets to wooden Indians. They kept putting new stars in the flag and the Cohans kept rushing out to meet them. We had jokes to match every cornfield. We sang at every milk station.
"I was a good Democrat, even in those days"—but Cohan (in real life) was actually a staunch conservative Republican. Well, it's not a documentary. The narration continues: 
We trouped through depression and inflation. Part of the country's growing pains. We froze in winter and roasted in summer. But it was a good life. It's a lucky family that dances together every day. Eighteen ninety-one found our fortunes flat as a pancake. Then came a bolt from the blue. Jobs for the whole family in a play called "Peck's Bad Boy." We opened in Brooklyn. The town was noted for its spirited audiences. Even before it had a ball team.
"Peck's Bad Boy" becomes a hit for the family, and young George becomes the stand-out star, giving the kid a swelled head, and causing some friction in the family and amid the theater circuit. He's a constant self-promoter, always pushing himself, his songs, his plays—it gets to the point where the theater community blackballs him for his incessant braggadocio and grandstanding, which runs the risk of scuttling his family's careers and that of his new wife, Mary (Joan Leslie), herself a singer. The film follows Cohan's path from failure to success juxtaposing scenes of dealing and composing with musical sequences, showing off Cagney's skills—which are truly amazing at times—performing the various "greatest hits" of his career in back-rooms and on stage.
Many of the musical sequences copy the stagings of the original presentations , which is where the movie most adheres to some kind of truth. When songs were written and in what plays they appeared is all askew. And, the film suffers from the type of "he was inspired to write this" moments that make their way into most musical biographies. Also, Cohan had married twice—neither of his wives were named "Mary"***—and his mother died before his father. Coahn was only months before passing away and the production was a bit rushed in post, so that he could see a private presentation of it. It is said that, once the lights came up, he remarked: "It was a good movie. Who was it about?" But, that's such a good line, I even doubt the truthfulness of that (after all, he was the technical consultant on it).
But, more charitably he said "I'd hate to follow that act." One can see why given the energetic brio that the star brought to the performance and the movie in general. Cagney also manages to make extremely Cohan likable, no matter what shenanigans he pulls off, no matter how much a blowhard he is portrayed as. After all, if the man could make gangsters sympathetic...why not an accomplished hoofer? And, with the country gearing up for war (the film was in production when Pearl Harbor was attacked), the film's overt patriotism and pro-war stance—Warners was the one studio in Hollywood that wasn't afraid to be pro-intervention and publicly anti-Nazi—was perfectly timed to benefit from a country attacked and ready for a fight. Its patriotism served another purpose as well.
Cagney's battles with studio management—Jack Warner called him "The Great 'Againster,'" a term he reveled in—and his battles for Unions in positions both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood (and, in his vaudeville days, he'd not been a fan of Cohan's after the man had sided with the producers' side in the 1919 Actor's Strike) put Cagney in a predicament with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Communist Party had included Cagney when "naming naming" in secret grand jury testimony, and Cagney had been subpoenaed. The New York Times published a headline naming Cagney a Communist. Although exonerated of the charges, Cagney's business manager, his brother William, determined that, if they wanted to dispel any suspicions in the public's mind, "we’re going to have to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made." So, they campaigned Jack Warner to make the movie, with Cohan's approval (Cohan preferred Fred Astaire, but Astaire turned it down as the two men's dancing styles were, to his mind, too far apart). Cagney got the lead and the headlines stopped.
Liberals, progressives—whatever label you want to hang on it—has always had a history of being an irritant to this country. The status quo don't like being told that they're actually old fogies rather than protectors of the flame. So, the country's history is rich with the investigations into anti-American activities whether they're red or even slightly pinko. It is the tradition of the left to be chased by dinosaurs in the time they have before they become extinct. It's the big joke if a liberal survives the chase for long enough, they'll turn into the old fogey rallying against the next evolution of liberal. And it's been that way since a bunch of radicals created the concept of this country, saying to their bewigged masters-in-absentia an ocean away that government had more to do with what you could bring to the table, rather than who your father was. I'm sure they were called much worse than "lib-tards" for that idea. But, we celebrate them today, quite forgetting the squabbling of history. History is always the best judge.


** Cohan, while working with screen-writer Robert Buckner, asked "Would anyone go to see it? I don't want to be connected to a box-office flop." Buckner replied "Tell you what, we'll give away dishes and make sure." When the film was completed, it is reported after seeing the film by himself at a requested preview, he wired the writer "Thanks, kid. Hope you don't run out of dishes."

*** This was evidently because Cohan's ex-wife was putting pressure for money if she was depicted. Truth is more expensive than fiction.

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