Thursday, July 2, 2015

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942) Of all the films in James Cagney's storied career, his favorite was his most unusual—not one of his gangster films (some of which revolted him) or his dramatic efforts, but this one, the one that won him his Best Actor Oscar, the musical biography (very loose) based on the life of George M. Cohan. Cagney always described himself as "a hoofer," starting out as a dancer in vaudeville, and the athleticism did him well in Hollywood. Cagney's energy, timing, and directness—his grace (even if he was playing a hood)—came from this background, and the compensatory toughness came from his growing up and observing the streets, providing "that unmistakable touch of the gutter," as he eloquently put it in his acceptance speech for the second AFI Lifetime Achievement Award.

Yankee Doodle Dandy begins with Cohan (Cagney) on Broadway playing Franklin Roosevelt in "I'd Rather Be Right" when he is summoned to the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from FDR himself. The visit gives him a chance to tell his life-story to the President, which is presented in flash-back form, from his early days to performing with his family (Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney) to the lean years when stubbornness gets him blackballed in the theater community, and he has to struggle back to the stage by song-writing,* eventually coming back and becoming the King of Broadway.
It's still startling to see Cagney's dance moves; loose, limber below the waste, and ramrod straight above, his movements alternate between drunken sloppiness that looks like it could severely snap tendons if gone wrong, and stiff-legged woodenness, giving the impression that he's a puppet with the strings cut—not really in control of his own movements (and, of course, he always was—that was the illusion of it all, the mastery of it), but compelled to dance for the sheer energy of it forced him to do so. It's scary, but Cagney always is. He is, after all, the guy who shoots people by pumping the pistol forward, as if the movement puts more energy in the bullet to kill faster, make it more definite, more personal. His gangsters make the guns part of them, rather than just a tool.  
Some of the moves look archaic, compared with the gymnastics-as-dance school today—the leaping and bouncing off a wall (as if there wasn't enough room on stage) looks tame now, even though it amazed me as a kid, but the high kicks I appreciate more, the toe-steps, the tap—all amazing.  And they look spontaneous, which in itself is a marvel.
It's a feel-good musical about celebrating the spirit of America, which we all do on the Fourth of July. That it happened during war-time, added mightily to the propaganda potential of it (and, although it's always been denied, might've helped Cagney get rid of the "pinko" label he was being saddled with at the time—my, how times haven't changed). But, it's a fine achievement, and Curtiz, who's known for hating unused space in a movie frame, overcrowds the stages—every theater-piece for this director was "SRO." And, although something of an autocrat, with musicals he let loose the reins (something Cagney appreciated) and allowed spirit to flow. Maybe that's why Yankee Doodle Dandy still seems fresh.
It was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993 for being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant."

* Cagney could relate.  He was constantly battling the Warner Brothers brass, at one point suing the production company and staying away. Jack Warner called him "The Great Againster."
** Evidently Cohan's final tap down the White House staircase at the end, was improvised.

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