Yankee Doodle Dandy

I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #100, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Like musicals? Me neither. Like propaganda? Me neither. Like James Cagney? LOVE James Cagney.

Welcome to the AFI Top 100 Project…But Why?

In 1998, the American Film Institute released 100 Years…100 Movies, commonly known as the AFI Top 100, a list of the 100 greatest and most significant American movies. Most of the films are widely hailed as timeless classics such as Casablanca, The Godfather and Citizen Kane. Many others are closer to milestones than classics, such as Birth of a Nation, Easy Rider and The Jazz Singer. But more than a few of them fall into a third category, the ones you only hear about from film buffs and PBS, usually described with “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

While I’ve always wanted to fill glaring gaps in my viewing history like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s that last category that most interests me.

Are these long-forgotten gems simply waiting to be rediscovered by today’s jaded audiences, or have they slipped from our memory for a reason? After all, is Bringing Up Baby actually better than the Pink Panther movies? Is All Quiet on the Western Front better than Saving Private Ryan?

New or old, mainstream or indie, expensive or cheap, no personal opinion should be formed based on the consensus of others. So I’m on a quest to separate the hype from the truth. Tune in every week for another entry. Note: There is an updated 10th Anniversary Edition of the Top 100, which removed some listings and added new ones. The order and listed rankings of this series will be based on the original 1998 list unless otherwise noted.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

So strong is the legacy of James Cagney as a psychopathic gangster that if you say his name in a crowded room, at least one person will start wheezily reciting “Youuu dirty raaaat” (a misquote, by the way). Thanks to electrifying performances in films like Angels with Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy (video below), for film audiences of the 1930s and early 40s, Cagney was the embodiment of psychopathic gangsters with murderous vendettas:

Now imagine your surprise if that same guy started hoofing it vaudeville-style in a flag-waving musical about one of Broadway’s biggest stars. If you’re having trouble imagining the shock, just think back to when Ted “Theodore” Logan started fighting Cowboy Curtis and it was awesome.

Who, What, Where…

Yankee Doodle Dandy tells the story of George M. Cohan, the prolific composer, singer, dancer, actor, songwriter and producer, most famous for patriotic numbers like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” After being summoned to the White House for an audience, Cohan proceeds to tell his entire life story to FDR in the form of a single, extended, fully-narrated flashback. This is distracting for the first 20 minutes or so, but the film quickly shows that character and dialogue are not its big selling points. The story continues the way it does in most musicals, with showstopping performances interrupted by necessary plot. But you’re not here to learn more about the life of George Cohan, you’re here to see James Cagney dance and charm up a storm and feel great about being American.

…When, Why

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made in 1942 by director Michael Curtiz, who made almost nothing but war films from 1941-1945. While a couple of them were quite good, even great (Casablanca, The Sea Wolf), many were straight propaganda that served no purpose other than to get people excited for the war (Captain of the Clouds also starring Cagney, Mission to Moscow, Dive Bomber).

The musical numbers in this film are top-notch, and James Cagney won a much-deserved Oscar for his performance.

Not only is he a technically spectacular performer, but his dancing actually has a unique personality and style to it. He may not be much of a singer, but his half-spoken half-sung style (apparently based on Cohan’s own style) puts his own personal stamp on the songs he sings, and makes his numbers more memorable than those performed by the more professional singers in the film. I’ve never trusted the phrase “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” but in the case of James Cagney, there certainly are no performers I can think of today who throw themselves into their work with such skill, grace and personality as he did. He is the star of this film and is the real reason to watch it.

Waving a Flag Doesn’t Make You a Patriot

I won’t criticize the film for incessant flag-waving as that was a hallmark of Cohan’s life and work, and feel-good films made to express patriotism are a-ok by me. However, several times the film mutates into extended, expensive-looking set-pieces of Cohan’s own musicals, often making them more lavish than the musicals themselves probably were. These scenes hint at an ulterior motive, that the producers actively wanted viewers to get excited about sending American troops abroad. Granted, this was WWII and everyone was excited to kick Hitler’s ass, but a scene in which Cohan leads troops in a chorus of “Over There” seems to intentionally blur that these are troops fighting in WWI, a war in which everybody had murky intentions. Curtiz blurs the lines between WWI and WWII the same way M*A*S*H blurred the lines between Korea and Vietnam, but for the opposite reasons.

The film also assumes that flag-waving on its own is a virtue.

It is not a love for America and American values that inspire Cohan, it’s waving the flag and cheering on the march to war. Cohan even says at one point, “It’s a good thing I wasn’t born an Englishman. With the history their flag has, I would’ve waved myself to death.” The British Empire still ruled India and much of Africa in 1942. Cohan essentially says that had he been born English he would have been pro-Empire, offering himself up as a nationalist who just happens to be American.

Patriotism can be a great thing, the love of one’s countrymen can inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things. If you’re proud of a flag, by all means, wave it. But during every musical number in this movie, this scene from the 1936 Soviet film Circus was lurking in the back of my head and I couldn’t help but wonder if Cohan’s musicals would resemble this had he been born in Russia (Watch through to the end, you don’t need to speak Russian to know what’s going on):

Comments: See it for the same reasons you’d see any George M. Cohan musical -- the upbeat music, the agile hoofing, the flag-waving spectacle. Cagney’s dancing is spectacular. Not much else here.

Deserves to be in Top 100: Top 100 Musicals, certainly. Top 100 Musical Performances for Cagney, absolutely. Top 100 Films of All Time…I’m not so sure. West Side Story and Singin’ In the Rain are great films on top of being great musicals. This ain’t no great film.

Inspired: All movies with loose plots about musicians that are elevated by the music and lead performance; Ray, Crazy Heart, The Buddy Holly Story.

Next Week: #99 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.





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