Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
George M. Cohan was more than just a triple threat. This man could literally do everything involved with show business. He was on the stage, behind it, under it, beside it, and in front of it. Composing, acting, writing, directing, producing—some people take all the talent.
"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a film dedicated to the life of Cohan, showing him grow up on stage with his family—father, mother, and sister helped make "The Four Cohans"—and gradually make a name for himself.
George Michael Cohan (James Cagney) was born on the Fourth of July, cementing the boy's fate that he would grow up and do drastically patriotic things. When he was just a wee one, his father added him on to the act that up until then, just consisted of mom and dad. Young George (Douglas Croft) was a natural on the stage, he would play the violin on his head while he tap-danced. His props were American too...a flag would shoot out of his cane near the end of the act as he was dancing his way off the stage.
George soon had a sister, Josie, who was the young dancer of "The Four Cohans". The two siblings and their parents played everywhere that they could find, but instead of showing a family that was struggling to pay the rent, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is all fun and games and more musical numbers.
Young George gets a break when he plays a rapscallion in Peck's Bad Boy. Suddenly, he thinks mighty high of himself and a dreaded ego swells his prepubescent head. He talks down to the stage managers and thinks that reporters are there to congratulate him (in reality, these 'reporters' turn out to be local boys who teach Young George a lesson).
This little boy becomes incredibly hard to be around and even jeopardizes the family's career, for which he gets a few pats on the bottom and a finger is shaken at him. But does that stop this young rogue from being the downfall of his family? No, if anything it fuels the flame of his egomania...Freud would have had fun with Cohan.
As the years pass, Cohan matures (a little) and soon starts writing his own material. His original scripts and songs come off somewhat folksy, like a big-band Stephen Foster. There's nothing too complicated about his work, it's the charm of the music that affects people.
We see the hardships of George's rise to stardom, when no one would publish his music, nay, even touch the compositions. At this point we are supposed to be empathizing with Cohan, but I felt myself being frustrated with the celluloid version of the man.
There is no point when he actually is in any financial straits. There's always food on the table and a warm house to return to—the rent may be piling up but right when the landlady reaches into her pocket to fetch an ultimatum, he gets a breakthrough.
The first plays that Cohan starts making are brash and loud pieces that involve lots of singing and lots of dancing. Instead of giving us a bite of the action and then returning to Cohan the man—we get "Cohan the Musical". We see several numbers of George on stage, all the way through.
Then there's the patriotism, which is fine until it's overdone; and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" overdoes it until it looses all of its power.
Cohan reminds me of Buster Keaton from "The General" because he wants so desperately to serve his country, but he's unsure of how to do so. When he tries to go into the military (for World War I) he is told to stay home...he's too old. At 39, he thinks he's plenty spry and tells the men so—watch, he'll prove it with a quick tap-number.
Naturally, he accomplishes more for America at home then at sea and sees this near the end of his life, when he thinks he's fading from common thought.
So this is a man that lived through WWI, the Lusitania incident, the Titanic sinking, the Great Depression, and the beginning of WWII—yet, you would have thought that these dark times never existed from the cheeriness of the movie. Yes, Cohan was lightening American's spirits, but surely he was more tormented backstage then the movie would imply.
As Cohan, James Cagney (in an Oscar winning role) is very likable and charming. He can dance lightning fast and his wit is sharp. But there is no troubled-ness to his acting. He seems effortlessly peaceful—something that he contradicts with his words.
The film is told in a flashback method. Cohan is sitting in the Oval Office with Franklin Roosevelt and is telling the President about his life.
The very end scene of the movie works—it's reminiscent to "It's a Wonderful Life". But on second thought, isn't it just adding to the man's ego instead of filling him with purpose? Who knows if Cohan ever felt truly justified with his life's work? This film assumes too much.
But apart from the problems with the way the story was portrayed, this film can't escape the fact that it's simply boring. Actually, to say that this film is "boring" is an insult to boring movies. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a tedious task to watch.
Score: 1 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones