Sunday, December 28, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "YANKEE DOODLE DANDY"

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Sceeenplay: Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph from the story by Robert Buckner



“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” shocked audiences when it originally came out. Not because of any risqué dialogue or subject matter, but because it’s star, James Cagney gave one of the most unexpected and greatest performances ever. It was somewhat known that Cagney was a dancer, he even danced once in a film before, Busby Berkeley’s “Footlight Parade” but that was a decade earlier, and since then he  had become infamous for playing bad guys in mobster films, and doing many of them, often 4 a year for a decade. So, audiences were amazed to find he was a Broadway caliber dancer and a good singer. In this biopic, he plays legendary American actor/dancer/playwright/producer/vaudevillian… George M. Cohan who once owned Broadway, filling the streets with his good time Patriotic plays like “Little Johnny Jones,” and “45 Minutes from Broadway,” and wrote dozens of songs including, “Mary,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Grande Old Flag”, and of course, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which in the right context as part of “Little Johnny Jones,” holds up better than it should. Cohan was born into Showbiz playing as part of the 4 Cohans, his family’s traveling vaudevillian act, nearly from birth, with his father (Walter Huston), his mother (Rosemary De Camp) and his sister (Jeanne Cagney, Cagney’s actual sister). He then went on to be arguable the most successful producer and playwright in the history of Broadway. Fred Astaire turned the part down, and people were amazed Cagney was the one who ended up playing such a performing legend, but here Cagney leads in showing us some of the greatest song-and-dance performances in the history of film, and earned him the Best Actor Oscar, and is consider by many to be one of the greatest in all of cinema: Premiere Magazine listed it as the 6th Greatest Acting Performance in the history of film, and after watching the film, you'll be wondering exactly what were the five that could possibly be better. 

As a film, an even more impressively as a biopic, a genre of film that is although usually interesting, but the even best ones don’t hold up on repeated viewings, especially music biopics, but this one does, despite the… or maybe because the flights of fancy in storytelling it dares us to take; this one holds as a joyous celebration of a man’s life and it doesn’t do anything else. It’s not like their weren't ups and downs to Cohan’s life; it completely skips over his divorce from his first wife, and right to a magical whirlwind love with a fan of his who confronted him backstage, Mary (Joan Leslie) and the worst thing that happens is his own major bomb, a serious play called “Popularity” that was supposed to be without the flamboyance and patriotism and even music, but even it’s failure is handled with tact, wit and humor.  The movie begin with him in his older years, coming out of retirement to play FDR in his Broadway comeback, still dancing and singing as he was when he was younger and he is called to the President’s office, possibly for daring to portray the President in a somewhat audacious light. He then commences to telling his life story, which is one that has very little setbacks and rehabs or any other kind of depressing material most biopics dwell on. "Yes I was born on the 4th of July," he says, "And it took me until I was 6 to realize they weren't celebrating my birthday," that's the perspective of Cohan's work, and it's the perspective of this movie, light-hearted, joyous and celebratory almost completely throughout. Some will reveal the ending and the real reason why the President asked for his presence at the White House, but I would rather you see it for yourself. Reviewing the movie over again, I thought it would’ve come off as dated, but every time I go back to it, I’m amazed to find Cagney’s performance still magnificent; he was one of those performers who can just magnetize you when he's onscreen, and that's when he was doing nothing, much less showing all of his talents here, and more than that, the film works as entertainment. Out of context, it would just seem bizarre even in the most surrealist of films to find the star of the movie tap dancing down the steps of the White House (A final improvised scene from Cagney, that was not in the script) but for George M. Cohan, it just seems arbitrary and natural, of course he would tap dance down the stairs. 


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