Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Dir. Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston

Perhaps some foolish moron will endeavor to create a little canon of “the most Hollywood movies” of all time. (I hear some of you saying that the AFI lists are such a canon already, and that said moron need not exert much effort on his pet project.) The Hollywood movie is burnished and professional, technically adept, star-driven, approachably mawkish, and sympathetic to capitalists masquerading as everymen. Easy choices to lead this canon are Gone with the Wind and Saving Private Ryan. Yankee Doodle Dandy, although it lacks some of the giant instincts of a Gone with the Wind, might still be my own personal choice for “most Hollywood movie.” (And, to be sung loudly: I am that foolish moron boy.)

With Michael Curtiz at the helm, whose Casablanca could challenge Gone with the Wind for the top spot, that old Hollywood professionalism is guaranteed. Curtiz makes use of varied camera angles throughout the movie, using a crane to clue us in on the scope of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” leaning at Mary’s (Joan Leslie) elbow when she plays the song named for her, occasionally putting us right in the audience during the vaudeville. And he knows when to move the camera and when it’s better to cut, too; while Jimmy Cagney’s Cohan does his furious pacing and spinning back and forth downstage, we follow, but when he prepares for a more arduous solo the camera moves back so we may fix our eyes on the man whose tap dancing literally bounces him off the walls. Or how about the zoom on Cohan as he composes “Over There” on an empty stage, lit only by the enormous bare bulb atop his grand piano—then, an unorthodox cut from the right of the screen, and for a split second we can see Cohan’s fingers on the keys not just on the left side of the screen but the right as well. Curtiz has a deft hand with shadows, as evidenced in the upstairs scenes of Casablanca or the larger-than-life Jack Carson looming on the walls in Mildred Pierce. In Yankee Doodle Dandy, Curtiz reserves his shadows for the most touching moments: FDR, seen from behind in the Oval Office, or maybe the Lincoln Memorial’s appearance during one of Cohan’s shows.

That last isn’t true, really. It’s another reason that the film is particularly Hollywood: racial whiplash. Black faces are seen four times in the film. A servant at the White House takes Cohan’s coat, and returns it, for two of those appearances. (I volunteered to work tonight, he tells Cohan on his way up, after having seen you in a show years ago.) Another is that Lincoln Memorial sendup, in which a stage full of African-American actors sing and gesticulate to the idol on stage. The last time people so ostentatiously gave themselves to a graven image, Moses had to ascend the mountain again to have the Ten Commandments reinscribed. Ending slavery was a good thing, the movie knows; that it’s knowledge is nugatory about anything else in the African-American experience, such as what it was like to be black in the early 1900s, is clear. Part of the reason that’s clear is because of the sudden, jarring, and offensive use of blackface in a clip of the Cohans performing that can’t take up more than about thirty seconds. It’s completely unimportant to the movie except for the fact that it gives the movie a way to tell on itself. “Over There” is a song for white soldiers; “You’re a Grand Old Flag” is a song for white workers; “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a song for white jockeys, by this logic, but the point holds.

There’s a genuinely funny scene where George, in old age makeup and a venerable beard, decides to have a little fun with Mary, who’s asked to see the still young actor in his dressing room. (Cagney looks a little like Orson Welles would as an old man in the scene, which is sort of curious.)

That she thinks that George really is an old man is immediately apparent, and she asks him for advice about her plans to leave home and become an actress; still in character, he advises her to follow her heart. In what is far and away the best part of the scene, he shows Mary that he can still dance like a man who’s getting a thousand volts pumped through his bones. She’s completely unprepared for this show of vitality; one imagines that audiences in 1942 were similarly unprepared for quintessential Hollywood gangster Cagney as the quintessential Broadway do-it-all. Cagney’s dancing, which is good and engaging, is not technically sound. Although Cagney was only a few years older than Gene Kelly was when he made Singin’ in the Rain, he lacks his junior’s graceful athleticism. It works for the character. His early starring role in Peck’s Bad Boy is a sign not of talent, since the role doesn’t take much work besides grinning widely and making a mess out of the stage, but of charisma. The cheers only serve to swell his head, but after the show his body swells up a little from the licks he gets from the local boys eager to prove they’re tougher than the “bad boy” onstage. Persuasion is never far from Cohan, who manages to wheedle his way out of punishment as a boy and turns himself into a Broadway tycoon by playing one producer against another who doesn’t exist.

Cagney makes this force of will believable, which is to say that he makes the American dream believable. By dint of many years of hard work and the force of his never-say-die attitude, Cohan becomes the last word in Broadway productions. Late in the film the screen fills with marquee after marquee of Cohan’s shows. (In one scene, an aging and mostly retired Cohan meets some young people who have never heard of him. And I tell you what, I sure as heck couldn’t have named any of his stage shows.) Beyond that are the songs, which I think half the eight-year-olds in this country still know. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or even “Give My Regards to Broadway” still signify a nostalgic, old-school perspective on America, imagining the nation as a generally cheerful place peopled by devoted citizens. They obfuscate the facts of history; they act as a sort of scrim for a different, simpler time which people yearn for without realizing its similarity to our own time. What would Ida Tarbell or Gene Debs or Jacob Riis have had to say about “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” I wonder. Would Emma Goldman or Big Bill Haywood have tapped their toes to “Over There,” knowing that it was an instrument of recruitment for the capitalist war machine joining its European brethren? “Over There” rates as one of the most pernicious songs ever written when its effect is taken into account, and there may even be something a little fascist about the way the movie puts the song into the throats of hundreds of young Americans, united in the purpose of killing Germans in France by the sinister promise, “And we won’t come back ’til it’s over over there.” (One hundred years later, that prediction appears quite sage for our many overseas troops for whom it will never end.) George M. Cohan is the good soldier who will never question orders when they come from his superior, and James Cagney somehow makes this person likable. This corny, overconfident song-and-dance man is a worthy enough focus for a movie. And if he is an arrogant little toerag well into his adult life, he balances it with occasional silliness like his bearded tarantella; if he reacts badly to small criticisms, he manages to recognize a flop when he sees one and owns up to it in the press.

All the same, Yankee Doodle Dandy is just as unabashedly and uncritically patriotic as its protagonist, who receives a Congressional Gold Medal at the end of the movie directly from the hands of President Roosevelt. It throws its weight, especially in the back half, at vigorous flag waving and stage treadmills and iconography. Like Mrs. Miniver and 49th Parallel, a pair of propaganda movies from the same year which focus on Brits and Canadians, respectively, Yankee Doodle Dandy means to inspire the homefront by means other than the rifle. Mrs. Miniver sees all the good that a regular English housewife can accomplish; 49th Parallel puts heroism and good faith squarely in the hands of generic Canadians; Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is probably the least of the bunch, is somehow the least subtle of the bunch as well. William Wyler puts a flight of planes in the air above the bombed out roof of the church, but Michael Curtiz squeezes most of the American flags ever sewn onto a Broadway stage.

There is a Sub Titles podcast episode that discusses Cagney’s performance and playing against type in more detail. If you’re interested in listening to that episode, click here.

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