People who know me know me to be fairly cynical. People who know me really well know me to have a sentimental streak a mile wide. If left to my own devices, I would probably choose to dwell exclusively in the past. Which past? A difficult question. But if push came to shove, I might just choose the past portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy. A biopic about the great American songwriter and entertainer George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a sweet form of entertainment which has nothing to do with the pain, destruction and coarse realities of the modern world; it is an old-school story of American determinism and exceptionalism. The movie opens with a neat device as an older Cohan, in the midst of playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt on stage, in a play called I’d Rather Be Right, is summoned to The White House by the actual Roosevelt to be given the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded an entertainer. After accepting the award, Cohan (played by James Cagney) tells the president his life story, and so the movie unwinds as Cohan’s early life as part of a family vaudeville act plays out. He is an unbelievably talented person from earliest childhood. But with that talent comes arrogance. He is an arrogant fool, whose foolishness is made tolerable by his talent. George quickly becomes the leader of his family act, but his hubris leads to them being shut out of work opportunities. Ultimately, the family act must break up. It is here that George M. Cohan, and the movie, begin to hit their stride. He begins to find his way and the successes start mounting up. As Cohan becomes more successful the movie becomes a vehicle for high-budget production numbers -recreations of Cohan’s original stage work - a more innocent form of entertainment than we are used to today. If you don’t like patriotic hokum, exit now.
Ultimately, Yankee Doodle Dandy is about the songs and their presentation. The cornball old songs like “Mary,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course the title song, will bring you to tears and the dance routines are literally breathtaking. But it is through these songs that Cohan’s larger message becomes clear. If one looks beyond the patriotic populism and flag-waving, these songs get to the root of American life. Topics as varied as immigration, family loyalty, humility, romantic love, and finally the American dream itself are tackled. In addition, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of very few movies to successfully show the creation of music. We see Cohan’s inspiration, listening to a marching band on the street which, when mixed with his innate love of country and songwriting talent, produces another one of his masterpieces, “Over There.”
Most important in Yankee Doodle Dandy is James Cagney’s life-changing performance. Life-changing for himself and his audience. Shortly before this movie, Cagney, a known progressive, had been questioned by the government about possible communist sympathies. The experience left Cagney shaken. He wanted to prove his patriotism and Cohan’s story was the perfect vehicle. In addition, while making the movie in 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, putting America into another deadly conflict. Cagney’s sincerity and true patriotism burn in every frame of this movie. I recognize that it is not “cool” to love your country anymore, but not long ago, it was not only cool, it was inspirational. Cagney gives it all he has. His dancing is a revelation, as he moves with a masculine physicality that leaves him in his own category. Cohan’s rise to the top is one of the great American success stories, and Yankee Doodle Dandy gives us that story in such a romantic, golden-age-of-Hollywood fashion, it is literally irresistible.
Ultimately, we see Cohan retire to a quiet life until he has a hilariously dated encounter with a carload of young hipsters who make him feel old, and drive him out of retirement. We are now full-circle, as Cohan finishes telling his life story to F.D.R. and starts leaving The White House. In one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood history, Cagney tap-dances down the steps of The White House before running into a marching band, leading a parade with a rousing version of “Over There.” As the country heads off to yet another World War, Cagney falls into step with the parade and we are assured that he has made a difference. It is a tremendously emotional scene and a perfect way to end this movie. Both the form of entertainment depicted and the style of movie-making are antiquated here, however none of that takes away from its overall impact. As we approach one of the most uncertain elections in American history, it feels like just the right time for a reminder of the people we once were.
- Paul Epstein