For Independence Day here in the U.S., today and tomorrow will be a nod to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) a fast-paced film that captures three American traits: unabashed and sentimental patriotism, a love of nostalgia, and consuming ambition. Perhaps they go hand-in-hand, but much of the nostalgia in this film is not so much about a past era of American patriotism, but rather a past era in this nation’s history of vaudeville and stock theatre.
James Cagney won his Academy Award for this film, a departure from his usual tough guys and gangsters, and is supported by Walter Huston (who received an Academy Award nomination) and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, his real-life sister Jeanne Cagney as his sister Josie, and his real-life brother William is the film’s producer. As with most Hollywood biopics of the day, the life of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan is complimentary, avoiding controversy, and sometimes a bit light on the facts, including the omission of Cohan’s children or his first marriage, and including the fact that the medal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan in 1936 (not after we were involved in World War II as in the film), was a Congressional Gold Medal, not a Medal of Honor.
What is captured is a warm affection for Cohan’s place as a pioneer in American musical comedy. He did much to represent, and to appeal to, the common man in his shows, and the film is rife with fun and poignant montages of theater marquees of his plays. The hardscrabble life of the stock players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the theatrical Cohan family and many others endured is pictured in shots of luggage plastered with labels, gloomy boarding houses, forlorn train depots, and always another theater and another audience.
We see a lot of theater in this film. This is one of those musicals that realistically presents its musical numbers as re-creations of the Cohans’ act. Unlike other musicals of the day where people tend to burst into song for no reason and violins are heard mysteriously from heaven knows where, the songs here are performed as they would have been performed on stage for an audience. Director Michael Curtiz crams a great deal of material in this entertaining film. We see the backstages, the dressing rooms, we see the front of the house from over the shoulders of a woman, who like the woman playing Fay Templeton on stage, is dressed in the Belle Époque style. We see the footlights, and the backdrops, and if not all aspects of Cohan’s life are presented before us, surely the lure and the atmosphere of the theatre he loved are presented to us with loving detail.
Cagney’s vigorous, stiff and rather marionette-appearing style of tap dancing and his surprisingly Boston-intoned tenor show us that he was himself, like Cohan, a song and dance man in vaudeville before he ever pushed a grapefruit in anybody’s face on film. Seeing Walter Huston lead the Cohan family in their performing quartet is a joy. Cagney’s scene with Huston upon the death of George M. Cohan’s father is one of the most affecting either man ever filmed.
And then, of course, there is the compulsory flag waving. Fay Templeton, when approached by Cagney to appear in his new show, decries Cohan’s material as “loud, vulgar flag waving.” Her manager insists Cohan has captured the mood of the nation, “He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants…George M. Cohan has invented the success story and every American loves it because it happens to be his own private dream….” These themes of ambition and pride and patriotism may well be intertwined and ingrained in us, for any immigrant’s arrival to this country is based on ambition. It is as basic to these immigrants as an idea of “freedom,” for the freedom to be ambitious is as dearly held as the freedom of religion or speech. We are perhaps the only nation on earth which has declared in writing, in our Declaration, the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” an idea which other cultures may find hedonistic or frivolous. To be sure, we can sometimes be both.
More tomorrow on “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Yankee Doodle Dandy [DVD](1942) DVD