To note Independence Day tomorrow here in the U.S., here is a repeat entry from last year on “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), originally posted in two parts but combined as one today.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is 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. The Fay Templeton number of “So, Long Mary” in the “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” scene is an excellent parody of small town American ambition for something bigger and better, and yet clinging to what is simple and familiar. Any song that can come up with a rhyme for “Schenectady” has my vote.
But in the “Grand Old Flag” number staged as part of Cohan’s “George Washington, Junior” musical, the film revs up to a colossal orgy of patriotic flag waving. The red, white and blue never looked so impressive in black and white. We have a chorus in Union Civil War uniforms, an appearance by the Boy Scouts, a tableau featuring Betsy Ross, the Spirit of ’76, and an African-American man singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while slaves file past him and they pay tribute to a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. There is a poignant dignity in this last scene, without the hoopla of what came before, a helpless but earnest nod to a point on our timeline we cannot now change. It is unlike the cringe-worthy scene at the beginning of the film, when Cagney is led up the stairs at the White House by the black butler, played by Clinton Rosewood, who says he saw Cohan’s act many years ago when his then employer, President Theodore Roosevelt, or Mister Teddy as the butler calls him, gave him tickets for seats “in the gallery.”
There is perhaps at least one generation of young Americans who do not know that there was a time, particularly in certain parts of this nation, where African Americans were not allowed in theaters except in the segregated balcony seating, including when this film was made. This remark in the film may pass right by them unnoticed. More noticeable is the brief scene of the Four Cohans in blackface. It, too, is cringe-worthy and foolish, but to leave it out would be a lie. It is a realistic image of a long ago style of entertainment in American theater, which in this film is reviewed with remarkable detail.
Going back to the “Grand Old Flag” number, we are then presented with a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike leading a platoon of Spanish-American War soldiers, and a flock of workers, nurses, farmers, and an assortment of the Common Man gathering around some men about to load a cannon. If we did not figure it out before, we now know this movie is really about World War II. Released in 1942, this film gives us only a brief escape into the nostalgic past of American theater, but deftly slaps us back to consciousness. There is a war on outside the movie house, and when Walter Huston emerges in the final moments of the number dressed as Uncle Sam and Rosemary DeCamp as the Statue of Liberty, and there are more flags than we can count, we know that something more is expected of us. And it is not even the finale yet.
In the film World War I intrudes upon the life of George M. Cohan. He writes “Over There,” which became the anthem for American involvement in that war, and later in the film when he finishes telling his life story to FDR, the President gives him the medal for writing “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag.” The faux FDR tells him “A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film seems to expect the audience to give back something, too, now that we are at war, and the movie is over, and it is left to each of us to find the way to do it.
Just as important a message, and just as poignant, is when the two doctors confer outside the dying Cohan, Sr.’s room, reminiscing about the Four Cohans’ career. “I can’t help thinking a theatrical era is dying in there,” one says to the other. Their diagnosis is on the state of the theatre, and not the patient. Today there is a statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square. Mr. Cohan died five months after this film was released. He was ambitious, and he was flag waving, and he gave back something.