Wednesday, July 04, 2018
Yankee Doodle Dandy
James Cagney, who before he became famous for playing gangsters was a song and dance man, took the part after Fred Astaire turned it down. He looks nothing like the real Cohan, but he is a joy to watch, especially in the musical numbers. Cohan, according to this film, was arrogant and cocky, and Cagney supplies that with is inimitable scrappy style of acting.
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who made many great films (including Casablanca) but is not really heralded as an auteur, since he made so many different kinds of films in different styles. This one is a standard show biz biopic. It is told in flashback, with Cohan coming out of retirement to play FDR in a Rodgers and Hart musical. Roosevelt summons him to the White House. Cohan is afraid the president doesn't like his impersonation, but instead he's receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. He tells Roosevelt his story, from a son of vaudeville performers (Walter Huston, very good, and Rosemary DeCamp) in a family act to being his own man, writing, directing, and starring in over 30 Broadway shows.
There's an interesting scene toward the end of the film. Cohan went into retirement (largely because he fought against a strike by the actors' union, which earned him enmity by his colleagues. left out of the film). He's in a hammock on his farm when some college kids come along. None of them know who he is. I'm afraid he's even more obscure today. There is a statue of him at Duffy Square near the theater district, and I wonder how many people who pass by it know who he is. At his height, he had five shows running at a time and was a household name.
Cagney brings such charm to the role, and the musical numbers are so well done, that one might be able to overlook the sentimental patriotism. For starters, Cohan was not born on the fourth of July as he claimed (he missed by one day). The flag waving is a bit much, and makes me think, on this actual fourth of July, about patriotism. Oscar Wilde called it the "virtue of the vicious." It's different from nationalism, which is thinking your country is better than any other, but love of country can be taken to extremes. It's one thing to get a lump in your throat when an American wins an Olympic gold medal, it's another when you yell at someone in the supermarket for speaking Spanish.
In Cohan's day patriotism was a lot simpler. According to the film, he went to sign up for the army when America joined World War I, and he was turned down because of his age. Instead, he wrote "Over There," and I swear, I get a goosebumps when I hear the line, "The Yanks are coming." In those days, it was easier to think of America as a virtuous nation doing the right thing. It's a lot more complicated now.