The Yankee Doodle Dandiest entertainment of 'em all!
Broadway musicals in the 21st century are a pastiche, a mixture of rock and roll revivalism, fan friendly stalwarts, campy film to footlight adaptations, and brazen experimentation. But go back forty years and you'll see an almost complete reliance on the Rodgers and Hammerstein style show, songs and story combined to constantly push the plot and characters forward. And if you travel back even farther, say sixty or seventy years, you'll see a slight operatic tone creeping in, less of a reliance on the popular song format and more long form recitations and vocal flourishes. At the turn of the 20th century, however, one would witness the birth of the musical theater as a combination of vaudeville (with all its variety act aspects) and the non-stop song and cavalcade barrage of the misguided minstrel circuit. No one owned this new fledgling art form outright more so than George M. Cohan. One of the first national superstars (in an age of near non-existent media outlets, he was known from one coast to the other) and song standard composer (even today's toxic Gen X'ers probably recognize "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Give My Regards to Broadway"), he ruled the Great White Way with an almost unbroken string of hit shows. By the late 1920s he was a more or less forgotten part of a genuinely lost era of the stage, but thanks to some self-promotion and the mighty Hollywood studio system, Cohan's life and talent were immortalized in the stupendous Yankee Doodle Dandy, a rollicking melodious crowd pleaser of a bio-pic. New to DVD from Warner Brothers, it is time for those unfamiliar with this man and the gloriously grand musical movie of his life to get acquainted.
Facts of the Case
Born on July 3rd 1878 (not 4th, as he and the movie claim) into a family of traveling entertainers, George M. Cohan was destined for a life onstage. From an early role as the titular Peck's Bad Boy to a long career as a member of the father/mother/son/daughter vaudeville troupe The Four Cohans, George traveled the national circuit, playing anywhere and everywhere. Even though the kinfolk follies were a popular, if somewhat notorious act (thanks to George's rampant egotism), Cohan himself longed for success on Broadway. While performing in Buffalo, he met Mary, the woman who would remain by his side the rest of his life. After pounding the pavement looking for producers to back his work, he met Sam Harris. As new partners, they managed to con a backer into financing Cohan's Little Johnnie Jones featuring soon to be classic songs "Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway." Thus began a string of hit shows that continued through the decades. Cohan even created a modern military anthem when World War I struck. The song, "Over There," along with another patriotic showstopper "You're a Grand Old Flag," earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He and Sam eventually parted ways, and after a long absence from the stage, Cohan returned in the Moss/Hart comedy about President Roosevelt's New Deal Politics, I'd Rather Be Right. As World War II broke out, Cohan's contribution to the modern lexicon of music and the Broadway stage was celebrated in Warner's song and sketchbook biographical film, Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Genuine patriotism is a tough commodity to come by in these more jaded, jingoistic times. Feeling a decidedly more political than passionate need to support the nation and its leaders, what passes for flag-waving in today's mindset is usually just an attempt to avoid looking out of step. Thanks to the 1960s and '70s, when blind support of the government backfired into riots and scandal, it seems currently "uncool" to be a proud enthusiast for the United States. Even in 2003, with a pseudo war being waged in the Middle East and a growing discontent invading the average American psyche, there is still a brain-addled affinity for our country born more out of social acceptability and less out of genuine love.
But no one could confuse or argue what George M. Cohan felt for his homeland. The son of a Civil War veteran and full fledged beneficiary of the then still viable American dream, this Irish dynamo took every opportunity to celebrate the land he cherished. More than that, he wanted the rest of the nation to join him in the jubilation and created timeless tunes that simply and eloquently conveyed a pure nationalism to his fellow citizens. Cohan may have helped guide Broadway into the modern phase of musical comedy, but he was also instrumental in preparing the people for battle with unabashed sentimentality. There is probably no more American songwriter, both in content and conscience, than Cohan.
In 1942, a seminal film was born that guaranteed Cohan would be remembered as patriot and as a participant in the maturing and making of the stage. Yankee Doodle Dandy was, and over 63 years later still is, good old-fashioned classic Hollywood musical moviemaking at its zenith. It features one of the big screen's toughest and most enigmatic stars—James Cagney—playing against type but not talent as the infamous song and dance man, and there's enough glitz, glamour, and glad tidings to make even the most cynical skeptic break out in big blushing grins of pleasure. It marked a milestone in Cagney's career and his only Oscar for Best Actor. From the opening introduction to the characters and career of this important musical theater luminary, to the incredibly moving march to war that closes the film with a rousing bit of heart, Yankee Doodle Dandy is an incredible achievement: a movie musical that feels more sensational than sentimental. Ingeniously incorporating dozens of Cohan's songs along with soundstage recreations of some of his biggest show stopping numbers, this affectionate, free-spirited look at Cohan's life may play loose and fast with many of the man's real life circumstances (Cohan never had a wife named "Mary"—he was married twice during his lifetime), but it uniquely captures his style, his skill, and his unadulterated showmanship. Yankee Doodle Dandy is many things at its finest: acting, dancing, singing, and cinematic production.
This is as near to perfect a movie can get. Again, it is not factually accurate (this is more a fable than a biography) and there are performances and sequences that are so glossy and overly polished that they almost give superficiality a bad name. But just like any other masterpiece—in painting, literature or music—it is the experience as a whole, the combination of all parts balancing and supporting the entirety, that makes Yankee Doodle Dandy such a fine, fantastic work of cinematic dexterity. Part of the reason why we can overlook flaws and overt flash is because, at its heart, it is a human story of one man's love affair with life, with entertaining, and with country. Cohan was a man possessed with the notion of making people happy, to help them cast off their troubles for a couple of hours and inhale the warm waft of greasepaint and gratitude. He celebrated actors, singers, dancers, comics, and straight men as they stood before the attentive masses to bare their artistic soul for the sheer delight in amusement. And no multi-faceted mug made it look easier than Cagney. He brilliantly personifies everything Cohan stood for. He is not so much Cohan as he is every conceivable version of the entertainer possible, combined. Moving from light comedy to nimble onstage grace to devastating dramatics, he and his acting encapsulates what Hollywood and its studio system did best: construct and create completely rounded performers and performances.
Imagine fans reactions in 1942 when their favorite onscreen psychopath, their big guns blazing criminal element, dropped the street jive and tough talk vernacular for a pair of tap shoes and a warm gentility. James Cagney had previously worked the vaudeville circuit (as a young dancer, or "hoofer") before hitting Hollywood and had appeared in full musical mode in Warner's previous show tune extravaganza Footlight Parade. But his perceived onscreen persona was one of felonious ruthlessness, capable crook, or insane murdering maniac—not the ready résumé for one taking on the life and times of one of Broadway's true originals. Indeed, Cagney incorporates and trades on some of that blazing machismo to center Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Like Astaire and Kelly before him, Cagney manages the amazing feet of being a lithe, gravity defying delicate dervish in his dance movement without ever once undermining his virility or manliness. Mimicking George M's trademarked straight-legged stork like strut and complicated footwork (Cohan's own choreographer, John Boyle, made sure the superstar got all the fancy steps down pat), Cagney is graceful and gregarious without every once turning fey or phony. He simultaneously recalls old-fashioned dancer dynamics and modern athleticism all in one. Together with a subtle recreation of Cohan's trademark "sing-speak" style and more acting chops than dozens of today's so-called superstars, Cagney commands the screen and infuses Yankee Doodle Dandy with almost all of its star-spangled swagger.
Amongst many classic highlights are the rousing restaged musical numbers for the songs "Yankee Doodle Boy/Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and the World War I anthem "Over There." Handled brilliantly by an underrated name in Hollywood moviemaking, director Michael Curtiz (take a look at his résumé over at the Internet Movie Database to get an idea of this man's unbelievable cinematic track record), there is a balance and brilliance to the staging and shot selection that moves the audience, as well as the performers, ever forward into the song. When the cast of hundreds take to automated treadmills to march along to the strains of "Grand Old Flag," Curtiz provides a wonderful head-on shot, followed by a clean cut to a side view which, compositionally and artistically, looks like something off of a nostalgic war poster melded into the current (1942) mindset. This creation of new iconography, or recasting Cohan and his work into modern American symbols of patriotism and prosperity, were the perfect tonic for a nation anxious about the growing war in Europe and Asia and the US's relatively new role in the process (the attack on Pearl Harbor came while the movie was in production). With John Huston's eminently talented pappy Walter and Cagney's own sister Jeanne as half of the Cohan family, and stellar work by Richard Whorf, S.Z. Sakall, and Joan Leslie as George M's imaginary vision of loveliness, Mary, this is a movie with star power and performances to leave others wanting for more.
At its core though, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a reminder of what real entertainment looks and feels like. Sculpted out of reality, fantasy, and an artisan's ability to manipulate the medium into a classic sketch of mass audience merriment, it's filmmaking as reaffirmation, as panacea, and as populist placebo. Perhaps some will find it as corny as a bowl of grits and over processed and slick as a slice of American cheese "food." There may even be a couple that believe Cohan's sentimental flag-waving shtick is all flash and very little integrity. But to dismiss a movie because it seems too eager to please, too triumphant and celebratory in its sentiment, is foolish. That's what movies are all about—and it's something Hollywood today has all but forgotten. Argue that it doesn't tell the complete truth about Cohan's life (after all, a singular spousal hallucination doesn't make up for two marriages), or play fair with an audience's emotions (who wouldn't cry at the deathbed scene, or the soldiers marching off to war?). But Yankee Doodle Dandy is a rarity: a complete experience for its audience in absolute sensory overload and outward love. George M. Cohan did indeed love this land of ours filled with opportunities and ambitions, failure and forgiveness. In his songs, and in the movie of his life, beats the heart of a true patriot. One born of passion, not peer pressure principles.
Like a digital time capsule of an era and an industry, Warner Brothers new Special Edition of Yankee Doodle Dandy is an exhaustive and exhilarating experience. Over the two-disc set are enough bonus features, biographical material, and nostalgic Tinseltown ballyhoo to have even the most exacting film fan jumping for joy. Where else can you get three classic Warners cartoons (Yankee Doodle Daffy, Yankee Doodle Bugs and Bugs Bunny Gets the 'Boid), a newsreel, a super shocking bit of propaganda about WWII in the form of a short subject (You, John Jones featuring Cagney and little Margaret O'Brien), another patriotic slab of "buy bonds" hard-balling (the fighter pilot piece Beyond the Line of Duty), a making of documentary (Let Freedom Ring!), a Cagney retrospective (James Cagney—Top of the World), a superstar's memories of meeting the famous Public Enemy (John Travolta remembers James Cagney), and multiple galleries, trailers, and audio rarities (a radio show presentation of highlights from the film featuring the actual cast). There's even a commentary by noted Warner Brothers and film historian Ben Johnson and an introduction to the ingenious DVD playback feature "Warner's Night at the Movies: 1942" by noted critic Leonard Maltin.
Speaking of said bonus, Warners is to be praised in its attempts to teach the uninitiated about what it was like to attend the cinema back in the glory days of Hollywood. The inclusion of Maltin's comments, and a complete program of cartoon, newsreel, and short subjects, really helps to transport us back in time to when a night at the movies was an event. All the material is era specific—call it "everything you always wanted to know about World War II but were afraid to ask"—and adds accents and details to the movie itself. As does the commentary. Mr. Johnson is a learned man with an easy-going, oh-so-professional voice that lures you into his intricate and sometimes micromanaged takes on the making of this movie. Obviously allowed access to production notes, memos, and cast recollections, Johnson paints such a complete portrait of how and why the movie was made that he seems to have missed the main purpose behind an alternate audio track: insight. So fact and facet oriented that he misses obvious stuff (why were these songs and shows chosen to represent Cohan, whatever happened to Cohan's sister), he still does a very comprehensive job with the technical aspects. Using the documentary Let Freedom Ring! as more of a guide to the behind the scenes gossip, we finally do get some definitive answers about Cagney's involvement, the mystery "Mary" issue, and some very moving memories about filming the day the Japanese pressed America into World War. While light on actual participants from the film (the movie was made 62 years ago after all), it is still a warm and friendly feature.
Equally intriguing, if more or less perfunctory, is the cable special James Cagney—Top of the World. Hosted by Michael J. Fox (who actually knew the legendary actor) and featuring a great deal of biographical and career information on the marvelous actor, one can't but feel that some heart is missing here. Cagney comes across as charismatic, stubborn, ruthless, and relaxed, a total professional. But we never get below the surface, understanding how he reacted to being typecast as a hoodlum or the reasons behind his fights with Warners. Some of this substance is hinted at, but just like the choice of movies featured (obscure works are pushed aside for a retread of the same Cagney Greatest Hits—or is that gunshots?), Top of the World wants to teach us the basics. It will save the specifics for another day. Fortunately, an interview with John Travolta offers up some of this missing meaty material. Travolta seems genuinely touched to be discussing Cagney, and his stories have a warmth and true fan affinity. Though very short—only about eight minutes—it's a very nice extra to have. As are the classic old-fashioned trailers presented here. It sure is a hoot to see the ultra violent, gun muzzle mania of Public Enemy or the exploitative nature of White Heat as it is advertised to the masses. Just like the publicity stills and photo materials included in the gallery, the media machine of classic Hollywood sure knew how to sell its stars and its movies.
The final bits of bonus material are enlightening in their freshness and ferociousness. There can never be enough classic Merrie Melody/Looney Tunes cartoons offered, and Yankee Doodle Bunny and Yankee Doodle Daffy are wonderful. A radio show, complete with outtakes and rehearsal material from a 1942 radio recreation of the film, offers audio highlights from the movie and indicates that all outlets were used by the studios to promote an upcoming feature. But perhaps the single most sinister and satisfying element here is the propaganda shocker You, John Jones. Starring Cagney as the aforementioned title character, a factory worker and part time civil defense watch-out, it also features the very young and very good Margaret O'Brien as Jones' daughter. As our everyman starts to doubt his role in the war machine, we are treated to horrendous scenes of child death and endangerment as the predicament of heathen children around the globe, hapless victims of despotic or destroyed regimes, are recreated in Jones' minds eye. O'Brien is burned, beaten, bludgeoned, bloody, and stricken by all manner of under fire fatal accidents, and we witness each and every one. It is a sick, astonishing bit of sensationalism, and like the rest of the package, shows how Hollywood could manipulate material and still have us feeling good about it in the end.
Visually and aurally, the movie is stunning. The full screen monochrome image is bright, crisp, and nearly defect free. Details are heavy and blacks are consistent and deep. As for the sound, Dolby Digital Mono never sounded so good. The presentation here is distortion free and clear as a bell. Nothing more needs to be said, really. This is the best Yankee Doodle Dandy has ever looked or sounded.
When it's done right, there is no better bit of entertainment than a musical. From the toe-tapping dance numbers to show-stopping ballads, a theatrical or motion picture production that manages to properly meld story to song is a marvel to behold and experience. During its heyday, Hollywood churned out hundreds of such harmonious hokum, trading on everything from ice skating to swimming ability as a reason for breaking into a popular tune. But most of these examples were workmanlike at best, fair examples of cramming Tin Pan Alley into an elaborate backlot setting to hopefully mesmerize the public for a few fleeting moments. That is why a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy is such a wonder. It tells a compelling tale of a forgotten fixture in theatrical history. It features a brilliant actor in one of his best roles. It was directed and filmed by a couple of the classic talents in the golden age of Tinseltown's movie making machine. And it features standard songs that are still noted and known today. Thanks to Warner Brothers painstaking remastering of this title for the digital medium, the DVD of this magnificent movie is a must-own for any true fan or those making a first foray into archetypal A-material musicals. Patriotism and flag waving aside, Yankee Doodle Dandy reminds us that movies work best when they entertain and engage us. And few musicals have the ability to do so like this look at the life of Uncle Sam's favorite "nephew," George M. Cohan.
Not guilty. This is a Hollywood Classic presented in a near perfect DVD incarnation. Case dismissed.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Author and Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
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