AFI Challenge: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Here’s my third entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page) and we’re finally reaching some uncharted ground. While I had varying degrees of familiarity with the previous films on this list, I didn’t have any clue what this movie was about, and knew even less regarding why it was given a spot on the list. I did some light research before watching it and wasn’t particularly thrilled by what I discovered: it was a musical (not my favorite movie style) chronicling the life story of Broadway legend George M. Cohan (whom I knew little about) that was supposed to be one of the most shamelessly patriotic movies ever made (the very thought of which made me grimace). At #98 on the list is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

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To address my primary concern going in: yes, this movie is very patriotic and doesn’t think twice when it comes to showboating “American excellence.” How receptive you are to this attitude will depend entirely on your personal beliefs. Some find unbridled patriotism to be one of America’s greatest qualities, while others think that it’s more than little bit annoying. Being perfectly honest, I fall into the latter category; I love the United States, but I often find the deification of American culture to be quite irritating. That being said, there was not a single point in this movie where I was bothered by its unapologetic display of patriotism. Above all else, this movie’s aims to paint a nuanced and loving portrait of the “man who owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan. His unbridled love for the United States was one of his most enduring characteristics, and it would be a crime to portray him any differently.

Once the movie ended, I immediately did some brief reading on the life of Cohan as to have a frame to center my thoughts on the film within. As with any Hollywood biopic, his life story was romanticized, purified, and all around doctored to fit that era’s general mold of what a film-biography looked like. Yet, even with the alterations, the movie succeeds in bringing its central character to life in a way few other biopics can make claim to. While the minute details may have changed, you can still feel Cohan’s soul echo throughout the picture’s entirety.

These sorts of movies live and die off their lead performances, and James Cagney’s portrayal of Cohan is far and away the best part of the film. It’s quite simply one of the better screen-performances of the past 75 years. Cagney doesn’t just play Cohan, but becomes him, inhabits his persona in a way that very few actors are capable of. For the most part, he’s cocky, self-assured, and doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of those who doubt him. He knows that he’s the very best in the business, and he’ll make sure to prove you wrong if you dare to disagree. To be frank, he’s a bit of an asshole. But fitting right into Cohan’s reputation, Cagney somehow manages to charm the audience into liking him. Early on in the film when a financier refuses to fund Cohan’s plays, you’re not hoping that he take their advice and change his work, but instead are rooting for him when he barges out of their office in a huff.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

The film opens with an older Cohan’s presence being summoned by none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, then president of the United States. Cohan assumes the worst, considering that he’s currently playing a comedic version of FDR in a new musical. However, when he enters the Oval Office, he finds the president to be quite welcoming towards him (side note: the movie smartly shoots Roosevelt solely from the back, as to never see his face.¬†Apparently, it was the first time a living president was ever portrayed on screen. It’s tastefully done, and makes his inclusion less distracting). Cohan, being himself, begins to tell the president his entire life story after being prompted by a simple question. And with that, we are whisked backwards in time, to decades earlier on the fourth of July, where little George M. Cohan is just being born. Patriotic indeed.

As we soon learn, the theater was in Cohan’s blood from the beginning. Both of his parents were performers, and once Cohan and his little sister Josie reach their teenage years, the entire family begins to tour the east coast as “The Four Cohans.” From his very first lead performance at thirteen, it’s clear that little Georgie Cohan always has been the best at what he does, and never has had any reservations about letting other people know it. Although its humorous to watch a young Cohan’s cockiness sabotage many of his family’s attempts at reaching prominence, these scenes also set up how important family is in Cohan’s life. His relationship with his father in particular is impressively done, as Cagney and Walter Huston (Cohan Sr.) have perfect chemistry. In fact, it’s his father that imbues him with the love for America that becomes so important to his life.

Walter Huston as George’s father, Jerry Cohan. Clearly patriotism runs in the family.

Although Cagney plays Cohan at his most boisterous for the majority of the film (which is not a bad thing), his performance is truly memorable for the brief snippets where we see Cohan’s innermost vulnerabilities. These moments don’t pop up often, but are all the more moving due to their sparse nature. Watching the pain subtly ripple through his face as he says goodbye to his dying father is a sad, yet remarkable thing. You can see he’s trying to maintain his composure, but can’t help letting some of his sadness leak through. It’s rather powerful when he eventually bursts into tears. Even in lighter moments, such as when an Army officer tells him he’s too old to serve in World War I, the viewer can see that there’s a real human being beneath all the energy and glitz of showbiz.

But that doesn’t mean the glitz of showbiz is a bad thing in this movie; quite the contrary! The film’s musical numbers are some of its most impressive scenes. Due to the manner in which they’re shot, it feels like you’re actually watching a Broadway musical. They’re all impressively choreographed and set to Cohan’s catchiest musical numbers (I found myself humming “Yankee Doodle Boy” well into the next day after watching). It’s in these songs that the movie’s patriotic vibes really come alive. Cohan made his music to uplift the American people, and its clear he takes great pride in this effort. He and his music are a singular entity; his musicals are simply an extension of his patriotic personality, and these scenes¬†expertly convey this. And did I mention the dancing? Even if Cagney’s portrayal lacked nuance, it’d still be noteworthy solely for his tap-dancing performances. Man, those are impressive.

As the movie progresses, Cohan’s narration occasionally pops in to remind us that he’s still telling his story to Roosevelt, and it eventually catches up to the present-day. So, what was the reason for the president summoning Cohan to his office? The answer shocks Cohan into disbelief: he’s being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the United States. All throughout the film, Cohan seems to have a perfect response to every situation, yet here, he is speechless. He eventually musters up the strength to ask “Are you sure there isn’t a mistake?” After all, he was too old to fight in any war; how could he be given such a prestigious honor? The president calmly tells him that there are many ways to serve your country, and that Cohan gave the nation strength in its times of need.

Cohan literally dances out of the White House, tap-dancing his way down the stairs and to the exit (a masterful work of improvisation by Cagney, who apparently came up with the idea in the midst of filming). The man adored his country, so the filmmakers made a movie that expressed this love as clearly as possible. It’s important to note that this movie came out in 1942, as the United States was in the midst of fighting the Second World War. There was no guarantee that America was going to succeed in its fight against tyranny, and many Americans must have been quite afraid. For a movie such as this to release in those difficult times must’ve had an enormous impact; when things seem hopeless, an uplifting and patriotic film such as this can change hearts. Part of the reason movies are included on the AFI List is for their cultural significance, and I have no doubt that this movie made a splash during its initial release. Although I normally find myself annoyed by excessive and brazen patriotism, I’m willing to make an exception on this one instance.

I give Yankee Doodle Dandy a rating of . . . .

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

So far the American Film Institute is going three for three, let’s see if they can keep it up.

So have you seen Yankee Doodle Dandy? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #98 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #97 on the list, Blade Runner.

Yankee Doodle Dandy Info
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Robert Buckner and Edmund Josephy
Starring: James Cagney, Walter Huston, Joan Leslie, and Richard Whorf 
Running Time: 126 minutes 
Release Date: June 6th, 1942
Production Company: Warner Bros.
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