Wednesday, March 11, 2015

AFI Top 100, #100: "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942)

Movie Stats:
Released 1942 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame)
Stars - James Cagney, Jean Leslie

Plot Summary:
It’s a biopic of Broadway great George M. Cohan (Cagney), best known for hits such as “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Over There.” Leslie co-stars as Mary, George’s wife.


Bad Stuff:
The blackface scene is wildly inappropriate. Thank goodness it was brief or I might have died from secondhand embarrassment.

I didn’t find it especially interesting. Cohan’s life was presented as fairly boring, so the movie relies heavily on the spectacle that was his Broadway shows to add some excitement to it. In that way, it reminded me of The Great Ziegfeld.

There’s this feel to it, a sense of “George M. Cohan is the most awesome man who ever awesomed” that’s kind of hard to swallow. I suspect it’s due to the facts that it came out only about 5 months after the U.S. entered WWII and 7 months before Cohan died (he was likely already terminally ill when they were filming it) and Cohan had a lot of patriotic appeal. However, you don’t really get to know him through this film, so I was a little befuddled as to why I was supposed to revere him.

Good Stuff:
The make-up work to make people look old was really fantastic.

I haven’t seen much of Cagney’s work, but most of what I’ve seen is from his early days, when he did the whole wise-cracking, tough guy schtick. It was nice to see him show some range. I thought he was great. I especially loved his tap dance down the stairs at the end.

Despite my complaint above, I did enjoy all the singing, dancing, costumes and sets.

The Verdict:
I think what’s bothering me about it is that there’s no depth. You know me, I don’t need my movies to be meaningful to enjoy them. However, when it comes to a biopic, I expect to get to know the person. At the end of this one, I still had a lot of questions about George M. Cohan. Who was he, really, other than a guy who really liked to write patriotic songs? They don’t even mention his children once (he had four and was purportedly very close to them). I did read that Cohan was very private about his personal life, but even so I felt like the filmmakers could have tried harder to do more than scratch the surface.

That having been said, there was a lot I liked about it. The performances, costumes, make-up, singing, and dancing were all great. It also has a decent amount of humor. It will make you feel good. This isn’t a film intended to provoke thought. The intent is to delight the senses and stir your deepest passions for song and country. It does that quite well. 

I give it 3.5 stars.


Patricia said...

Top two personal uncomfortable moments in classic film:

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Mickey Rooney as horribly racist caricature of a Japanese landlord. I mention it anytime anyone brings up the movie, because I don't want any other newbies to be as scarred as I was. I mean really? Why did no one say, "Great, classic movie. Just be aware that there's a horribly racist element to it."

An Affair to Remember: I'm not sure why, but there's this song-and-dance performance given by schoolchildren and at one point the two black school children step forward and do a special dance. The whole time I was thinking, "why, exactly, do we need just the black children to be spotlighted together?"

It's be kind of fun to see how Yankee Doodle Dandy would be remade today, eh?

balyien said...

If it were remade today, I suspect there would be a lot more explosions.

I think my most uncomfortable racist moment in classic film is from "Holiday Inn," when the cast sings a song for Lincoln's birthday in blackface. Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a close second though.

I think the scene in this movie, even though it was extremely short, bothered me so much because it included children in blackface. I cringed even typing that out.