Let me set the scene:
In the second week or so of returning from winter break in January of 2002, my middle school was having auditions for the upcoming musical, Bugsy Malone Jr. As each of my peers got up and nearly all individually sang “God Bless America” (as it had only been a few months since the 9/11 attacks), I sat in my chair, aware I had a different song planned.
Eventually, my turn came up, and I sang “Over there”. I was not the best of singers, but apparently it was enough to convince my choir director Mr. Sorgatz to cast me in the lead role (which ended up having only one solo line of singing for me, go figure).
Bluntly put, Yankee Doodle Dandy clearly had an influence on me at a young age. Many a young person would be hesitant (especially in their teen years) to watch an “old” movie that their parents like, but my dad got it right with this one. I don’t have many holiday film traditions, but seeing this at the start of July is one I have managed over the years.
The film tells the story of Broadway icon George M. Cohan (James Cagney). His name is lost nowadays to all but Broadway buffs, but his songs are not. Along with the title song and the aforementioned “Over there”, he wrote “Harrigan”, “Give my regards to Broadway”, and “You’re a grand old flag”.
Previously known for his gangster roles (which he would later return to in White Heat), it must have come as somewhat a surprise to audiences to see the musical talent of James Cagney. He may not have gone to the next level of dance that was obtained by the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but Cagney approached the role with such gusto, charm, and sheer energy that you are thoroughly convinced he was up to reaching the next level. It is as if Cagney was wound up like a toy in between takes, and his dancing scenes make him look like he is a marionette.
Though the film is mostly narrated by Cohan, the set up to his narration is a little far fetched, having just been called to the White House by the President (though we never see his face, Jack Young sounds a whole lot like FDR). That this would not happen today goes without saying, but it helps to remember that the 1940s were indeed a very different time.
What makes the film different from more contemporary musical biopics is that it does not focus so much on historical accuracy (the real Cohan was married twice, but is married only once in the film) and more on the musical numbers. The film runs at just over two hours, but goes by smoothly without any complete explanation of certain shows or extra rehearsals shown on screen, with the exception of showing a young George and the rest of the “Four Cohans” in a play that gives George the lead part, leading to his father (Walter Huston) showing the one part of his son “without any talent.”
Parents, the film was in the 1940s, so basically any kid who can stand black and white films (which, in a perfect world, would be all of them) are fine.
By the end of the film, we get that wonderful (and improvised) shot of Cohan dancing down the stair case, but it is what was said by the president before hand that stuck with me through the years. As Cohan has just been given the Medal of Honor for his contributions to the American Spirit, he is baffled. “I’m just a song and dance man, everybody knows that.”, says Cohan.
The president goes on to explain how we can serve our nation in many different ways. It is a simple truth, but one we seem to forget from time to time (even as Christians serving the kingdom). Don’t forget that King David was a song and dance man as well.
In 1974, James Cagney became the second recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement award. You can see excerpts of it here, which includes this quote:
“Every time we walk out of the house in the morning…we are looking at people doing things that are essentially themselves, and what they are doing should be of great interest to everybody from an artistic point of view, because if you are looking at it in that way, we are holding the wonder that we were born with.”