Friday, April 12, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon: 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'



Through the years, I’ve read some criticisms regarding James Cagney’s musical work in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” 


Perhaps in an era where dancing was defined by the timeless elegance of Fred Astaire, Cagney’s “hoofing” didn’t compare. Gene Kelly would soon appear on the scene, and in retrospect Astaire and Kelly are considered the epitome of male dance on film. 


But it’s an unfair comparison, and one that is rather insulting to Cagney’s talents, who worked hard to mimic Cohan’s style of dance. Although Cagney skyrocketed to stardom based upon his gangster roles, which represent some of his most beloved films, he himself always thought of himself as a song-and-dance man. In his autobiography, he talks about how he rarely watched his old movies when shown on TV except for the musicals he made. At 75, he still loved to dance and did so for exercise. 


And “Yankee Doodle Dandy” – Cagney’s favorite film – is such a rousing piece of entertainment, and Cagney a bundle of energetic joy, that any criticisms of his dancing can best be contributed to a preference of style. His early days in show business consisted of a lot of dancing in vaudeville. And while his time at Warner Brothers during the 1930s is marked by tough guy roles, he did make the occasional musical, such as the Busby Berkeley extravaganza “Footlight Parade” and the lesser-known “Something to Sing About.” For the latter, he said he was thrilled to be working with two dancing idols from vaudeville, Harland Dixon and Johnny Boyle, and that they were carrying on the style and tradition of one George M. Cohan, the legendary entertainer who wrote more than 500 songs, created more than 40 stage productions and produced 130 more. In fact, Boyle would become one of Cagney’s coaches for many years. 

 

Cagney said: “Many people think I learned to dance for ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ the prevailing impression being that when a fella gets up and does a dance routine, he learned it the day before yesterday. Not so. A song-and-dance man, which is what I am basically, becomes one over many years of unrelenting work.” 


When Cohan was shopping his story to studios, he had offered it to Sam Goldwyn and Paramount. Astaire reportedly turned it down because it wasn’t right for him. Cagney’s brother, Bill, aggressively sought this story. Despite Cagney’s film stardom, he also felt he had been unfairly portrayed by some as a radical, and he was looking for a property that would prove that he wasn’t. Cohen finally was convinced that Cagney was indeed a song-and-dance man like himself and took the property to Warners. Cagney didn’t like the original script and asked that Julius and Philip Epstein provide rewrites. Then Cagney went into intense rehearsals and learned Cohan’s stiff-legged style and how he would run up the side of the proscenium arch during a routine. 


Cohan himself was dying of cancer (he would pass in November of 1942), and Cagney did not meet him. When Cohan saw the film before its release and gave it his blessing, Cagney was proud of the job he had done. 


While “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a biography of Cohan (with a fair number of liberties), it’s also a big slice of Americana, a film that for some is a July 4th staple. In this first year of U.S. involvement in World War II, it was a patriotic way of lifting spirits. And Cagney seems at ease with the role from the very beginning, in which Cohan is still performing even in middle age. After portraying the President Franklin Roosevelt in his latest stage show, Cohan is summoned to the White House. Cohan is nervous, but he soon discovers there are no hard feelings between himself and the President. During his meeting, Cohan reminisces about his life, from his birth on July 4 (which, in real life, was July 3), through years on the road with his family, and finally to his own stardom.  

 

The cast includes Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp as Cohan’s parents; Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne, as his on-screen sister Josie (brother Bill Cagney was an associate producer on the film); and Joan Leslie as Mary, the woman who would become Cohan’s wife (in reality he had two but only one in the film). Directed with flair by Michael Curtiz, the film is filled with wall-to-wall music. Familiar tunes like “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” certainly boosted morale of audiences dealing with WWII. 


But the film belongs to Cagney. In some ways, his performance is the Cagney we know and love, a fast-talker with that distinctive voice and patter. Regardless, he’s given many moments to shine, especially in the big “Yankee Doodle Dandy” production number, in which he rarely seems to catch his breath – nor does the audience. As a showman, Cohan was unstoppable; as an actor, so is Cagney. 

The movie was a box-office bonanza, and it earned eight Oscar nominations, with Cagney winning his only Oscar as Best Actor for this film. And he was the first actor to win for a musical performance. The movie also won for sound and scoring. 


Sometimes it’s difficult to review a film that is beloved by so many people. But perhaps the best way to end is with the finale of the film itself, when Cohan does wings down the stairs of the White House. Cagney himself said that’s one moment from his movie career that he particularly enjoys, and it’s a fitting ending to this marvelous film – Cohan sailing down those stairs followed by the audience sailing away on their own wings, thoroughly entertained by both film and actor, one of the all-time greats. 

This post is part of the terrific James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. Click here to read the other entries in this event. 

32 comments:

  1. It's a grand old movie. Who doesn't tear up a bit at the scene with George M. marching alongside Frank Faylen at the end?

    For non-Americans like myself, sometimes the flag waving can seem like a bit much, but it is so unashamedly heartfelt that we just take it as one of the little quirks of our friendly neighbours to the south.

    That Cagney so perfected the Cohan style is a testament to his fidelity to the character and I find him a complete joy to watch. His reprise of George M. with Bob Hope in "The Seven Little Foys" is one of my favourite movie moments.

    You're so right, "one of the all-time greats". It's probably one of the main movies that turn people into Cagney and film fans.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comments and understanding the flag waving tendencies of us south of the border :) This film makes you appreciate Cagney's versatility.

      Delete
  2. It is one of the all-time greats and for a country just entering World War II, it must have been an overwhelming experience at the time.

    As much as I love the gangster movies, this is probably my favorite Cagney performance and my favorite Cagney film. Yep, I try to watch it every year in early July. It's as much a tradition for me as parades and fireworks.

    My all-time favorite Cagney scene is the one where Joan Leslie thinks Cohan is an old man and he slowly removes the make-up. A classic scene in a classic movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a fun scene ... I was watching it the other night and smiling about it. And I agree ... this had to hit people in the heart when it was first released. Timing, as they say, is everything.

      Delete
  3. I think when people compare Cagney's dancing to that of Astaire and then later Gene Kelly that it's silly. Astaire and Cagney were two different types--style is determined by this. You are right that it is difficult to review a film beloved by so many--some will say you didn't say enough and some will say you didn't gush about it enough. Each review is shaped by the reviewer, not the other way around. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Yankee Doodle Dandy, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Kim. Outside of needless gushing, I think people can guess how much I love this film. Glad you stopped by!

      Delete
  4. Filmboy, a great post. As you say, it's a tall order to write on a movie that's so well known and a defining film of Cagney's career, and you did a tremendous job. When you called the film "a rousing piece of entertainment" and "a big slice of Americana" you described it to a tee. It may not be the most sophisticated film even for its day, but for entertainment value alone it's irresistible. You made a very strong point when you wrote that Cagney's George M. Cohan wasn't that different from the toughs Cagney played because he had the same hyperenergetic, ambitious, extroverted go-getter personality as many of those characters, only directed toward song, dance, and show production rather than criminality.

    I like the way you devoted a good amount of your post to Cagney's dancing and his dancing in this film. As you noted, dancing was his favored form of exercise. I know that he and Fred Astaire were friends and great admirers of each other, and the biggest thing they had in common was their obsessiveness about dance rehearsal. I've read that Cagney got help from his friends who had worked with Cohan to be able to emulate Cohan's dancing style, though Cagney's own strutting, stiff-legged style wasn't too dissimilar to begin with.

    A Cagney Blogathon wouldn't be complete without coverage of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Thanks for doing this with such style and insight.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, R.D., for your kind comments. With this film, I think critical analysis is secondary to the entertainment value, which is huge, and the tremendous performance of the lead actor. Glad you suggested I do this film and thank you for organizing the blogathon!

      Delete
  5. I know Cohan wanted Fred Astaire in the role, and I love Astaire too, but it is hard to imagine him in the role. Cagney was born to play this part and the song and dance sequences are wonderful - definitely agree on the greatness of that amazing production number. I must admit I'm not so keen on the opening section about George as a boy, and am always tempted to skip through this part and get straight to Cagney! Really enjoyed your piece.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree -- Astaire would have been obsessive about getting it right, but there's something about Cagney that makes him a natural for this role. That's funny about the early portion of the movie; I get a kick out of him going through his spoiled phase while he's performing in Peck's Bad Boy. :) Glad you stopped by!

      Delete
  6. Wonderful celebratory piece Brian! Cagney was indeed greatly enamored of this role, and held it well above his earlier work in the gangster films. Having Cohan's enforcement was a special validation, and the performance was always held as the definitive example of Cagney's versatility. His footwork is dazzling and his screen presence is overwhelming. As. R.D. states no Cagney lovefest could be complete without the film that for many defined his persona and his amazing talent. I've never tired of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Sam. I've never tired of it, either.

      Delete
  7. Terrific highlighting of what is a most-beloved movie to me! My family is among those who faithfully watch "Yankee Doodle Dandy" every 4th of July. Quite honestly, Independence Day just wouldn't be the same without the toe-tapping sounds of this film. It's one of those films where I have a smile on my face (mingled with a few tears) the entire time. It is truly a delightful picture.

    Of course, given that "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is the one film which garnered Mr. Cagney a Lead Actor Academy Award, that makes it even more special and beloved...and, of course, a must for being included in this blogathon. Thank you for your heartfelt tribute to such a terrific movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Patti. It's great to hear so many people talk about how much they love this film.

      Delete
  8. Terrific post, I really enjoyed all the background info on how Cagney came to make this film and how he approached his role. He brings more than dancing to the role, though, he has a touching credibility in his scenes with the actors playing his family members. He really deserved his Oscar. BTW, George M. Cohan himself did make one movie, The Phantom President, in 1932, in which he sings and dancing (and it's really in that stiff-legged style): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1iWNdS1Kfg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great clip and thank you for sharing. Cagney said that the scene where Cohan breaks down when his father died, when he was done he looked over to director Michael Curtiz, who he said was crying like a baby :)

      Delete
  9. Criticism of Cagney in this role! Blasphemy! Thanks for a terrific post about one of the all-time greats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! I so agree. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  10. A lovely review and fine tribute to the incomparable Mr. Cagney. Last night, as I was finishing my own contribution for R.D.'s extraordinary blogathon, I watched "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It had been a long time. Cagney's dancing, once again, bowled me over. He was ideally cast and absolutely took ownership of Cohan and the film. His performance brought to mind a quote from his autobiography in which he mused that he thought of dancing as "a primal urge coming to life at the first moment we need to express joy." His dancing is nothing if not joyous.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Eve. This is one of those classic films that is so easy to watch and so entertaining, and Cagney's performance is like a gift to all of us. He said he performed for the audience, and indeed he did his best here.

      Delete
  11. I remember watching this film as a kid with my father, and coming out utterly baffled why no one would recognize Cohan at the end in the street as he sang along to his own song. That always stuck with me, and I realized what it was saying by not having the soldier recognize him was that while you could become influential and famous, in America you were still an American, first and foremost. Great stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is great stuff. Thank you for stopping by!

      Delete
  12. Very well-done review of a Cagney performance beloved by his fans. It was especially intriguing to learn that Cagney enjoyed watching his musicals. For that reason, I'm still surprised he turned down MY FAIR LADY.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, and I know about My Fair Lady. At least Stanley Holloway was great.

      Delete
  13. Great review Classicfilmboy. I must say I'm very partial to Cagney's dancing, and I don't see how he could be criticized for his dancing in this film. But his dancing was respected in his own day. Cagney happened to be in the sound stage when Fred Astaire was doing one of his many takes for Top Hat number with the male chorus. Fred asked Cagney which take he thought was best.Cagney told him and that's the one that was used.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Christian. I had not heard that story about Fred Astaire and Top Hat, so thanks for sharing that one!

      Delete
  14. I'm with you. It's unfair to criticize Cagney for his dancework in "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Cagney is a terrific dancer in his own right.

    This is a pretty good movie, if not a little over the top, and Cagney is pure joy to watch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoy watching Cagney in this one.

      Delete
  15. With what Boston and America has endured with the bombing at the Marathon, maybe a little Cohen-Cagney flag waving would be a good thing for our country.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I really enjoy this film, and specially the main musical number and Over There. Even not known as a dancer, Cagney saw himself as such, and his dancing was unique. It's a great, cheerful film, and there is no surprise he won the Oscar, in a moment of needing hope during the war.
    Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hiya ... glad you enjoyed this and that you like Cagney so much!!

      Delete