Top 100 Movie Review: #100 – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Somehow I Enjoyed a Musical 

I don’t know who I am anymore — enjoying a film based on theater and stage.

James Cagney plays in this biographical movie about George Cohen, the man who ruled broadway and had his beginnings in vaudeville America.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #100/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for several: best picture, actor, screenplay, supporting actor etc. Won for Best Actor (James Cagney).
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

My dislike for theater runs deep and goes to my early days of college — VCU was home to a vibrant theater community, and early every morning they would flood the dining hall dressed in straight black forgetting that they weren’t on stage. It was kind of like a qualitative study where I got to see what the stress of performance did to one’s life first hand, not to mention the suspense of what Shafer Hall would do to my GI tract.

I set up my netflix cue with a bunch of random movies, so when Yankee Doodle Dandy arrived, I really had no idea what it was about. Once I read that summary on the DVD slip, I started to worry.

Somehow, I came out not only pleased, but ready to recommend this film to anyone who would listen to me Yammer about vaudeville, WWI and this “American as you get” film.

[Spoilers — even though there really isn’t anything to spoil] The movie starts with the end as it shows Cohan (played by James Cagney) coming out of retirement to play lead in a play that mocks FDR relentlessly. He receives a call from the Administration to come to the White House, expecting to be told to stop such a chastising performance. Instead, he finds a willing listener (the president himself) as Cohan retells the story of his life.

Thus begins a retelling of George Cohan’s life — a romp through early vaudeville all the way up to his fruition as the man who “owned broadway.” What makes the movie so enjoyable is that it is a good mix of history, entertainment, and story. As you get introduced to parts of American thus unknown to me (such as the early entertainment industry of America), you get plenty of acts running the gambit of music, tap dancing and gags to keep it moving.

I think the reason I enjoyed the film so much was because of James Cagney himself. Orson Welles, director and actor of what is considered the best movie of all time “Citizen Kane,” described Cagney as the “maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera.” While I’m not sure about that hyperbole, this movie does put Cagney through the wringer as he has to be able to do the entire gamut for all these on stage performances. Never once did I feel like Cagney was stretching to perform; he feels right at home no matter what was needed for the scene.

It helps, too, when the subject matter is someone of such great important that was completely unknown to me. Having written over 300 songs, some of them even used as rallying cries for war time, Cohen is just as much a part of American history as any other entertainer. It is unsurprising that he has faded away, given our consumption of media is as far away from stage and old standards as possible, but there is no denying the impact he had during his life.

So even as an ardent, anti-song-and-dance guy, I came away impressed not only of early broadway, Cagney’s ability to perform, and Cohen’s contribution to culture, but also of the art form in and of itself. I might have to give a couple other theater movies a chance now just as long as a Shafer Swipe isn’t a requisite.

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