This week Michael Curtiz month comes to a close. It’s been a lot of fun writing about his impressive body of work. And I haven’t even touched on Casablanca or The Adventures of Robin Hood! That shows you how immense his talents were as a director. I’ve discussed an adventure at sea,a war picture,a western,and a film noir. This week I’m closing things out with a musical. My last film of the month is Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942.
Yankee Doodle Dandy stars James Cagney as song and dance man George M. Cohan. And in case you’re wondering if it’s the same James Cagney that stunned us with his performance in gangster pictures like White Heat,The Public Enemy,and Angels With Dirty Faces…yes,it’s THAT James Cagney. He was actually a hoofer himself. If you don’t believe me check out another film he made called Footlight Parade. But I digress. Yankee Doodle Dandy‘s plot?
A musical portrait of composer/singer/dancer George M. Cohan. From his early days as a child-star in his family’s vaudeville show up to the time of his comeback at which he received a medal from the president for his special contributions to the US, this is the life- story of George M. Cohan, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own musical shows for which he composed his famous songs.–Source: Internet Movie Database
So basically it’s a straight-up biopic. But it tells the story of a complete life. Very few films do that anymore. While it’s not a completely historically accurate depiction of Cohan’s life,Cagney’s performance makes up for that in spades. In fact,Cohan himself approved of Cagney being cast and his performance. Cohan was still alive when the film was in production. One of the many great things about Yankee Doodle Dandy is that it’s a great look at the world of theater,particularly the world of vaudeville. The film really gives us a great look of the highs and lows of being an actor/composer. The highlight of the film is the title number,performed with great gusto by the cast. A close second for me is You’re a Grand Old Flag. The film is unapologetically patriotic. That’s not surprising given the songs Cohan gave us. In addition to the previously mentioned songs there’s also Over There.
It’s worth mentioning that Cagney has a wonderful supporting cast around him. Joan Leslie plays his wife Mary and Walter Huston plays his father Jerry. And that’s just for starters! Yankee Doodle Dandy is just a lot of lavish musical numbers linked together with a thin narrative. It does a great job of telling the story of Cohan first as a part of his family’s vaudeville act,then through his struggles when he’s blacklisted in the theater for being troublesome (he’s cocky and pushes a lot of his own songs),to his partnership with Sam Harris that gets him his big break,and finally through his comeback and recognition with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Making Yankee Doodle Dandy even more special is the black and white cinematography of the legendary James Wong Howe. He beautifully photographs the whole film,especially the musical numbers and the final scene,which is among the most moving in cinema history.
James Cagney was an incredibly versatile actor. But,like his fellow Warner Brothers star Edward G. Robinson,got type cast in gangster roles. Certainly he was excellent in those. But it’s great to see him show off his versatility in a film like this. He was also in a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,which I highly-recommend.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a rousing patriotic film and a fun biopic. The film came out in 1942,the same years as another Curtiz classic,Casablanca. Talk about a successful year! Curitz would go on to win a best directing Oscar for Casablanca.The man was a workhorse at Warner Brothers and could direct in any genre. I hope now you will seek out the films I’ve highlighted and his other works.
That’s a wrap on Michael Curtiz month! Join me in February for a month of my favorite on-screen film romances.