1 October 2003 | schappe1
It seems it always happens...
`It seems it always happens
Whenever we get too high hat and sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we're a pushover, all ready to be blackjacked. It's not long before we start looking up mighty anxiously to make sure the flag is still waving.'
So says James Cagney, as George M. Cohan, at the time of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Obviously, it's a sentiment that has great relevance to our time, as well. I've always wished I could dance a patriotic dance or march down the street waving the flag. It looks like a lot of fun. The trouble is, this sort of activity is often performed to suppress what America is really about. The really great thing about our country isn't songs, flags and marches. Any country can do those things. The real great thing is that we have the right to say what we think, to debate the issues of the day and to form a consensus for action when we are in agreement about what needs to be done.
There was surely such a consensus when this film was made in 1942. There was little doubt about what needed to be done then. However, World War I seems now a particularly pointless conflict and the thought that smiling Frances Langford was singing soldiers into battle to who knows what fate is a little disturbing. And now, whenever there is a war, we are urged to join the parade and postpone debate until the issue is something not so important, like farm prices or college entrance requirements. It seems to me that the more important an issue is, the more we should be debating it. If people are going to die, we'd better make sure we are right.
From that point of view, `Yankee Doodle Dandy' can seem almost offensive. But, of course it isn't. Is a charming example of one of the thing Old Hollywood did best- the romantic biography. In this George M. is an all-right guy, an enormous bundle of energy that intimidates the stuffed shirts but causes people of substance to fall in love with him. He has a wonderful family and one of those `perfect' Hollywood wives- Mary, who doesn't even wince when he gives the song he wrote for her to another actress. He has a loyal friend and partner in Jed Harris. For some reason he's childless but still gets a thrill from performing for his beloved audiences. And, when his country needs a shot in the arm, his enthusiastic songs provide it.
Of course, he was married twice. His divorce from his first wife Ethel, was acrimonious and thus she doesn't appear in the story. `May' is a fictionalized version of his second wife Agnes. He had children but they also didn't make the cut because he was estranged from them at the time of the film. He was loathed by many of his profession for years before this because of his strong anti-union stance. His split with Jed Harris was not the gentle retirement we see here but was, at least in part because Harris had given in to the unions. And he himself loathed Franklin Roosevelt, refusing for four years to pick up the medal FDR and Congress had awarded him. Would it have been a better movie if these things were incorporated into the script? Probably not. Hollywood- and the nation at the time- was more concerned with the way things should have been than with the way they actually were.
Cagney was surely a perfect choice to play Cohan, being an Irishman who enter show business as a song and dance man, (and always considered himself primarily that). His exuberant personality also mirrors that of Cohan, who was said not to be particularly great at anything but did everything with such enthusiasm that it didn't matter. That said, I have never been a particular fan of Cagney's `puppet on a string' dance style. Dancing is supposed to be an expression of one's inner self. A puppet has no inner self.
There are many charming sequences in the film, none more so than the `cute-meet' with Mary where he's played a dottering old man in a play and she thinks he really is one until he starts showing her dance steps. Then there's his refusal by the Army because of his age. He does another dance routine to show them what they are missing. You've got to love the sequence where he and Harris, (Richard Whorf), con Cuddles Zakal into backing them. Then there's a glimpse of Cagney cute sister, Jeanne, playing Josie, Cohan's sister. We are not told why Josie is `gone' late in the film- her heart attack at age 36 was deemed too unpleasant, as was the death of Cohan's mother, (Rosemary Decamp, who was more than a decade younger than Cagney). The one death scene is that of Cohan's beloved father, played by Walter Huston, who was a Cohan protégé. Chan himself was on his deathbed as this was released, (he submitted a script which was `tactfully rejected'). He escaped his nurse to see it in a theater and gave it his approval, as we should, too.