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Great Movies Roundtable: Yankee Doodle Dandy

#98 on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list is “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  It’s a biopic about George M. Cohan, who was a big deal on Broadway in the decade before World War I.  Nowadays, nobody’s heard of Cohan, and few people know who Jimmy Cagney is, but he was a big deal, too, once upon a time. Cagney won an Oscar for his energetic performance, though I wonder if it wasn’t more of an honorary Oscar for his body of work, (and maybe also an apology for not awarding him the Oscar for “Angels With Dirty Faces.”)

Is this a great movie? 

WK:  I’d say good but not great, and frankly, it took me a few times through to even appreciate what was good about it — aside from Cagney’s performance, which is pretty fantastic. It has some nice scenes, but it’s a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill biopic. Flasbhac to meet Hero’s family, see Hero struggle, see Hero overcome struggles and achieve wild success, flash forward to Hero reflecting on success near the end of his life.  We don’t learn a single interesting thing about George M. Cohan over the course of two hours.  He wrote a lot of catchy songs, though.

CRH: This movie has some really catchy music. I found myself singing “Yankee doodle boy…” all day. The movie is very patriotic as well. It is full of energy and is well crafted with its many dance numbers.  James Cagney overflows with charisma in this movie. Besides the dancing I think what gave this movie its long standing status is its palpable patriotism. The film bleeds red, white and blue. It’s a type of patriotism that has transformed in recent years to something less grand and joyful. In the post Vietnam world America’s greatness has fallen into a realm of controversy.  The movie is sincere in its utter love of country (The flaws in this vision show as well.) 

What are your favorite scenes?

WK: I really like the “Mary” sequence, when Cohan writes a song for his sweetheart, then has to give it to a big star in order to get her to sign on the production.  He comes home to break the news to her, but she guesses it — and handles it with grace — long before he can bring himself to tell her.  Now maybe that’s sweet, and maybe it’s saccharine. But I liked it.  (I also like its echo at the end of the film, when she’s agreed to convince him to return to Broadway, and he plays along, even though he’s already said yes.)

Perhaps my other favorite scene – and this is classic Hollywood – is the scene when he and Sam Harris become partners before they know each other, improvising a con to get an investor to sign a check for a musical they haven’t written yet.  It’s a great little piece of comedy, perfectly played by all three, but perhaps most notably by S.Z. Sakall, who plays the rube.

CRH: I love that scene with the con as well. Very funny and well acted. The scenes which amused me the most were the patriotic dance numbers. The plot of the film is kind of trite. I think these scenes are the most dynamic and enjoyable. The George Washington Jr song was really interesting on its insight to the American Identity. “Dixie” plays freely with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (The Civil War was still in living memory). “Over There” is very patriotic but very baffling these days. I think these make the movie.

WK: Yeah, it’s hard to hear “Over There” and not think about the Vietnam War, and really, ever war since.

Buying or Selling?

WK: Definitely selling on this one. I think I might like it a tiny bit more than Ben-Hur, but it’s not hard for me to think of other movies I’d rather see on this list. I feel like the only reason it’s on this list is the AFI feels like Jimmy Cagney needs to be on here somewhere, and none of his other movies are.

CRH: No doubts in my mind that its selling. It’s a relic of its era.  As a history major I think this movie is now a valuable historical document. It gives us an insight into the world of 1941. In 2016 our world needs its own story. I think even though it’s out of date this movie is authentic in its belief. I think it will remain as a document. 

Up next month:  Bladerunner

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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