Michael Curtiz | 2hr 6min
There is a scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy where, after a lifetime of many accomplishments, famed Broadway composer, lyricist, and performer George M. Cohan is confronted by a posse of teenagers oblivious to his fame. It becomes apparent by this point that Cohan is not a name that has the same cultural cache as his more contemporary predecessors, and in effect it is almost as if the film is recognising the potential cluelessness of its own audience. Michael Curtiz doesn’t quite dispel the notion that Cohan belongs to an older, simpler era of jingoistic patriotism, and yet we still find something undeniably compelling about the showman’s vibrant stage presence and bright, flag-waving theatre tunes. He may not be a household name like he used to be, but his role in pioneering the ‘book musical’ format as an integrated blend of drama and music continues to be felt in contemporary theatre, and in adapting his life story, Curtiz renders the fluidity of his lyrics, melodies, and dances onscreen as a magnificently propulsive biopic.
Given his background of playing loud, bullish gangsters, James Cagney is not the most obvious choice for the role of Cohan, and yet he pulls off something quite unique in translating his strong, physical presence into a performance far more agile and dextrous than we have ever seen from him. It is almost impossible to believe that this short, stocky man can move his feet with such grace, and he especially delights in subverting those expectations even further by using show make-up to convince one adoring fan (and future wife) that he is in his late 60s, before breaking into a tap dance so fast it becomes a blur. Onstage, his body moves as if controlled by a puppeteer, bouncing on his heels and letting his limbs fall around him in effortless coordination, and Curtiz’s camera is in love with every second of it, elegantly tracking him across stages and swooping down from ceilings in majestic crane shots.
As a result of the collaboration between these two major Hollywood talents, there is a spry nimbleness both in front of and behind the camera, coming together in effervescent displays of patriotism and dazzling beauty. Curtiz’s transition into Cohan’s show-stopping number ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ is just as energetic as the performer himself, lifting us from the conductor’s sheet music to the chorus onstage, clearing them out of the way to the sound of brilliant fanfare, before finally revealing Cagney standing proudly atop a podium. If it isn’t the camera movements revelling in the commotion of the theatre, then Curtiz is arranging his ensemble in tight formations and setting us back in wide shots to admire the military march of ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, or the unified raising of arms up to the Lincoln Memorial in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.
Curtiz’s deep focus lens assists his direction a great deal in capturing the full scope of his stage ensembles, but it is used to even greater effect offstage where we get to understand Cohan’s place as the dedicated son of a travelling, vaudeville family. As he grows successful, there is clearly an unspoken imbalance between his rising star and their financial struggles, so that even when he generously gives them ownership of all the theatres and properties he owns, Curtiz still isolates him in the foreground against the staggered staging of his family in the background. It is a moment of joy, and yet the camera fully registers Cagney’s wistful expression. Later upon the passing of Cohan’s father, Curtiz’s blocking fragments them entirely, recognising this tragedy as the end of a chapter in both his career and personal life.
For the most part though, there is little time in Yankee Doodle Dandy for misfortunes and setbacks. The odd artistic compromise or failed play mounts to little when all is said and done, as Curtiz instead builds Cohan’s successes to glorious cinematic heights, driving his story forward with energetic montages of falling curtains and cross-country tours. Even more astounding than his editing though is one particularly inventive sequence that navigates an entire city of Art Deco miniatures and billboards shining Cohan’s name up in lights, flying Curtiz’s camera through urban cityscapes for close to 2 minutes without a single cut.
For such a culturally ubiquitous and pioneering figure though, there is something quietly subversive about his quaint, old-fashioned patriotism, bolstering his popularity in the aftermath of World War I by calling back to a more innocent era in the United States’ history.
“Manhattan went wild with post-war hysteria, but I spiked my shows with pre-war stuff… the sentiment and humour an older America had aged in the wood.”
In his music too, this love of the old days is almost always right there in its melodies and lyrics, referencing traditional American songs such as that which is right there in the title of the film. Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld do a magnificent job of working Cohan’s tunes into their score as well, letting the original pieces breathe when it is their time to take the spotlight, and elsewhere keeping them in mind as instrumental arrangements. To Cohan, these may just be expressions of great national pride, but to virtually everyone else, they become a pure embodiment of the American spirit, moving beyond the theatre and taking on a new life in grand parades and celebrations. This culminates in the magnificent finale of ‘Over There’ sung by a chorus of soldiers marching through the streets of Washington D.C., but it is more broadly embedded in the very framing device of Cohan’s meeting with the President too, leading into the flashbacks of his life story.
It makes a lot of sense why a film like this struck a chord in 1942, when America was right in the middle of a world war and morale was at a low. A reminder of the nation’s prosperous past was needed to imagine a hopeful future, and there are few cinematic characters so emblematic of that as Cagney’s representation of Cohan, who in his final minutes of screen time casts a shadow across the Oval Office and then, in an inspired bit of improvisation, joyfully tap dances down a White House staircase. Yankee Doodle Dandy’s politics are unsophisticated, but its nostalgic sentiment is strong, beating back whatever accusations of outdated mawkishness might be thrown its way with Cagney’s dynamic energy and Curtiz’s dextrous displays of creative ingenuity.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.