Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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.

A dazzling physical performance from Cagney that couldn’t be further from his gangster roles – his feet are a blur of action and dexterity.
There are sequences that feel as if the camera never stops moving, bridging transitions into scenes and making the theatre purely cinematic. Curtiz may have worked within the studio system, but he still made this a visual trademark of his.

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’.

Rigorous blocking of large ensembles in the theatre, making for bold displays of mise-en-scène.

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.

Deep focus camerawork a year after Citizen Kane, crafting delicate character dynamics.

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.

A creative use of miniatures to build an entire city of flashing billboards, which Curtiz flies his camera through for almost two minutes at the height of Cohan’s success.

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.

An inspired improvisation from Cagney as he tap dances down the stairs in the White House.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


Gentleman Jim (1942)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 44min

Raoul Walsh takes a loose approach to historical accuracy in taking on the story of boxing legend James J. Corbett, often opting for comedy where other directors might have preferred serious drama, but Gentleman Jim simply does not possess the self-seriousness that more modern biopics have developed a reputation for. This is the man who turned the sport from illegal street brawling into serious competition by way of sophisticated fighting techniques that overcame the brute force of more traditional boxers, and Errol Flynn’s dashing screen persona makes for a wonderfully unconventional fit. The physical disparity is notable as he sizes up against larger, more muscular men, especially when Ward Bond’s towering world champion, John L. Sullivan, is set as the final boss in Corbett’s rise to the top. “I can lick any man in the world,” Sullivan loudly boasts in noisy bars, and though he is not quite a villain, Gentleman Jim is clearly on the side of the underdog here.

In place of heavy themes and personal character struggles, Walsh imbues this biopic with a whimsical lightness, entering the world of 19th century San Francisco through a photo album that turns a still frame into a busy cobbled street of storefronts, police officers, and horse-drawn carriages. The splendid deep focus photography he uses to shoot his splendid period décor even more importantly extends to his giant boxing set pieces, using the ropes of the rings to frame the adversaries inside, and even foregrounding the audience themselves in wider shots to crowd the scenery.

A strong opening shot, opening up a photo album and then bringing it life as we are transported into 19th century San Francisco.

Whether he is lining hundreds of extras along the docks and masts of shipyards to view illegal matches or tightly packing them into closed-off arenas, Walsh’s sweeping establishing shots fill every square inch of space with bodies, bringing tremendous spectacle to competitions that seemingly have the whole world watching. He takes even greater pleasure too in seeing these extras scatter when the police arrive, setting the camera far back to capture the playful chaos unfold as they escape into the ocean.

Raoul Walsh is a crafter of incredible set pieces, making Gentleman Jim the perfect fit for him in gathering these hundreds of extras around boxing rings.

Perhaps the most innovative piece of Walsh’s style here is the fast-paced editing he uses inside the ring, clearly bearing an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull some forty years later. Where Jake LaMotta fights like a bull though, Jim is light on his feet, and the constant cutting to his agile footwork serves to underscore his ground-breaking fighting technique. Walsh navigates these scenes with equal nimbleness, punctuating hits with cutaways to the audience’s reactions and weaving in splendid long shots as breathers between each round.

What could have been conventional montages become displays of inspired editing. Especially impressive is the shot which starts on the two men, tracks forward on the still photo behind them, unfreezes it to move Jim into the shot, and then tracks back out to the two men – editing with the illusion of one long take.

Even when he uses montage editing for the more conventional purpose of bridging gaps in time, Jim’s rise to success is rendered in long dissolves, freeze frames, and point-of-view shots that see him knock us right out, pushing the formal boundaries of a relatively simple device. Though Gentleman Jim lacks the layered storytelling that might have made these characters more compelling than they are, Walsh’s exploration of boxing’s evolution still tells us something about the raw, primal nature of our sporting passions, and the concerted effort to reconcile those with our refined humanity.

Walsh vigorously editing these boxing scenes 40 years before Raging Bull – obviously not quite up to the same remarkable standard, but the achievement is still there.

Gentleman Jim is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles | 1hr 28min

It only took one year following the resounding success of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles to follow up what has oft been dubbed the greatest film of all time with a project that could have equalled it in artistic grandeur, had it not been snatched from his hands in post-production. The Magnificent Ambersons floats along like a whispered echo of a bygone era, recounting the downfall of an entire family empire brought about by one man’s obstinate resistance to progress, fitting neatly into the string of Shakespeare-inspired tragedies that defined his early film career. Perhaps this might feel more like an epic family saga had RKO Pictures not hacked away at it without his permission, and even more disappointing is the tacked on happy ending forced by the studio. Considered as a whole though, these flaws are but minor taints on Welles’ beautifully elegiac narrative, and no amount of cutting can erase the visual bravura on display.

Where Charles Foster Kane’s manor Xanadu acts a tremendous inflation of man’s ego to ludicrous proportions, the Amberson Mansion has the look of a Gothic tomb, rich with period décor and shadows crowding out every single frame. Or at least, that is what George Minafer transforms it into after selfishly taking control of his family’s future. Our first introduction to it comes after a prologue built heavily on montages and a sombre voiceover from Welles himself, running through the history of the Ambersons who prospered as the wealthiest family in their late 19th century Midwestern town. These people are socialites and aristocrats around whom a grand mythology is built, with the narration and dialogue of gossipy neighbours forming a sort of conversation together in a storybook call-and-response manner. A vignette effect often hangs over the exteriors of the mansion here, relegating this period of great fortune to an antiquated era, but it is only when we catch up to the present that Welles finally blows open its doors and tracks his camera forwards into its bright, ornate halls, where parties gather to bask in the opulence of its gorgeous architecture.

A vignette effect applied over this prologue bringing us into the late 19th century, unfolding like a photo album beneath a sombre voiceover.

From a visual perspective, there is little that separates The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane. The detailed décor that clutters visual compositions and frames characters within classic Wellesian low angles brings a majestic weight to the family’s historical and cultural presence, and most spectacular of all its set pieces is that mighty octagonal staircase that looms over the main hall. From the ground floor, Welles will occasionally tilt his camera up to catch sight of characters standing atop it like an imposing tower, but from the inside it feels more like a strangely twisted labyrinth, trapping the Ambersons across different levels and between bannisters.

Superb staging within the Amberson Mansion and especially around the staircase, offering the perfect opportunity for Welles to shoot these imposingly staged high and low angles. They are encased within its boundaries which wind through the layers of the frame.

At the centre of this family is George, son of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson, and heir to the estate. The irony that he does not even carry the surname of the legacy he is trying to uphold is hard to ignore, as he instead takes the name of his dull, unextraordinary father who passed away after losing a great amount of money. When a lover from Isabel’s past, automobile manufacturer Eugene Morgan, re-enters their lives, the biggest blow yet is landed to the family’s legacy – not from Eugene, who may be able to secure the family’s financial future, but from George himself, who detests everything this upwardly mobile entrepreneur stands for.

The layers to George’s hatred are multi-faceted. He states that his mother remarrying would be an insult to the memory of his father, though we know that he never exactly held Wilbur in great esteem either. On a more psychological level, there are Oedipal undertones to George’s objectives, wishing to be the sole man in his mother’s life to prove his own value. In terms of social attitudes towards the shifting technologies of the world, his beliefs are purely regressive and clouded by emotion, as he prefers the nostalgia of the past to whatever future Eugene is involved in bringing about. From atop a horse-drawn carriage, he laughs at his mother’s suitor trying to get his automobile out of a thick patch of snow, though when he finds himself tossed from his sleigh it is the “horseless carriage” which comes to the rescue – an unintended slight which George doesn’t forget.

It isn’t just the mansion which makes for wonderful compositions, but this snowy landscape sets the perfect scene for George and Eugene’s first major disagreement.

Eugene though does not possess the same arrogance as George, even going out his way to avoid arguments over matters of ideology. He does not reject the idea that automobiles will be nuisances to society, but he does take a more nuanced perspective, recognising that their presence will inevitably change the world in subtle ways. It will not be a utopia, but it will be an environment one must participate in to survive, and therein lies the primary difference between these two men fighting for Isabel’s heart. After Eugene is locked out of the Amberson Mansion and barred from seeing his ailing lover on her death bed, it descends into sombre darkness, each beautiful piece of furniture covered with white cloths to obscure the pride of a family that can no longer hold claim to its great reputation. Major Amberson, George’s grandfather, soon passes, and Aunt Fanny sinks into hysteria, leaving the family a mere shadow of what it once was.

Stark expressionism emerging as this tragedy unfolds. The Magnificent Ambersons may very well be Citizen Kane’s equal in visual prowess.

As George wanders the streets of the town that now looks entirely foreign to that which he grew up in, the whispering voiceover returns, luring the man towards his eventual comeuppance that, in Welles’ original vision for the film, might have brought about his death. It is certainly fitting that it is an automobile which brings about the downfall he has been defiantly heading towards for a long time, but it is saddening that what follows is a contrived, abbreviated conclusion that lets George survive and make amends with Eugene offscreen. To put this in perspective though, this is but one flaw in a film that it is otherwise virtually perfect, and there isn’t much of an argument to be had that it completely undercuts the success of the rest of its success – the crisp, deep focus cinematography, the expressionistic lighting, or even the quiet ruminations over progress and those who are left behind. The Magnificent Ambersons would be the first of many films Welles would struggle against studios over to maintain artistic control, but it speaks to the power of his directorial voice that it remains such a compelling elegy to historical eras, lost and forgotten.

Crisp, deep focus cinematography and remarkable blocking. The weak ending can’t erase the rest of Welles’ monumental cinematic achievement.

The Magnificent Ambersons is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)

William A. Wellman | 1hr 15min

It is a very lean 75 minutes that The Ox-Bow Incident plays out over, using the western genre as a simple framework for a self-contained moral tale warning against mob mentality. Though the artificial soundstage is obvious at times, the film is never visually flat. Much of this is thanks to William A. Wellman’s compositions of actors’ bodies, many of which are worthy of Kurosawa comparisons in their beauty, and which are made all the more impressive by the size of the ensemble he is working with.

Wellman keeps finding these fantastic compositions of bodies in his shots, blocking them through the foreground and background, and using beams to divide them visually.

When the small western town of Bridger’s Wells gets news of an outlaw gang killing a local rancher, the men of the community quickly form a posse hellbent on seeking vengeance for their neighbour. Caught up in the company are two travellers resisting the rancorous rage around them, one of whom is portrayed by a very well-cast Henry Fonda playing right into his kind, intelligent screen persona. 
Meanwhile, the rest of the ensemble is filled out by supporting and minor characters with their own motivations for retribution. While some are blinded by their own self-righteousness, others simply take delight in the prospect of violence, with one man specifically repeating the same grotesque hanging gesture as he cackles wildly to himself. The suspects can do nothing but plead their case, gradually growing more irritated with the posse’s hypocrisy. 

“What do you care about justice? You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men or not! All you know is you’ve lost something and somebody’s got to be punished!”   

A powerful pan across the reproachful expressions of the vengeance-seeking posse.

Wellman continues to layer his shots with strong attention to the character relationships all throughout, binding the accused men together in small spaces then surrounding and dwarfing them by the violent mob. His blocking most effectively works its way into the narrative when the posse take a vote on the captives’ fate, during which seven men stand together in a lonely but empowering low angle, while a reverse shot pans across the furious eyes of the company staring right down the barrel of the camera. The Ox-Bow Incident may be a simple, short morality play, but there is a lot to say about the empathy that Wellman brings to this narrative purely through his thoughtful staging.

Empathy for the accused through this tightly-framed blocking of faces.

The Ox-Bow Incident is not currently available to stream in Australia.