Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AFI Top 100: #98 "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

Joan Leslie & James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

This past Sunday night, my heart grew three sizes. We hosted a low-key screening of our third AFI Top 100 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, #98. It's been easily 13 years since I've seen this movie (it is featured on the list of Nominees for the Best Picture Oscar, my long-running personal challenge), so it was something I've ticked off in passing, along with many others. With that in mind, I realized... I didn't really remember anything about Yankee Doodle!

The plot is simple enough: A glamorized biography of legendary Broadway song-and-dance man, George M. Cohan, as only WWII-era Hollywood can deliver. But... was the movie any good? I hadn't the slightest idea. A stressful question, considering I'd strong-armed (not really) people into watching it with me. So I crossed my fingers, spouted a few warnings, and pressed play.

First, the plot. The above-mentioned 'tagline' is, quite simply, all the movie is about. George M. Cohan, born in 1878 to popular Vaudeville-performing,Irish immigrant parents, hits the road with the family as soon as he can stand up in tap shoes.

For decades, they tour the country as the "Four Cohans", edging ever closer to the big time.  Little Georgie Cohan is precocious and arrogant -- oh, and extremely talented. But his attitude costs his family many opportunities over the years, and in an effort to save them from his own failures, George sends the now 'Three Cohans' off to keep touring while he pounds the pavement of Broadway looking for his big break.

He sings. He dances. He acts. He writes every word and lyric. Some inventive cons and fast-talking later, George finds himself a rising star at the center of the Broadway theatre-scape.

His reputation as a "flag-waving patriot" is considered a negative; old-fashioned, Civil War-era jingoism -- that is until the World War breaks out. Soon, his hit musical theater songs, such as "Grand Old Flag" and "Over There," are ringing through the streets of not only Broadway, but the nation.

This is a very glossy view of Cohan's life, and that's evident by the fact that there are very few stakes throughout the picture. Cohan's troubles are always followed by towering triumphs, and that is only highlighted by the fact that he narrates the movie while sitting in the Oval Office in front of President Franklin Roosevelt. He made it, and we all know it from the start.

But to my surprise, there is a lot of humor in this film. The script is clever and creative, with a timeless quality. Cagney's Cohan peppers jokes, one-liners, and jabs like it's a compulsion, and he had me and my guests just cackling with delight. The scenes where he meets his longtime business partner, Sam Harris, as they both try to pitch separate stage productions to the same producer is particularly memorable.

Looking past the epic stage shows, sets and chorus girls, we glimpse briefly in frequent montage sequences (which, by the way, are so incredible and intricate, they put Vegas to shame) -- at its core, the movie is all heart.

James Cagney, best known for playing Hollywood gangsters, is spirited and joyous with a constant kick in his step. His charm carries the film and gives it life, particularly during scenes with his family.

It is rumored that George M. Cohan previewed the movie in 1942, the year of his death. His response was, "That was a good picture.  Who was it about?" Such a reaction encompasses the beautiful, yet wholly fantastical, film that is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Hollywood's view of Cohan might be idealized -- even false, at times. But while it may be false, it is not dishonest. More than a biography of a man, Yankee Doodle Dandy is the patriotic pulse of a war-torn nation and audiences hungry for a tale about the American spirit. Cagney absolutely kills it at every second, whether he's making us laugh or making us cry.

And never in a million years did I expect to tear up like I did during the film's finale. The elder Cohan witnessing the march of soldiers heading off to battle as war breaks out for a 2nd time, as the sounds of "Over There" ring out... Cagney deserved every ounce of that Best Actor Academy Award.

In the end, I was very impressed. AFI knew what it was doing keeping this movie from falling off its list. I hope very much that it remains there in the future. Patriotism and flag-waving isn't as celebrated as it once was, which could make this movie seem antiquated and naive to modern audiences. But that's why we have films like Yankee Doodle to begin with -- to remind us just how magical and uplifting that American dream can be.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check in next week for #97, Blade Runner!


  1. My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.
    Thanks Kim!

  2. Ken just lent us the movie last night! We'll probably be watching it tomorrow night -- for the first time! :D

    Excited to see it!

    1. It's fantastic, I really think you guys'll enjoy it. Would love to know your thoughts afterwards!

      Be warned: You'll have "Over There" stuck in your head for days.


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