One of the older films on the list, 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy was the perfect 4th of July watch. It chronicles the life of Irish-American playwright, song writer, singer and vaudeville performer George Cohan. This film was interesting for a few reasons. First, my sad ignorance of late 19th century and early 20th century culture was on full display as I actually didn’t know who George Cohan was prior to seeing the film (he wrote Grand Old Flag and Over There – his two most famous claims to fame). Second, this was one of the films on the list that I had never seen before.
The movies influence is obvious – it is structured as a flashback from a conversation that Cohan has with FDR while he is receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is the first film that I know of that used that structure, which has been borrowed for everything from Citizen Kane to Forrest Gump to Pulp Fiction. And the structure works exceptionally well to tell the story of Cohan and highlight in majestic fashion his musical work and stagecraft.
A brief plot synopsis – George is born in Rhode Island to two parents in the theater. While he is technically born on July 3rd, he is born late in the day and his parents declare him a July 4th baby. We flash forward to when he is 13 year sold and he, his parents and his little sister are performing a show as the “Four Cohans” – he is an arrogant little kid, believing he is the best performer in the world. This causes some internal family angst and also causes him to get beat up in the street by some local kids.
Flash forward to him in his twenties. He is portraying an older man in a play in Buffalo. There is an incredibly creepy scene where he slowly unveils to a 17-year girl named Mary that he is, in fact in his 20s and not an old man while hitting on her.
He is eventually fired for putting Mary on stage to perform a song he wrote without permission. He later learns that his family is being black-listed because of his behavior and he lies to them and tells them he is making a film so that they will go on performing without him.
He is at a bar after failing to be able to sell any of his shows and overhears a man named Sam Harris pitching a financier on a show that isn’t going well. He pretends he is Harris’ partner and saves the pitch. Cohan and Harris become partners for life.
Cohan and Harris produce a show called Yankee Doodle Dandy about an American man trying to win the English Darby cup with a horse named, you guessed it, Yankee Doodle Dandy. The play is a smash hit and he uses his new found reputation to reunite his family in performance. Cohan continues to have success but develops a reputation as a brash flag waver and not a serious writer.
His sister leaves the group to get married and his father retires. He gives his father a share in his corporation, guaranteeing him a future income stream.
To attempt to show he is a serious writer, he writes a dramatic play called Popularity but it is critically panned. He attempts to cancel the play and send an apology letter but the Lusitania is sunk at the same time, prompting the onset of World War 1. Cohan tries to enlist in the Army but is told he is too old at 39 and instead writes “Over There” which becomes the victory hymn of the war.
His father passes away and Cohan decides to retire from stage work, travel the world and then return to his family farm. While relaxing at the farm, some kids stop by and have never heard of him or any of his work. This inspires him to allow Sam Harris to pull him out of retirement to play FDR in Harris’ new play.
The movie ends with him receiving his Congressional Medal of Honor from FDR.
I loved the stagecraft, the story-telling and the interweaving of world events (World War 1 an 2 mostly) in the story. I learned a ton about Cohan – I knew a lot of his work obviously but didn’t know his name or anything about him. The acting is absolutely outstanding (James Cagney, who plays the lead, knew his craft). The family dynamic with the Cohans, in particular his relationship with his father which goes from jealous to loving during the course of the film is fantastic.
There are some cringe-worthy moments in the film. There is a scene early on where the family is performing in blackface (yikes!). The scene where he hits on Mary is, as I mentioned, extremely creepy. There are other more subtle racist aspects of the film – blacks appearing only as servants, black performers praising Abraham Lincoln but then not even appearing at the curtain call. This is obviously a by-product of the era of the film but is frankly a little hard to watch in 77 years later. But, to be fair, it is historically true to the time of the film.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 7/10
Overall Score 32/40
I believe, only 3 films in, that this movie likely deserves to be on the Top 100 list. It is hard to compare films across very different eras, but the amount of things that this film does right is high – it was entertaining, it told a story, it developed its characters right and the great musical tributes to American patriotism make it something worthy of watching more than once. It was on both the 1997 list (at #100) and the 2007 list we are using (at #98). Far from a perfect film, it is definitely a great film.
Next up, the 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner, one of my favorite movies. Stay tuned.