Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, Michael Curtiz)

The musical biopic was a supremely strange Hollywood subgenre, all traces of which dissolved somewhere deep in the 1940s. Much like the Hollywood musical itself (and far less artistically vibrant), these films hit a wall when audiences wised up or got cynical or just went to sleep, despite attempted revivals in the form of Bobby Darin and Cole Porter biodramas in the last decade. The format of these movies was the running down in life events of a person, usually in show business or somewhere on such margins, interrupted by opulent production numbers illustrating the life’s work of the artist or talent in question. The fact that musicals rarely happen now bugs me but I, for one, don’t lament the loss of strange brews like The Great Ziegfeld and this weird flag-waver of George M. Cohan’s life story. On a good day it’s easy to excuse it as being just a product of its time. The first time I saw it was on a good day and I wrote the following:

Finally we reach #100 in the original 1998 AFI list; this doesn’t quite complete my quest to see all of the hundred, but it’s as close as I can get for the moment. During the first hour of Yankee Doodle Dandy, I actually thought I had discovered something. This is regularly cited as one of the least deserving films on the list, but for a good long while, James Cagney (in a wildly unhinged, delightful performance as Cohan) and Michael Curtiz, whose penchant for note-perfect framing and rhythm (to say nothing of emotion) is at top form a few months before he made Casablanca, really do sell this picture.

The film is patriotic in the right ways, and such a thing is possible. The flag waving does eventually grow tiresome (the movie runs for over two hours, much too lengthy for its subject matter), but as Americana this is some bright, funny, and enjoyable studio fluff. The unfortunate portions come later on, when sweeping romance, personality, sharp humor give way to cloying obviousness. This forces Curtiz and Cagney to coast, and they do so ably, tremendously so, but it can only help so much to have weak or empty ideas presented with unfiltered enthusiasm, and by the end, the movie has settled for simplistic propaganda, doing a fair enough job of explaining the importance of George M. Cohan in his time but absolutely nothing to show his experience as part of a collective, which arguably is what Cohan would have fought to achieve. In addition to the regular problems that cause biopics to suffer, this one is lacking in context; the movie tries terribly hard to say something about the American experience but ultimately offers nothing of importance about anybody’s, save Cohan himself.

I’d continue to abide by most of that, in particular the fact that dyed-in-the-wool liberal Cohan would’ve scoffed at the exceptionalism with which the film taints him. But I don’t know about “patriotic in the right ways.” The second time I saw it, this past spring, was on a bad day. I drove home listening to a harrowing radio conversation about the Guantanamo hunger strikes, then came home and read about the country in hot pursuit of Edward Snowden. Then within the hour I put this movie in, maybe in hopes that its undemanding brightness could cheer me up. And Cagney, of course, put a smile on my face, but all of the friendly FDR-administration flag-waving really did ring hollow for me in those moments, and suddenly it was clear that Cagney’s efforts were really misplaced and all for naught. He’s phenomenal, but so what? This makes it difficult to come to a logical conclusion about the film or my opinion of it; I ping-ponged from one extreme to another on separate evenings six years apart, and thus I’m not comfortable declaring the film a success or a failure — but it certainly felt inappropriate to me now, and I did feel distant from it even the first time. The movie’s affable enough, and handsomely shot, but if it still had little real effect on me emotionally on a good day, what does that tell us? Not that it’s a bad movie, but at the very least that it’s an impersonal and perhaps slightly empty one. (The musical numbers, despite ample enthusiasm, don’t really land except as illustrations of great popular songs.)

I concluded back in 2007 that “in spirit and execution if not content,” Yankee Doodle Dandy was “a fine time.” I could barely keep my eyes open this time but I agree that the direction and lead performance are stunning; that’s sadly all there really is to discover here. In the end, the only perfect word for this Warner Bros. classic is “safe.” It’s explosive at times, but disappointingly complacent, and never hits the emotional highs it obviously yearns for. I can see how it would be an immense comfort during wartime, but I prefer Mrs. Miniver or, hell, Education for Death if I want to revisit Hollywood as propaganda machine.

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