Fritzi of Movies Silently and Janet of Sister Celluloid are at it again with another blogathon, this time it's about behind-the-scenes drama. No, not the real life type. Just the fictional ones. Being the type desperate for more attention (not really...sort of), I decided to chip in. My film of choice?
|(1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)|
In my eyes, I feel that this is overlooked a good majority of the time. There are a number of possible reasons. It could be because the film that Curtiz followed Yankee Doodle Dandy up with. (Nothing too important. Just a little film called Casablanca.) There’s also the fact that, despite it being an Academy Award-winning performance for him, this isn't the usual fare leading man James Cagney is known for. Hopefully by the end of this post this will be sought out by those curious.
Yankee Doodle Dandy opens with the opening night of I'd Rather Be Right, a return for famous showman George M. Cohan (Cagney) who plays President Roosevelt. He's called down to Washington DC by Roosevelt himself in order to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor (in reality, Cohan had received the medal several years earlier). While seated in the Oval Office, George reminisces about his life in show business.
This must've been a shock to moviegoers to see Cagney playing song-and-dance man Cohan. After all, this was someone best known for playing the short-tempered gangster with the itchy trigger finger. (And taking on a role that Fred Astaire turned down to boot!) But before he made his way to Hollywood, Cagney was in vaudeville. (He also did Footlight Parade nine years earlier.) And it doesn't take much to see how Cagney won an Oscar for his work here.
Of course with this being a biopic made during Hollywood's Golden Age, certain details of Cohan's life were altered so as not to change the mood of the film. (For instance, Cohan was married twice; the film showed Cohan as only having been married once.) The actual facts were deviated so much that at the film's premiere, Cohan remarked, "It was a good movie. Who was it about?" (That said, Cohan praised Cagney's performance.)
This also seemed like the kind of picture America needed. Yankee Doodle Dandy was released just months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, which thrust the United States into World War II. With this being a biopic about a deeply patriotic person, it shows the morale that's needed if you want to win a war. (The last scene of the film is a nice example of that.)
There are two moments in Yankee Doodle Dandy that never fail in bringing a smile to my face. The first is when George first meets Mary (the recently departed Joan Leslie). It's after one of his shows with his family when she meets him in his dressing room. He's still in costume (he played his mother's father) when she asks for advice from him. He keeps up the charade right up until he goes into a frenzied dance. This is one such instance that shows how much of a trickster George (and perhaps Cagney) can be.
The second moment is towards the end, which is a prominent scene in film history. As he leaves the White House, George is walking down the marble steps which soon turns into him rat-a-tat-tatting his way down the stairs. That was all improvised by Cagney. It's this small detail that not only establishes Cagney's status as a Hollywood great, it also shows how deeply endearing Yankee Doodle Dandy is.