The 15th Academy Awards (1943)
My first pick in our Oscar countdown is a film I’ve been putting off for a long time. You know, cause it’s old. Honestly, I’ve never had much interest in seeing this movie. But it’s on the AFI Top 100 Films’s List and as a “film buff”—whatever that means in this day and age—it felt crazy to me that I’d never seen a James Cagney movie. I mean he’s a Hollywood legend! He was in a Looney Tunes toon. All the years I had to put up with boomers saying “You dirty rat!” to me. Now I finally get it. I get Cagney.
To my understanding (because I refuse to do any research for this review) Cagney was THE guy for gangster movies in Golden Age of Hollywood. But he was also a talented song and dance man. The famous fast-talking New Yorker could tap dance and sing/talk in a unique fashion. You know who was another famous sing-talker? George Cohan, the legendary Broadway star Cagney portrays in Yankee Doodle Dandy/.
This film cleared up two blind spots for me. One, Cagney. Two, George Cohan. If you asked me who Cohan was a week ago I would have guessed he was a disgraced (now imprisoned) former member of Trump’s cabinet. Now I know Cohan (who was a lifelong Democrat) was once known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway” in the early 20th century and the Father of the American Musical Comedy. Why did they make a movie about him? Let’s find out.
The film is framed around a sixtysomething Cohan (Cagney) fresh off of his performance as President Roosevelt in the 1937 musical I’d Rather Be Right. Showered with applause Cohan is then invited by FDR himself to visit the White House and receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. The two meet and Cohan regales the president with the entire story of his life. I love this framing device. Not enough movies are about the main character telling their life story to the president.
We see Cohan’s early years performing in a traveling vaudeville act with his parents (played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and sister Josie (played as an adult by Cagney’s sister Jeanne Cagney). “The Four Cohan’s” as they come to be known travel across the U.S. doing songs, skits, and in one very unfortunate brief sequence… a blackface routine. They didn’t need this in there. Jesus Christ.
The act is a sensation with the only setback being George’s own ego. This creates a rift with him and other performers and as an adult gets him blacklisted from numerous venues. Though I’m not sure “being an asshole” is much of a conflict I will say it feels true to real life. Cohan bounces back when he meets a struggling songwriter named Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) and finds stability after marrying a singer named Mary (Joan Leslie).
Cohan finds his niche writing a series of overly patriotic musicals containing some of his best known songs. These songs include; “Yankee Doodle Boy”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and “Over There”. This is the fun part of the movie because it’s scene after scene of the charismatic Cagney singing and dancing on stage. Earlier I asked “Why did they make this movie?” and I think these scenes are the reason. This was the perfect vehicle for Cagney.
The third act of the film finds Cohan retired and living in the country. He is approached by a group of “hip” ‘30s teens and is hurt when he realizes he’s lost relevance with modern audiences. This leads Cohan out of retirement to do the Broadway show featured at the beginning of the film and everything comes full circle.
It’s kind of weird this is a movie. I’m not knocking Cohan in any way. I don’t really feel like I got to know him well outside of his songs and fear of falling out of the limelight. It feels like the movie exists to showcase some fun musical numbers and to promote patriotism to an extent where it feels like propaganda.
I didn’t dig deep enough to uncover any “shit” on this film. You know there’s gotta be some. I just enjoyed watching Cagney. Who won Best Actor for his performance (the film won Sound and Music Oscars too). Well deserved I must say. Though it didn’t take home Best Picture. That honor went to Mrs. Miniver. Which I’m sure is fine but tell me, does that movie have a young guy pretending to be an old guy in makeup tap dancing and wooing a young lady?… It might. I don’t know anything about it.
(From Left to Right: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, The Penguin.)