Made in Spare Time

(#98) Yankee Doodle Dandy: The Movie

Alright. I’m going to be 100% honest here. For as much as I wanted to appreciate Yankee Doodle Dandy, I just could not get into it, at first. I know it’s in the AFI Top 100 Movies, and I know that it’s been critically acclaimed. But I have never really had a thing for musicals. 

That’s not to say that I don’t like musicals altogether. I do enjoy one every now and then. But a musical where we solve all of our problems by breaking out into song and dance has never struck my fancy. It’s one of the main reasons why I enjoyed Toy Story so much compared to other animated films. Because we don’t constantly break out into song and dance.

The story seemed pretty over the top upon first viewing. The movie tracks the life of George M. Cohan from his birth all the way to when he meets the President of the United States to receive his Congressional Medal of Honor. 

From the beginning, the cheese is laid on thick. George M. Cohan is born on the Fourth of July, and we watch as his parents debate about his name and decide that his first name should be George, because of George Washington. His middle name couldn’t be Washington because that’d be too on the nose, but we made sure to include the debate to show just how patriotic Mr. Cohan was going to be from the moment he first saw the light of day.

Sorry for being a downer

I know I’m probably sounding very cynical on this movie and beating it up for no reason. After all, it is on the Top 100 Movie list. I know I’m faulting the movie for being over-the-top when the last movie on the list is literally about toys that come to life. But my beef comes from the fact that this movie is grounded in real life. The movie is recreating moments in history that actually occurred, but it doesn’t feel like it is real life at all.

For some reason, I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief in the world that Yankee Doodle Dandy presents. That made this movie particularly difficult to slog through. 

I might be able to come back to this movie some day and enjoy it much more now that I know what I’m getting myself into. But I wanted to go into watching this movie for the first time with no outside influences. I didn’t view any trailers. I didn’t read any articles about the movie. And I didn’t want to see why the movie made the cut on the Top 100 Movies list.

Learning about the actual George M. Cohan

After watching the movie, I finally started doing some research about it. This is when I realized that George M. Cohan, the main character of the movie, was actually a real person. I did not know this at all when I watched the movie. With that in mind, it makes more sense why we jump through so much of this man’s life in the movie. It’s because this movie is trying to be biographical in nature, not just telling a story of a character concocted in some writer’s mind.

From AFI’s write-up on Yankee Doodle Dandy, I learned that “George M. Cohan wrote and produced more than thirty-five plays, many of them with his partner Sam H. Harris, and composed more than 500 songs.” That much is clear in the movie. It seems that every scene where George M. Cohan meets someone new or encounters an obstacle in his life, we break out into a new score and start telling the story in dramatic song and dance.

I honestly thought that the writers were just stroking the ego of Hollywood when the movie resulted in this playwright and producer receiving a medal from the President. But I learned that the real life George M. Cohan actually did receive a medal from the president! It wasn’t a Congressional Medal of Honor like the movie portrays but it was a Congressional Gold Medal. President FDR presented the medal to George M. Cohan. 

If you look up H.R. 4641 which authorized the President to present the medal you’ll see that the medal was “in recognition of his services during the World War in composing the patriotic song Over There, and prior thereto that thrilling song A Grand Old Flag.”

With that in mind, the movie makes a lot more sense. I knew the movie was made in the 40’s. There was bound to be some level of patriotism/propaganda. But boy, I didn’t think the movie was going to be bursting at the seems with so much ‘Murica. 

On another note, it makes even more sense when I read that the associate producer, William Cagney, and writer, Robert Buckner, complained that George M. Cohan’s “life was so oriented toward the theater,” going so far as to say that “he had no outside interests. His only objective was success, and he achieved it with monotonous annual regularity...." 

This aspect of Cohan’s life came across on film spectacularly well. It’s one of the main gripes that I had with the movie when I was watching it. But it makes me appreciate the movie more when I learned that the film was true to life. It seemed that no matter what George M. Cohan set his mind to he would get it done. It was only a matter of time. Which doesn’t lead to a very interesting plot but it does help turn the man George M. Cohan into a myth and legend.

Song and dance

Now, the music. The music wasn’t bad. It’s just not as good as I thought it would be in a musical. It’s probably just because I’m used to much different music some 80 years since the film came out. So I’m not going to fault the music too much here. It was just a different era. But I will note that the film did include the origins of and renditions of the two songs that Congress noted when authorizing the award for the real life George M. Cohan!

While I wasn’t too fond of the music, the dancing is phenomenal in this movie. I’ve only heard of James Cagney before in references and when I saw that he was going to be the main character in this movie, I was interested to see what all the hubbub was about. Even 80 years later, his performance did not disappoint. 

The man can tap-dance. And by god, he can do it well. At any given moment, Cagney can go from just walking down the street, talking like any ordinary actor and burst out into a full tap-dance routine that will knock your socks off. Easily my favorite scene with him was one where he wasn’t going nuts with tap-dance on and on. This scene was much more subtle compared to the rest of the movie.

After receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from the President in the movie, George M. Cohan is walking down a set of stairs in the White House. Overcome by joy, he has a little pep in his step and starts to tap-dance. While walking down the stairs. Just in case you didn’t catch that when you first read it: He tap-danced while walking down a set of stairs!

It probably doesn’t sound like much on paper. But when you see it in the movie it’s really impressive. There’s no CGI here. There’s no trickery. Just sheer talent showing off even in the most mundane of scenes.

This is really where I have to give Yankee Doodle Dandy the credit it’s due. The dancing performances throughout the movie, be it by James Cagney, the young actor that plays George M. Cohan as a child, or any of the ensemble that surrounds Cagney, are phenomenal throughout!

He’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Yankee Doodle Boy

So yeah. Looking back, the movie really isn’t as bad as I cracked it up to be in the beginning. If you know what you’re getting into, I feel like you’ll enjoy Yankee Doodle Dandy much more than I did upon my first viewing. The story, while it feels rushed, does accomplish its biographical mission and encapsulates the life of George M. Cohan in a single movie. The music is a taste of the past. But most importantly, the talent on screen is still impressive to watch even after almost 80 years since its release.

Would I say you have to drop everything right now and watch the movie? No.

But would I recommend this movie if you’re trying to get a taste of the classics? Absolutely.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading my blog! Be sure to follow along as I chart a course across the Top 100 Movies of All Time and make a prop from each one! I post regularly on my Instagram and post here every Friday!