If you ask just about anyone, they’ve heard of Yankee Doodle Dandy or at least seen a bit or two where James Cagney shuffles his way down the stage talking about calling feathers “macaroni.” It’s a cultural phenomenon, an example of incredibly fortuitous timing, and for some reason, most people don’t really know what the hell it’s about.
Not just a jangoistic salute to the greatness of the United States, it’s a jangoistic salute to the greatness of the United States framed by the biography of George M. Cohan, The Man Who Owned Broadway.James Cagney plays Cohan in the story of the man’s life. It spans from his childhood stardom on the Vaudeville circuit through his wild success, his absence from the scene, and comeback – featuring the music that made the man a legend. “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and, of course, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The reach of Cohan’s influence, and the adopted influence of the film, cannot be overstated. From the bombastic marches that turn the blood of all within earshot red, white and blue to the truly American success story that found a young boy growing up to dominate the Great White Way. At the very least, it’s telling when an MTV animation series makes a reference to a songwriter born in 1878. If “Clone High” parodies you over a hundred years after your birth, you’re officially immortal.
The truth is, that legacy is one born from the sheer fervor of the music Cohan created, and that’s what’s celebrated throughout Yankee Doodle. The man created the main handful of patriotic songs that everyone memorizes in elementary school. Whether you know his name or know the movie, you already know the music. It’s most likely been drum-beaten into your memory.
The story is strong, but mostly the film is an excuse to put the spotlight on Cagney and his superhuman ability to sing and dance. Strangely enough, the somewhat secret history of the film involves the rumor that Cagney made the film as a response to being suspected as a Communist sympathizer. While McCarthyism wouldn’t spring up for another decade, there is some truth to the allegation. Cagney had, in fact, been visited by a Congressman looking into Communist communities in Hollywood, and even though he had nothing to do with underground groups, his brother William had caught wind of Cohan’s desire to see his life in film form.
It’s never a bad idea to make an over-the-top, Pro-American film whenever a Congressman comes asking about your party affiliations. This, most likely, is also why Stripes was made.
The personal timing might have been mildly fortunate, but the professional timing here might be the best ever experienced by a filmmaker – shooting on the picture started just a few days before Pearl Harbor and the United States being pulled into World War II. The release date in 1942 is squarely in the middle of the largest showing of patriotic fervor the country has ever seen, and the film delivers on that promise. Just like its subject matter, Yankee Doodle manages to fit the entire country into one pair of pants. Sadly, the release date would also come nearly four months before Cohan’s death.
Here is the largeness of the United States distilled into a pair of dancing shoes, placed behind a key signature and told to march with its chest puffed out for all to see. Maybe it’s a brand of story that’s gone out of fashion as of late, but it’s one that everyone can appreciate for its sheer scope of flag-waving, all-singing, all-dancing enthusiasm.
Happy Fourth, everyone.
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