I decided to start watching the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Films (which they put together back in 1998), so obviously there’s about a decade’s worth of films that they missed out on. To rectify that, they put together a new list a year or so ago, but anybody who thinks that somehow The Sixth Sense should be on a list and Amadeus, Doctor Zhivago and My Fair Lady should not be is really not getting my vote of confidence.
So I’ve decided to work through the original list from 1998. Anyway, you can definitely tell this is an American list of films, because I doubt there’d be any other country in the world that would put this on its list.
Yankee Doodle Dandy tells a rather glamorous only-the-good-parts version of the life of George M Cohan, a leading Vaudeville singer/dancer/actor/writer/producer. Told in the form of a big flashback, with George M narrating his life story to President Franklin Roosevelt, the story runs from George’s earliest days in the 1880s, when he was born to theatrical parents. As he grew up, he and his sister and his mum and dad became known as The Four Cohans, and toured all around America.
But it was George who really made a name for himself. Having a knack for coming up with musicals and songs that were really patriotic, hummable and crowd-pleasing, his name soon became huge on Broadway. Finally, in World War I, due to a couple of songs (Grand Old Flag and the rather naive but difficult-to-get-out-of-your-head hit, Over There) he became a wartime hero, with those songs becoming the inspiration for the soldiers in the field.
All of which was quite timely, considering that this film was released in 1942, when America was first plunged into the war and had no idea how it would all turn out. This flag-waving, go-get-’em, America rules the world film was the perfect pick-up for a nation that needed cheering up in a dark hour.
So how is it now in 2008, when I’m not even American? Well, I will be honest – while I can see how all that patriotic stuff would be completely moving for an American, as an Aussie, it doesn’t do so much for me. In fact, when you combine this film with the extras on this disc (a newsreel from the period, a short wartime film about an Air Force pilot), it amazes me how cheesy the propaganda of the day feels. Also, I didn’t realise it, but America had never lost a war at this stage, so the sheer confidence of the attitude at that time is jaw-dropping in its naivety.
But they did win the war, so maybe bravado does go a long way.
Anyway, I digress. Back to the film. I think you’d only like this if you like either musicals or James Cagney, and preferably both. His acting job is very witty, with his rapid-fire one-liners and awesome tap dancing routines. (Like the real George M, his singing voice leaves a bit to be desired.) He won an Oscar for this performance, and he thoroughly deserved it. For that reason along, this film is worth a look.
Also, if you get hold of this DVD (which is – surprise, surprise – only available in the States on Region 1 DVD), the extras on the film are quite extensive and contain lots of fascinating information about filmmaking in the era, and how the film was received.
4 out of 5.