Tuesday, March 22, 2011

AFI Top 100 Countdown #98: Yankee Doodle Dandy


Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
Starring:  James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, and Richard Whorf

AFI Top 100 Criteria:

Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media.

*Rottentomatoes.com score of 91%

*“You will find as warm and delightful a musical picture as has hit the screen in years, a corking good entertainment and as affectionate, if not as accurate, a film biography as has ever -- yes, ever -- been made.”
- Bosley Crowther, New York Times

*“The greatness of the film resides entirely in the Cagney performance.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times

Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals.

*Academy: 8 nominations, 3 awards including Best Actor

*National Film Preservation Board: National Film Registry

Popularity Over Time: Includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals.

$4,719,600 (USA)

Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements

*As the DVD points out, production on the film was just a few days old when the Attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. The film's cast and crew resolved to make an uplifting, patriotic film. It was timed to open around Memorial Day in 1942, and was regarded as having achieved its goal in grand fashion.

Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance.

*In 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Javi: Full disclosure guys, I am not a fan of musicals. Not sure if this is due to the over-the-top productions, the fact that I never could get behind the songs, or maybe it’s due to my overall lack of dance technique unless I’m under the influence of 2 bottles of wine, but I never cared for them. So going in to YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, I tried extra hard to not judge this movie too harshly, as I will have to do with many other musicals on this list. With that said, I liked this film a lot more than I thought I would. I found James Cagney a great actor, and his portrayal of George M. Cohan was top notch, hand picked by the Cohan himself. I found the dance and musical numbers pretty entertaining as well, until he gets to Broadway, where the shows become complex and overblown like a Queen song.

The movie takes place mostly in the form of a flashback lending it self to good amounts of exposition. This is one of the ways I feel the movie falls short because as a dramatic story, it falls flat. The fact that biographies can gloss over certain facts is not a big thing in biopics, but I find it rather off-putting that things such as the death of Cohan’s mother and sister, two huge figures of his life, are completely skipped over thanks to exposition. Overall, the story itself poses no drama to it. The way it seems George Cohan had a charmed life where he got spanked once and got rejected a few time by publishers, and then he became this gifted songwriter and producer. I’m not sure if this was just part of the way movies were told back then, but story seemed boring because of it.

What made me appreciate the movie more was the black and white colors, and how expressive the director, Michael Curtiz, made the two colors throughout the movie. The dance numbers were impressive, and I appreciated them in a very technical melody. Though, as a musician, I appreciated the four part harmony numbers with the original Cohan family the best. Overall, this is a pretty good musical and it’s very interesting to see, but not much else, if you’re not a fan of musicals in general.

Jonesy:  When I saw that YANKEE DOODLE DANDY was number 98 on the top 100 list, I was very excited to watch it. I’ve been a fan of musicals since I can remember. I’m somewhat versed on the history of musical theatre and the influences of different musicals, so I was familiar with George Cohan’s music. I’ve actually sang some of his songs in revue that I was a part of in high school. So, yes, I know my musical history.

Hearing that the movie was made in the 1940s, I knew what type of musical this would be. At this point, cinema hadn’t reached the age where musical numbers propelled the plot along; musical numbers were just there for show. However, they were always grand in scope. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY had the benefit of being able to put in the musical numbers in a “show within a show” type format. Cohan was a vaudeville star since he could walk, and all of his music he created ended up in a show in one way or another. I loved seeing how some of Cohan’s songs (You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There) became such a staple of the time. I always knew these songs were famous “back in the day”, but I never understood why. The movie does a brilliant job of showing the drive of Cohan and how his music became the staple of the armed forces overseas during World War II.

In fact, the whole movie rests on the performance of James Cagney as George M. Cohan. To be a triple threat in a movie is no easy task, and Cagney handles it with ease. I agree with my cohort that there are some facts in Cohan’s life that are skipped over. There’s a very powerful scene between Cohan and his father when his father is on his deathbed, and Cagney’s performance in that scene is heartbreaking. But then we find out that his sister and mother had passed away earlier with just a couple dismissive lines of dialogue. The movie could have easily added those deaths in and then the father’s death would’ve been much more tragic to us.

As far as musicals go, Yankee Doodle is not my favorite I’ve ever seen, but I definitely see how the musical world was influenced by this movie. It fits in the clich√© “classic movie” category. Does it hold up in today’s standards? Most would say no, but then again we all can’t be musical nerds like myself.

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