It’s the Fourth of July. Independence Day. (I’m having fun with it while working on a project with folks in England—to them Monday is just another work day). To me, the day is really captured in a film I like to watch and have many times. And my daughter Rachel understands all too well why we both love this film. It is as American as apple pie. The layers are “All American” from the very much true story line of the movie, to who directed and photographed it, down to the actors who played in it, particularly the lead guy, who was as American as you get.
So in these days of political weariness do yourself a huge favor. Find your way to a copy or showing of Yankeee Doodle Dandy and enjoy one of the great American actors of all time, James Cagney, in a roll I think he was born to play. And as you watch, remeber that the great Fred Astaire turned down this roll. As much as I like Astaire, for Cagney not to play Gorege M. Cohan would be like Michael Jordan not playing for the Bulls. (This film is on my Top 160 List by the way).
"Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was directed by Michael Curtiz, the gifted Warners workhorse whose credits included “Casablanca,” also released in 1942. The cinematography, by the legendary James Wong Howe, uses the elegant compositions of figures that were common at the time, and the staging includes two numbers where big studio treadmills are used to move groups of extras, or keep them marching in place.
But the greatness of the film resides entirely in the Cagney performance. Even Walter Huston, one of the finest character actors of the era, is confined by routine material. There is a sudden chemistry in a sequence involving Fay Templeton, as a Broadway star Cohan wants to work with (the relatively unknown Irene Manning is stunning in the role). But mostly it’s bio by the numbers—except for Cagney’s electricity.
He doesn’t dance so much as strut; he doesn’t act so much as sell you his desire to entertain. In dialogue scenes, when other actors are talking, his eyes dart across their faces, silently urging them to pick up the energy; he’s like Michael Jordan impatiently willing his co-stars to keep up with him. And when he’s in full sail, as in “Give My Regards to Broadway” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” it’s like regarding a force of nature.