98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

MovieCamera1gfhYankee Doodle Dandy, 1942

Jenny:

Ahh. Here we go.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  When the movies start getting…old and we’re all “wow, we’re actually watching all these?”

I love trivia.  Everyone who knows me knows that.  I love being tested on facts, or knowing things that are sort of useless to my life, like what countries border the Caspian Sea, or what the various kinds of peptide bonds are in amino acids, or did you know today in 1859 On the Origin of Species was published?  So fun. So, so fun…  But then there’s like, learning the history of the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and I’m not as excited for some reason.  The film version was written by a man named George M. Cohan in 1904 to go along with his musical, Little Johnny Jones.  Just in case you don’t sprint out and watch this movie after reading our post, I’ll fill you in a little: Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biographical musical about George M. Cohan, who wrote not only that song, but others I learned about when I was little, mostly due to piano lessons.  And some memory of my mom singing “Over There,” probably because I was reluctantly playing it in the other room. The Cohan family began performing during the Vaudeville era, dad, mom, and two kids, brother and sister. Before long, it was clear that brother George was the star, although he was really a pain in the ass too.  Jon and I disagreed about some of the details here, but it bothered me less that George was so arrogant and full of pride: he was a performer in every sense, and I see why the world, well, needs people like that.  I don’t really want to be around them, but they make sense, and like watching zoo animals, they can fascinate and even entertain me.

A historic note that left me a little confused: internet sources (and your elementary school education) will tell you that “Yankee Doodle,” the original song, actually dates back to the Seven Years’ War, it’s the state song of Connecticut, and it has FAR too many verses and parodies to get into there.  But what I find odd is that no where does a source mention both the original song and George M. Cohan’s adaptation.  It’s almost like there was some agreement to never mention the two together.  However, I’m happy to add to my trivia knowledge the difference between Yankee Doodle Dandy, “Yankee Doodle” and “Yankee Doodle Boy.”

Parts of Yankee Doodle Dandy were fun (generous I’m being) to watch, although which parts those were surprised me.  It was funny– not by today’s standards, but there were quite a few quick lines that made me chuckle.  Ok I don’t actually “chuckle,” but I do furrow my brow and say “that’s funny” sometimes when I’m mildly impressed and pleasingly caught off guard. And let me be clear on another point: I do not like musicals (I know I know, doesn’t like animation, musicals, what kind of monster am I?) but I think this movie helped me understand better why I don’t like musicals: I was never in them.  I’m fairly positive that, born under different circumstances or place or family, I could have gotten into the world of performing, whether it be singing or dancing or (especially) acting.  It’s still something I wonder about.  That said, because I never did enter that world, I don’t much enjoy watching it today.  Contrarians could argue that I haven’t seen enough of them, and that would fix me.  So when I watch an old movie like this, and it seems like they stop. Every. Six minutes to break out in song, the word “endure” comes to mind.  Like I start to engage in positive affirming self talk to help me get through the scene. Again, it’s not that I hate the songs, but it’s the kind of thing that, if I were participating, I’d be fine. but just like I HATE when someone sings TO me (Don’t just don’t just don’t do that) I don’t like just watching.  It’s kind of like playing “Song Pop”: only enjoyable for the player, not for the other person in the room.  See? Now everyone understands.

When James Cagney would burst into song, over and over and over, Jon and I started to say things like “isn’t this the same song? He just sang this one! Wait, no, it’s slightly different, oh how many VERSES are there for God’s sake?!” But I minded less the dancing, the big numbers with all the people in unison. There was even a part where they had treadmill-like portions of the stage. Neat-o! I mean, yes, it was not something I would have watched on my own at all, certainly I could never have made it through the whole movie (IN ONE SITTING mind you) without Boyfriend patiently enduring his own personal mini-tortures next to me.

Other than getting that damn song in my head, which it has been since Saturday night, I’m glad I watched this movie.  If for nothing else, to remind myself that I can appreciate a film that many other people loved, yet I’ll never truly feel what they felt in 1942 when it came out.  I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that strong of a sense of patriotism, although I respect people who do.  But it can also never be 1942 again, and I studied enough history to have that contextual awareness throughout the movie.  It’s always interesting to me to watch people in a movie that was filmed in war time living out a previous war in the script.

I do choose my words carefully here, though.  Appreciate does not always overlap with enjoy.  Often it does.  I give Yankee Doodle Dandy 3 Red, White and Blue Turbo rocket popsicles.  And I will give two away because they aren’t my favorite, but I could see how someone else might love them.

Jon:

I don’t get Yankee Doodle Dandy.  I mean, I get the plot, it’s the life story of entertainer George M.  Cohan, and I get what it’s trying to do, promote the idea of patriotism during the era the movie was made, the middle of World War II.  What I don’t get is why anyone would find this style of moving making entertaining.  It is basically a vaudeville show surrounded by a flimsy shell biographical story.  It’s a musical, but not a musical as we understand it today, being filled with song and dance numbers that have nothing whatsoever to do with storyline.  In fairness to AFI and their list, Yankee Doodle Dandy does represent an era of movie making, an era that was so popular it deserves to be represented in some way.  If this is the best movie of this type, then it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t belong, but I just don’t get it.

It’s always hard to watch something that so clearly represents an era in history and put it into some kind of modern perspective.  There is nothing about Yankee Doodle Dandy that rings true today other than a collection of songs that we remember from watching Looney Tunes.  The dance numbers, while sometimes impressive, are mostly silly.  I couldn’t help but turn to Jenny and ask, “People were entertained by this?”  The characters pranced and gyrated in ways that just didn’t make sense.  It made me want to laugh more than watch with awe.  And the singing wasn’t much better.  James Cagney was doing more spoken word than singing and the songs seemed to go on and on.  I’m not saying that the movie wasn’t filled with good performances, I’m just saying I don’t get it.  I’m sure if kids today sat down and watched an episode of In Living Color they would see the Fly Girls doing their thing and say “What the @#&*!”  Some forms of entertainment just aren’t timeless.  That statement goes for almost everything in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I said similar things about Ben-Hur and used it as an argument for why the movie didn’t belong on the list.  Why am I making allowances for this one?  To me there is a small distinction between the two movies.  As much as both films signify an era of filmmaking, Ben-Hur represents a type of film that we still see today and has been improved upon over the years.  The big budget blockbuster can be represented on AFI’s list by a number of other films that do big budget storytelling much better.  Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn’t fit that bill.  This style of vaudeville, song and dance style entertainment can’t be better represented (at least not that I know of).  This is the era.  It’s not an era that was built upon or that lasted, but it certainly showcases a way of making movies that was once popular and represents a moment in history.

All that being said, the biggest problem I had with the movie was its characters.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is the simple story of an everyman becoming a hero.  We are supposed to relate to George Cohan and root for him as he forces his way into the American conscience and helps define the country.  I found myself doing the opposite.  Everything about this depiction of Cohan made me hope and pray for his demise.  He is arrogant, obnoxious, and self-righteous.  He continually put his family’s and friends’ ability to earn a living in jeopardy with no regard for anything but his own interests.  I waited and waited for something to happen that would teach him a bit of humility, make him see that his hubris negatively affected others, but it never happened.  Even in old age he gets mad when a group of young kids didn’t know who he was.  Unable to have his ego feed properly in retirement, he heads back for one last role.  The movie ends on the most disingenuous moment of all, as Cohan sheds a tear marching with the troops after being given a medal of honor from FDR.  There was nothing presented in the two hour long movie to make the audience think Cohan was capable of the humility that tear suggested.

Did I like this movie?  Not at all.  Do I understand why it’s on the list?  Yes, just as long as it’s this far down.  Would I notice if it wasn’t here at all?  Of course not.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is a propaganda film made to help stoke American patriotism during World War II.  Cohan is supposed to represent the American spirit, a spirit that was once hailed but is now hated all over the world.  The movie is dated and presents a style of entertainment that is extinct.  It’s extinct for a reason, but I can’t argue with it getting one last nod of appreciation.

I give Yankee Doodle Dandy 2 out of 5 bowls of Neapolitan ice cream.  At one time it was the only type of ice cream in town, but no one wants to eat it anymore.

Up next: Blade Runner. 

Jon: One of the most genius sci-fi movies ever.

Jenny: Is this a movie about ice skating or knives? I don’t think you should run with either one.

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99: Toy Story

Toy Story, 1995

Jon…

Toy Story is one of two animated movies on the AFI top 100, the other being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Snow White was the first full-length animated movie and created a genre and style of filmmaking that is hard to imagine not existing today.  That says something obvious about Toy Story’s importance as well.  Animated movies, like comedies and horror films, are not given a ton of credibility when it comes to handing out awards and developing these types of lists.  So, to make AFI’s top 100, Toy Story has to be more than your average animated movie.  It’s a movie that revolutionized animation and the stories that can be told.  The crazy thing is, almost 20 years after its release, it doesn’t feel so revolutionary.

We’ll have to wait and see how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs plays when we get there, but the animation in Toy Story felt clunky and out of date.  Even if Snow White feels just as dated, we would be talking 77 years later, not 20.  In all honesty, I think that has more to do with the amazing technological advancements made in the last few decades than some lack in the making of Toy Story, but it still affects the viewing of the movie.  I find it interesting to have found Toy Story so visually revolutionary when it came out, to have watched all the Pixar movies that have followed and find them to be similar in appearance, and now return to the original and find it so stiff and lacking.  The problem sometimes with revolutionary technology is that it doesn’t stand the test of time, its methods get improved, wrinkles get ironed out, new tech gets added to it, and the original gets left behind.  I can’t help but feel that Toy Story is moving towards that fate.

Don’t get me wrong, Toy Story is a great movie and I absolutely feel that it should be on this list, I just wonder how long before its place in history gets forgotten or surpassed by better animation.  I talked about it with Ben-Hur and I’ll talk about it with other movies on the list, movies like Citizen Kane, that I certainly feel that historical perspective is important to this list but that it has to be weighed with how the movie would be received if it were released today.  Toy Story has more going for it than the way it looks and I feel that is important to it’s placement on the list.  It’s a fun story that has a great pace.  It is written in a way that entertains and mesmerizes kids but still pushes the envelope in a way that does the same for adults.  It’s funny in a timeless way.  It gave us great characters that have become a major part of the Disney lexicon.  If Toy Story came out tomorrow, it might not blow people’s minds with its animation but it would certainly be talked about as a great movie.

Toy Story ushered in a whole new era of animation and pretty much took hand drawn movies off the map.  It opened the door of possibilities for what an animated movie could look like.  And it wasn’t just with the animation, it changed the game as far as direction, point of view and cinematography as well. Add all that to a timeless story and there is very little doubt that this is a landmark film deserving of a place on AFI’s list.  My question is, how much longer are we going to think that?

 

I give Toy Story 4 out of 5 bowls of Cookies and Cream ice cream.  It’s a revolutionary take on a classic style that just may get forgotten over time, but it’s still one of my favorites.

 

Jenny…

I think that a critic can be truly good at his job regardless of personal preference.  I imagine a food critic has the ability to judge a quality meatball, even if he doesn’t care for meatballs.  But he knows about cooking: how the flavors work together, how the quality of the ingredients and the timing is so important, and about presentation of a finished product.  Since I’ve already made clear that I’m no movie critic, I probably shouldn’t have to re-explain that, but watching Toy Story sort of made me feel like the only person in the room who didn’t get the joke.  I really didn’t enjoy it, and I’m trying to figure out why.  

Toy Story is one of the most critically-acclaimed animated films of the 20th century.  If you read its reviews, you’ll see that it received 9 out of 10 “whatevers” across so many boards.  It was called innovative, a work of genius, and it was praised for being one of the best-voiced animated movies ever, besides being one of the top-grossing animated films up to that point in 1995.  

So why did I sit, stone-faced, through most of the movie?  I didn’t go into watching it with a bad attitude.  OK, that might be kind of a lie.  I definitely was not looking forward to watching it, mostly because I don’t really love animated movies.  I think they are FINE for other people, and I don’t think that I’m better than them or something, I’m just not so interested.  And this one came out when I was a senior in high school.  I guess other people my age were enjoying animated movies, either with younger siblings or just because they liked them, but there was no way I was watching Toy Story in high school, or in college for that matter. It made no sense to me.  Since I’ve grown to view much of the ways of my past to be closed-minded, I’ve been working to change that over the years.  But still, Toy Story quickly became a “ICBYNS” movie for me.

I really had no idea what the story was about before I saw it, which is usually how I go into movie watching situations, either out of purposeful or unintended ignorance.   But let me try to turn this around a little:  here is what I DID (sort of) enjoy about this movie– I appreciated the beginning, watching Andy play with Woody, throwing him around the room in a kind of kid-chaotic ballet of sorts. I liked the way the movie captured the way little kids’ imaginations work while they’re playing. I vividly remember this kind of scenario: a friend and I are playing with dolls, Barbies, funny little action-figure type people, or some kind of crafts. We get everything set up, put the way we wanted, whether it was their home, their vehicle, the exciting scene we’d cut to (“In Our Last Episode, our hero was…”) or what their “issue” was going to be– we’d play for about 11 minutes, then I’d say “let’s do something else!”  Even as a kid, I got bored noticeably faster than, like, anyone, and depending on who I was playing with, we’d play a little longer, me losing more and more interest by the second, or I’d win, and we’d abandon everything we’d set up, and move on to the next mess-making endeavor.

I could relate to how Andy played, and that was cool. A good memory.

My problem with animated movies is, and even used to be, when I was little, that I found too much of it unbelievable.  Even within the scope of “this is imaginary– go with it,” I remember thinking, “how could that character live a good life, when he only has tiny little arms,” or “how can those birds really function when they have such a small nest?” and “why do Chip and Dale only have CERTAIN pieces of furniture and not others?” I guess, as sad as it sounds, I was a weird realist at a young age.  I would see a character’s limitations, and that really bothered me. Or I would think, “this can’t last,” and I would feel distraught.  What reminded me of this was Toy Story’s entire premise — the idea of favorite toys, the idea that toys have feelings, the underlying knowledge that someday the kid will stop playing with them.  It just makes me feel sort of sad, and not in an enjoyable way (you know what I mean).  I also found the rest of the toys’ disloyalty to Woody distressing. How long had they lived together before they were ready to blame him for throwing a shiny new interloper off the window ledge? Sheesh. 

I realize the animation was groundbreaking at the time. I know the audience in mind was not me. I (kind of) see why it won awards.  But I didn’t lose myself in the story, the setting, or the characters.  It made me think too much about my own memories, instead of the movie, I guess because it just didn’t really appeal to me, or maybe I was trying to escape. Who cares? This post is too long as it is. However, I enjoyed watching Sid’s mishmash of toys in their demented cuteness, and how they all cooperated at the end. I also liked watching Jon laugh at certain parts he knew were coming; that was cute. And I was happy that he seemed to be enjoying himself, and that it was a Friday evening.  I’m ready for Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a different flavor of ice cream.


I give Toy Story two out of five bowls of bubble gum ice cream I’d be happy to share with someone else, but I’m fine, I just ate.

100: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur, 1959

From Jon…

Starting at the bottom of any “Best of” list presents the same issue no matter what topic the list tackles or who is responsible for its assembly.  While many will argue about the order items on the top of the list should be in, there is very rarely a question of the items worthiness, but the closer you get to the bottom, the more compelling it is to claim certain items shouldn’t even be on the list.  That is where I find myself after watching #100 on AFI’s list, Ben Hur.  Granted, I had to watch the movie in pieces over a four month period, but that says something in itself.  The story wasn’t that interesting, the acting was horrible, the movie was way too long.  I could easily come up with a dozen other movies that are more deserving of a place in AFI’s top 100 countdown.  I understand there’s a lot of sentimental value this movies brings with it, it harkens back to specific era of movie making, but sentiment doesn’t make a movie great.

The biggest problem I’ve had with all of AFI’s lists is they seem to be made by a bunch of 80 year old men.  Movies from the early days of filmmaking always seem to be weighted heavier than more modern flicks.  I have no doubt that Ben-Hur was an amazing movie when it came out.  I find it incredibly interesting to watch something like the chariot race scene and think, they did all this with no CG and very simple special effects.  And in all honesty, I found the movie to be pretty graphic by today’s standards, which makes me wonder how audiences in 1959 reacted to hands getting ripped off and people getting trampled by horses.  But the fact remains that we’ve made giant strides in movie making since 1959 and a movie like this just doesn’t hold up to the best movies made today.  The story, which felt like an ancient version of Forrest Gump with Judah Ben-Hur continuously stumbling into historic events, is bloated and over written.  Every scene seemed to go on for three or four minutes longer then needed.  And the acting was terrible.  I’m not really sure how Charlton Heston became so revered other than being involved in a number of these big budgets movies.  It would be like Keanu Reeves or Vin Diesel being considered great actors by people 50 years from now.

I do think that historical context should play some part in this list, but it can’t be the only reason a movie makes it.  Ben-Hur needs to bring something else to the table other than a couple of scenes that were ahead of their time in 1959 if it wants to be on this list.  Citizen Kane is still an interesting film even if its innovations are now commonplace.  It Happened One Night is still funny and well acted even if its sense of romantic comedy has been updated and improved.  Ben-Hur can’t claim any of this.  It’s an old movie that feels dated, more a historic note than a great film.  And in all fairness to AFI, Ben-Hur did drop twenty eight spots in the ten years between their two lists.  I think it would be safe to say, if they come out with a 20 year list, Ben-Hur will be left off.

 I give Ben-Hur 2 out of 5 bowls of vanilla ice cream.  It’s a classic flavor but it just doesn’t hold up to the fancy Ben & Jerry stuff you can buy these days.

 

From Jenny…

oh boy. what a place to start.  I fear that if I write my true reaction to this movie (at least as I spoke it to family and friends) I’d brand myself useless and stupid in the commentaries that follow here.  I am not used to writing about movies, and I have to say most of them disinterest me. That said, I’m kind of a blank slate in many ways, so that might be a reason to listen to me after all.  I don’t have any preconceived notions that bias me other than, well, my opinions.

Without even knowing much about this movie, it’s the kind of film that would certainly have kept me from embarking on challenges such as this.

So, besides the parts where I wasn’t paying attention or had to ask Jon what just happened (if I happened to leave the room for a second) or felt so tense because of the brutal violence I was surprised they HAD in 1959 much less would SHOW in 1959. OK OK OK– it was actually 26 AD not 1959 so I concede that things were pretty damn violent back then.  I mean, you say “Ben-Hur” to anyone and he says “Oh, the chariot race scene” back.  I think I pretty much could have just watched that scene to have claimed to watch the movie.  But no, I was present for all 3 hours and 44 minutes. Did I enjoy this movie?  Not really.  Do I understand why it’s on the list?  Yes.

I did enjoy the part where I got to see Jesus. He was easy to recognize, even though it was just from the back. I also learned that this was a book before it was a movie, and I own the book.  If anyone wants to borrow it, let me know and I’ll dust it real good for you.  I don’t think I’ll be reading it anytime soon.

I give Ben-Hur 3.44 bowls of ice cream for being impressive, like an exploding volcano, but slow, like the lava that takes 3 hours and 44 minutes to finish consuming you.

The Beginning of the Journey

From Jon…

When Jenny and I started dating we went through all the normal getting to know you conversations.  What kind of music do you listen to?  What’s your favorite TV show?  If stranded on a deserted island, what five books would you want with you?  And of course, what are your favorite movies?  Our society has developed in such a way that movies have become an integral part of dating another person.  It’s a shorthand way to establish common interests and upbringings.  It’s a shared experience that opens discussion.  It’s about as cliche a first date as one can find.  Pretty early on in our relationship, Jenny asked if I had ever tried to watch all the movies on the AFI top 100.  I said no, but I had the list printed out and had always wanted to try.  So we decided to try together.  We took AFI’s tenth anniversary Top 100 American Movies list and made the agreement that we would start at #100, Ben-Hur, and work our way to #1, Citizen Kane.  But of course, that wasn’t enough.  Being that we both enjoy writing, being that we already both had blogs of our own, being that we needed something to keep us on task and make this whole experience a bit more enjoyable, we decided to create a blog that showed two perspectives on AFI’s list.  We will watch the movies together and then write separately about our experiences and reactions.  Hopefully, you guys, the readers, will get two different view points and two different reading experiences.

 I’m a self-proclaimed movie buff.  I didn’t go to film school and I haven’t kept up with the latest trends in Iranian cinema, but I enjoy watching movies, analyzing the story and film-making techniques, and discussing them with people.  I’ve watched a ton of movies and enjoy nothing better than sitting down for a few hours and losing myself in a world of someone else’s creation.  Some may say that this is a form of avoiding my own existence, but really that’s neither here nor there.  I’m not going to change the world with my thoughts on a movie or a director’s style, but I have my opinions and I love to share them and hopefully they cause someone out there to think or agree or get really pissed off.

 I’ve learned quickly that watching movies with Jenny is a different experience than I am used to.  At times it will take a month to watch something that should really only last two hours.  I’ll be sure to include when I think that has changed or affected my thoughts on a film.  I’m not saying this is solely a negative.  Taking time to digest certain scenes may enhance the viewing experience.  We will have to wait and see.

From Jenny…

I like movies enough.  But compared to Jon,  I’m no movie buff, not even an amateur one.  I won’t comment on cinematography or light or the repeated use of oranges in various scenes unless it’s something that has been pre-brought to my attention, and it’s relevant to my review.  I won’t fake any knowledge here.  Still, I will try to provide a thorough and sincere write up of each movie from my perspective.

 Fact is, I do get bored easily.  Jon and I have watched movies that are a little on the slow side, and a scenario like this might play out: I’ll begin by looking around the room, thinking about other things I need to do, when was the last time I saw my checkbook, or where the Christmas tree should go this year, and then I start to notice Jon and how much he is still watching the movie.  Then I wonder how long I can stare at the side of his face before he notices I’m staring at him.  Then I realize that he already knows I’m staring at him, but he’s doing his best to ignore me and concentrate on the movie.  And I don’t say that to be mean, he doesn’t generally ignore me, but he knows that I’ve begun to lose interest in the movie, but he’s very good at concentrating (he does it all the time!) and can do it even with someone staring at him blinking loudly, such as during a long movie or a four-hour lecture on classroom management and the dangers of over-lecturing.

 It’s usually at that point that Jon and I come to terms with our take on the movie to that point.  His, “slow, building, intense” is usually my “good God when will this end?!”

 Jon is always very kind when he finally does acknowledge me and my face staring.  He has also never argued with me when I can’t take it anymore and must go to bed and finish the damn movie tomorrow. I will try not to push this too far.

 When I met Jon I realized he’s not only seen almost anything that’s ever been made (with the exception of a few “ICBYNS”*) but he’s also very into movies, which I think is great. For him. 🙂

 It’s true, I can have a pretty hard time sitting through movies.  I’m getting better though. I went through a phase in which I was a complete psycho and could not do fewer than three things (badly) at the same time, including dishes and writing and watching a movie and organizing my sock drawer. Good news: I’ve calmed down a bit and have taken to things such as doing one thing at a time, sometimes, whether it be finishing a book, a movie, or painting a room in under four years.  I am excited to watch these movies, referred to as classics, for reasons I’m going to find out.  I’m looking forward to freely writing in the second person, including sentence fragments, without so much as a care in the world. I’m looking forward to being able to discuss, in passing, these movies at a cocktail party over a tall frosty guava soy lime concoction.  But mostly I’m looking forward to embarking on this adventure with Jon, and with you, dear reader.

 

  • ICBYNS: “I Can’t Believe You Never Saw” movies– movies where one person CANNOT COMPREHEND that the other person NEVER SAW THAT OBVIOUS THAT EVERYONE ELSE HAS SEEN IT movie.  The kind of movie where one of the following must be true:

– Something is wrong with you; you were raised wrong, or raised by animals (i.e. not being allowed to watch E.T.)

– You do not have any friends, or your friends lived in the same protective shoebox that you lived in, growing up

– You have a very secret special reason for refusing to watch this movie.  Like your name is Jon and you became enraged at the fanfare that accompanied Titanic. And then you spent the next 17 years bragging about how you “won’t ever watch it.”  And then you meet Jenny…

– You were kidnapped and held in the back of a truck while Everyone Else of Earth watched that movie.  This happened to Jenny with The Princess Bride. No one has any actual evidence of the truck.