98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

MovieCamera1gfhYankee Doodle Dandy, 1942


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.


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.