Yankee Doodle Dandy really doesn’t make it easy for itself. Consider the strikes against it. It is a Grand Old Biopic madly in love with its own subject matter. It is filmed by a director, who, for all his multitudinous strengths, was never all that invested in subverting or transforming his screenplays, a filmmaker who drew his vigor and interest precisely from the subject matter and the screenplay he was tackling. It is also a quintessential work of matching a great actor to an important historical figure, just about the biggest talent-suck set-up any film could possibly dread. With a performance and a subject to fill the box office and wow the middlebrows, a director has carte blanche to indulge in all the soporific tendencies of a screenplay, to blindly and blandly fill the screen with blasé Important Moments rather than to actually prop up the storytelling with invigorating artistic gestures. It is, in other words, a work that was dead in the water – artistically speaking at least – even before its release.
This is all without even mentioning the specifics of this film’s subject matter: theatrical singer-songwriter, dancer, and consummate patriot George M. Cohan (James Cagney), serving as a cipher with which to understand military grade Americana and programmatic, even propagandist, national pride. The pro-America impetus was partially outside of the film’s control. Production began only a few days before the Pearl Harbor bombing, and star James Cagney was an endless victim of private berating for his liberal beliefs (many accused him of Communism). All this would-be public degradation coursing through the production’s veins poisoned the well; what hope had Curtiz or his production but to resort to unmitigated and uncomplicated patriotism to win over censors and audiences alike? The end result – a superficial and even foolish descent into scripting simplicity – ought to collapse on itself. From the ground up, it is too well mannered, too courteous, and too polite to ever do anything challenging, subversive, or hurtful.
Or so it would seem. As anyone who has seen a two-fisted James Cagney and Michael Curtiz showpiece bringing its all to the table should already know, all is not what it seems with Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Which isn’t to say it is some sort of unheralded masterpiece of confrontational, transgressive cinema. In fact, the material is saved, almost to the point of doubling back around to true confrontation, by how deeply un-confrontational it all is. Why Dandy works can be summed up in one fact: the material calls for something on the slight side, and the cast and crew seem to totally indulge in this need. George M. Cohan led a life of theatrical fluff, pomp, and circumstance, and it is fitting that the material is galvanized in a slight grandeur and deliberately non-meticulous filmmaking. This sprightly, somewhat flighty demeanor keeps the film from even sinking into grim stodginess and unapproachable formalism. While other biopics stuff themselves with enough self-importance to taxidermy the project all the way to the grave, Yankee Doodle Dandy always has a spring in its step and some bounce in its head. Some of this is simply the flippant dialogue (a great line, delivered by Cagney’s nicely breathy, cheeky voice-over, focuses on how there were always “new stars on the flag and the Cohans kept rushing out to meet them”). But there is much tossed-off flippancy at work in the fundamental structure of Yankee Doodle Dandy to not address how fundamental Curtiz is to the whole tone of the film, and to its implicit, secret brilliance.
Simply put, wherever the film goes, Curtiz is always hiding behind it, beckoning it forth toward buoyancy. He is always there moving his camera about, cutting in intricate, counter-intuitive ways, and swish-panning through some of the material as if he is an audience member himself, always shouting “get on with it!”, and throwing enough peanuts onto the stage to make sure the film listens. Ultimately, this works in the film’s favor by focusing on the stagecraft, the pageantry of the material, and the deliberately silly nature of the material with the grandest little smirk on its face from beginning to end. A refreshing dearth of the film really has anything to do with Cohan the Great Man, or his importance to the world. Instead, it is content to depict him as a slightly foppish underdog whose huckster-like ringleader charisma can’t but win over anyone who serves as his audience. Us included.
On the pageantry though, it isn’t quite that Curtiz and Cagney openly enhance the artificial, aww-shucks nature of the material to the point where it crashes in on itself and becomes self-critique or self-satire, but there is a certain exaggeratedly breathless non-naturalism to the material that gets us part of the way there. Naturally, this is the Curtiz touch, directing material with an eye for the Old Hollywood Matinee fare it ultimately was. He was always playing around in the cinematic regions of non-naturalism. He favored a light touch to say just enough about the goofy nostalgia and persuasive innocence of his material. So many biopics trade in depth for breadth, sacrificing the essence of their subject for a greatest-hits compilation of events in that person’s life detached from rhyme or reason. Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn’t simply take this form; it jumps into it with hardiness and zest, deliberately avoiding any real complication or event in the life of George M. Cohan, even hinting at some complication and then frequently and unceremoniously running the other way with a frisky bait-and-switch maneuver.
Rather than think about anything occurring in Cohan’s life, in other words, it essays a work Cohan might have made himself: a zippy, feather-light piece of unkempt silliness that only ever slightly touches down on the ground to hint at the importance we expect but never get. The brilliance of the film, in other words, is the brilliance of many other movies but few biopics: rather than saying something about its subject, it becomes its subject, giving us a flurry of energetic tomfoolery, capturing the version of Cohan he wanted the public to see, and in doing so saying more than a little about the performative nature of George M. Cohan the man, about the way he really didn’t care much for the serious things in the world. And about how, if this did make him a superficial person in private, it made him a powerhouse showman when he came alive in the only way he knew how.
If I was feeling generous, I would go so far as to say this all pokes fun at its subject matter for completely avoiding the complications of the world, for imbibing in nostalgia like the drink, and for functioning more like a perverse waxworks of Americana than a real person. Certainly, in some of the more adrift musical moments, Curtiz indulges so much in the grandness of the material with such unforgiving wonder it can’t but seem a genial poke at its own expense, its own superficiality, its own unquestioning pro-Americana take on the world.
More important to this argument is Cagney himself, who plays Cohan with an almost deranged amount of liveliness, never really breaking through the performative air of the character and discovering anything about Cohan the person. He is from beginning to end a showpiece figure, giving a bizarre, almost alien performance, strutting and stuttering in equal measure. First, it is a performance that is not tied into any recognizably deep discovery or emotion. Second, it is a performance that lacks any recognizably human qualities. And third, and most importantly, it is a performance that is never less than a fully transfixing vortex of wonder, a volcano mid-eruption. Just like Cohan himself, on all three counts.
I would love to say that this is some sort of brilliantly meta-textual self-critique about how Cohan himself lacked any human qualities, how he didn’t so much perform Americana on stage as live his life this way to the point where he really wasn’t much of a person beyond this over-worked nostalgia. All manner of potential complications enter his life, but he consistently writes them off, reduces them to distractions, and drowns them away in his stagecraft nostalgia and Americana. It is almost as if Americana is the lie he sells himself to hide complication, and the film is doing exactly the same, over-indulging in such well-manicured surface-level pleasures that it can’t really say anything about …well, anything. In other words, it is almost as if the film is pointing out its own fallacies, its own reductive goofiness, and making fun of itself for it.
The way the film self-consciously centers Cohan’s own narration as a framing device hints further in this direction, going right up to the point of telling us this is merely Cohan’s view of himself, Cohan’s sweetened-up view of America, and not any view we should trust or take seriously. It is as if the film is saying “this is George M. Cohan’s auto-biopic”, and what catapults the film into greatness is that it is wholly unsure of whether this version of the story is the best possible version, or the worst. Thankfully, this doubles as a wonderfully complicated treatise on cinema, on its love for the way cinema can boldly tell stories in distinctly cinematic ways and its worry about cinema for the way it can never honestly capture its subjects, for it must always shoot those subjects with artifice and distance, the very artifice epitomized by George M. Cohan. Passionate, brilliant artifice, but lying artifice none-the-less.
Yankee Doodle Dandy never really crosses that line into self-destruction, of course, but it is amazing enough that it even opens itself up to this line. It is telling that the worst scene, the fatuous framing device found in a conversation between an elderly Cohan and a hidden FDR with as ridiculously pompous a voice as you could imagine, is the only scene not “told” to us by Cohan himself. The essence of the frame is that, for all Cohan’s ludicrous silliness and inability to function seriously, he was a born-and-bred showman who could tell a story, however empty that story was, with the best of them. For this reason, the stilted quality of the frame can’t but tell us one thing: the entire film may be a phony, but at least when it is told to us through the eyes of George M. Cohan, when the film shifts to his perspective, it is a fantastical phony of eminent watchability.
For, at the end of the day, Yankee Doodle Dandy is very much in love with its subject matter, and it is saved not by anything subversive but by the simple fact that it seems so airless, so under-weighted, and so completely unconcerned. It says nothing about how important musical theater is, and precious little about how politically or socially worthwhile that old-timey American Spirit is. It is a very humble film, a work seemingly without a care in the world. That is the spirit of the subject the film depicts, the spirit of a man who was less a human being than a collection of flippant ticks and idiosyncrasies that seemingly existed on a different plane from the rest of us. A man who seemed to not really be aware of the world around him, a man who seemed alight with an uncorrupted joie de vivre very much part and parcel with the golly-gee rah-rah Americana image the film circles around. If Cagney essayed the more dementedly unconcerned, pitifully hopeless Pee-wee Herman figure in Angels with Dirty Faces (the figure Reubens played before Herman became a childrens’ character), Yankee Doodle completes the transition. It gives us the manic sky-high spirit and untroubled innocence of “George Cohan’s Playhouse,” completely oblivious to the world and entirely proud of it.
The great thing about Yankee Doodle Dandy is that, although it makes play with this American spirit, it never insists on making a statement about it, or even trying to prove the truthfulness of this spirit. It simply says that this Broadway image exists, and that be it truth or lie, it is undoubtedly convincing in the moment. As it stands, this makes Yankee Doodle Dandy a huckster itself, a film possessed with the ludicrous joy of its divining rod of a main character. It makes it, if we are being honest with ourselves, a fool for its untempered joy to be American and to completely avoid any of its own problems, or the world’s. It makes it a somewhat problematic film to actually endorse as a world view, but the fact that it breeds such cognitive dissonance is itself testament to the film’s success. It is a difficult film to support, but an even harder one to not fall in love with anyway. We probably should know better, but for making us forget our better senses, for making us forget troubled times and worldly complication – as he did in his all-time matinee fluff Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood – Curtiz should be commended for his art, and for his boldness and singularity of vision. Uneasily commended, but commended none-the-less.
And that is all assuming he isn’t actually perpetrating one grand, devious post-structuralist self-critique, an argument I adore even if I am not quite ready to endorse in full here. On that, as always, time will tell…