Tag Archives: James Cagney

Michael Curtiz: Yankee Doodle Dandy

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. Continue reading

Michael Curtiz: Angels with Dirty Faces

And now for something completely different, although not that different when you really think about it.

Angels with Dirty Faces sees studio-man extraordinaire Michael Curtiz changing course away from the lush theatrical silliness of two of the finest pre-war matinee fluff pieces ever made, and moving toward the darker regions that would occupy the American fascination upon its descent into World War II and the harsher regions of human activity. The US spent a good deal of the 1930s hiding itself from the horrors of both the world and of itself, and Curtiz was a whiz at the sort of aww-shucks adventurous quality used to whisk America off to a dream world where problems didn’t so much trouble as exist to provide delectable, delightful solutions. 1939’s Angels with Dirty Faces does not, at first glance, appear to be the work of the same filmmaker. Tonally, it is the polar opposite of Curtiz’s two great prior works, descending into the muck of seedy, lonesome, grotesques and brutish grime that would become the “film noir” a few years later. Yet, a closer look yields a slightly different take, finding Curtiz using the same style he perfected in his previous films to wildly different ends. Continue reading