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Thursday, July 04, 2013

From The July 4 Favorites List:

Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Celebration of Vaudeville

Let's say Jim Cagney was digging a posthole one afternoon in the early seventies on his New England farm and some kids drive up in a Dodge Charger with eight-track tape playing Edgar Winter. Would they banter with the old man or maybe recognize him? There were still late shows, and parents who remembered, but ten years off movie screens was eternity to youth. Movie stars were discarded at a quicker clip by the time Cagney packed his in. So was this Jim's own George M. Cohan moment, minus a hammock and "Stix Nix Hix Pix"? The two lives do seem to have converged in retirement. Cagney was even talked back into the game for ill-starred Ragtime after twenty years' separation from the biz, not unlike George M. late-date encoring with I'd Rather Be Right. Stories are rife of locals or tourists having their Cagney moment. Was he, like Cohan, ready to be talked out of his hammock when time came?

Later writing got a little snide about Yankee Doodle Dandy, recognition accorded with a back-hand. Ted Sennett's book, Warner Brothers Presents, would observe that several of the musical numbers are on the painful side, while Andrew Sarris and Andrew Bergman, in 60's and after reflection, bandied words like "hokum" and "frenzied flag-waving." A point lost since 1942, and a critical one, was Yankee Doodle's mission not just to arouse patriotism, but to salute a going era of show-life exemplified by Cohan and hundreds who trod across vaudeville stages and lived to re-tell it even as 10-20-30's were seeping into footnotes and Bob Hope quippage when he was asked about dark, empty houses: Sure, I used to be in vaudeville. YDD is Hollywood's highest tribute to entertainers on the road, done by ones who lived it and now made glorious last stand for the small time and everything adding up to musical comedy in the theatre. Yankee Doodle extra ranks and barely speaking parts are filled by vets off the boards. I'll bet not one old-timer got turned away from a job, however minor, on this show.

The Real George M. Cohan in 1932's The Phantom President with Claudette Colbert

Modern viewers will need explanatory subtitles: Kerosene circuit, tank towns, foot in the trough --- Yankee Doodle Dandy was in ways like an insider's diary of vaudeville opened to film watcher "rubes" that had supplanted patronage for live acts. The kids that bandy with Cohan in retirement stood for what viewing (and listening) had devolved to by 1942. First came movies to wipe out vaudeville, then talkies to erase silent emoting --- whose tide would go out next? Cagney and Warner staff must have looked back longingly from The West Point Story just eight years later to wonder why Yankee Doodle magic couldn't be recaptured. By then, of course, movies were headed down a path vaude had opened, television applying the not so gentle push. Irony wasn't lost on viewership who'd observe cast-offs from vaudeville now holding court on the tube. Turns out you could reinvent these old-timers for as long as they could stay alive and perform.

I enjoy how WB sweetens the Cohan rendition of Peck's Bad Boy with music close to that they used scoring old Sennett comedies brought brassily back during the early-to-mid 40's. Was Peck's Bad Boy in vaudeville anything like this? I sat thinking it might have been an ideal vehicle for The Three Keatons. Wonder what went through Buster's mind as he watched Yankee Doodle Dandy; talk about floods of memory. Well, what of Cohan himself? Could his act have been as effective as Cagney interpreting it? 19th Century vaudeville could certainly have used Ray Heindorf as an arranger and orchestrator, but they didn't have him and Warners did. Our perception of vaude is based evermore on how acts were replicated (and vastly improved upon?) by Yankee Doodle Dandy and kin. Who'd know George M. Cohan if not for Cagney playing him?

Everybody Sing!, and That Included Audiences In The Theatre

Yankee Doodle Dandy spoke to its audience in terms way too direct for comfort of writers later seeking ironic distance. When lights go out at a Cohan camp show, he cries Everybody Sing! after turning truck lamps toward the stage, close-up with eyes locked on the unseen theatre audience. Did Cagney's force pull whole auditoriums into community sing of Over There? It nearly works with alone-in-a-room me; imagine the impact on houses seating thousands across a country mere months past declaration of war. Further lightning strikes during JC's Off The Record number from I'd Rather Be Right, staring down the camera with added-for-the-movie lyrics about taking France back from Hitler and putting "ants in his Japants." 1942 roars of approval can be imagined. The whole of Yankee Doodle Dandy is about engaging the audience as intensely as possible, music and comedy as call to arms. Urgency came of production beginning days ahead of Pearl Harbor, set-breaks gathered around radios to hear Roosevelt speak and grim news pour in.

A Photo-Op Not To Be Ignored: The Yankee Doodle Dandy Cast Pose with
a Visiting Delegation from The American Legion

Warner folk might have felt nearly as military-occupied as Disney's shop down the street. Anybody in uniform had a ticket in, and work would stop for brass eager to meet Ann Sheridan. Word was out that No must never be spoken to a serviceman ... ever. Casts gathered around uniformed visitors or sat among them at compulsory luncheons became way of Warner life for the duration. No accommodation was denied those who fought. The star community suddenly found itself pulling two plows: day work on stages, nights and what used to be leisure time now spent entertaining troops. If you weren't busy at one or the other, there'd come hot air down the neck. How to justify nightclubbing or sleep at home when there was a dish to wash or song to sing at the Hollywood Canteen? James Cagney got a boon from Yankee Doodle Dandy and bulls-eye format for camp touring: just sing/dance as George M. Cohan to reliable roof-raising. Here was surprise advantage he'd have over WB bad men Bogart and E.G. Robinson, falling back on gangster gags because that's all their narrower personas could sustain in front of G.I.'s responding best to stars who were instantly known quantities.


Blogger Dave K said...

Great piece on YANKEE DOODLE DANDY! Thought provoking observations. I, too, have often thought about how 21st Century impressions of Vaudeville (if such things even exist) rely solely on jazzed up Hollywood recreations from a much later era. Oh, and I really appreciate the still of the real George M. from THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT. Saw that curio decades ago and was struck how much more Crosby-like rather than Cagney-like the laid back Cohan was!

11:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

To judge by all the impressionists going around saying "You dirty rat," I wouldn't say Cagney was forgotten at that time by the general public; teenagers might be a different story.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Marilyn said...

I was just musing over THE SUNSHINE BOYS as a reflection of the great wit and showmanship that vaudeville gave to the worlds of motion pictures and television. Why don't we have comedies as smart as they are funny anymore? Because the proving ground for most comedians these days is stand-up, an ego-centric form that precludes the generosity and surprise of ensemble programming.

11:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a great point you've made, Marilyn, and one that had not occured to me. Thanks.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

For the longest time, YDD was the only Cagney movie I saw in its entirety, thanks to its annual July 4th broadcast on local TV.

Around 1970, Cagney came to my hometown (Newport, RI) to take part in an antique horse-drawn carriage parade. It was cool beyond words to see him dressed in his grey, 19th-century style top hat and drivers coat at the reins of his horse. Even though he was older and a little stouter, he still looked like he could kick your butt if you gave him any lip.

11:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon speaks to various aspects of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (Part One):

Your fine piece on "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is not unrelated to the one about this being the perfect point in time to access old movies like "...Dandy". You're also right in remarking that this is not a movie about 1943, but an attempt through the eyes and ears and talents of '43 to recreate the world on stage of America in the '00s. I think there's little doubt that Cagney and Co. give it more life and appeal than the real thing would have if it could've been captured in the day, but this is mere presumption. Certainly the best stand-up comics we saw growing up, those who'd entertained our parents as kids, were all veterans of the stage. Singers, too. Cagney was a dancer because that's partially where the work was when he was young. You had to do it or you'd have fewer opportunities, and he was interested in opportunity, clearly. And, up to it.

I loved your little plug for Ray Heindorf, because certainly his arrangements and orchestrations are galvanizingly alive and beautiful, the kind of work so typical of Warners in those days, almost to the point that you took it for granted. Even the sound, itself, is 'alive' in Warners films, something that David O. Selznick famously noticed in one of his memos, and wondered whether they (his organization) could find out how they did it, over there. I've been on the Warners and the Fox recording stages, and apart from the ghosts that are there---some of the finest musicians of the 20th century!---you do wonder. The scores, heard today, haven't the immediacy of what today's technology can deliver, but they have size, impact, and clarity, and of course the music itself is of a whole other dimension from what passes for film music today.

7:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon on "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (Part Two):

The montages in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" are particularly brilliant in the way they're scored. Heindorf was a great, great member of the music department at Warners then. Of course, I still think Alfred Newman at Fox was The Man. He could 'be' Heindorf, and then he could turn around and 'be' Steiner, Waxman, Herrmann, or Korngold---and not by copying them, but by excelling in the type of films these very different composers specialized in. I just saw "Dragonwyck" for the first time this week, even though I've owned the DVD for several years! I just never got around to watching it. Newman never attempts to ape the inimitable Herrmann in crafting his Romantic, capital 'R', score for this movie, and he does it his way, but it's superb. He had a style all his own, from the beginning to the end of his life. There were very few composers of his generation who'd have been entrusted to score a brand-new crowd pleaser intended for general audiences, "Airport". Newman was dying of emphysema, but you'd never guess it listening to this lively, versatile, vital score.

But, drifting back to where I began with "Yankee Doodle...", it may say something that WB Home Video released three pictures heavily identified with three different Warners stars from that day, in the early '00s: "Adventures of Robin Hood", "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre". Since those releases, two of them have been out on Blu-ray for some time, now. The odd 'man' out is Cagney and "Yankee Doodle...". Perhaps his is indicative of its sales on DVD, or its perceived relevance or popularity for a segment of the public, today. If so, it's a sad comment on the public's response to the kind of non-denominational patriotism and emotional honesty portrayed in this Michael Curtiz dynamo of a movie. Of course, I think our politics today are criminal and the American ideals I grew up being taught held hostage by profiteers and bought politicians. I myself am nauseated by the kind of 'patriotism' that's defiled by those who pretend to believe in it, while basically looking upon people like me as grist for their many mills. Maybe others feel the same. Whether feeling like this today would prevent others from feeling a sense of revived patriotism and pride in being an American as it was portrayed, believably, in "Yankee Doodle Dandy", I cannot say. Cynicism can kill a lot of what is beautiful about the human spirit...but cynicism is not the cause, it's a symptom. Perhaps that's why Bogart, and not Cagney (nor Flynn), was the acting mascot of the cynical '60s, when the youth began to get it---that the country was a machine, and the machine was not interested in them, except as cannon fodder.

7:02 AM  

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