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
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
|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.