Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

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 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 so long as they'd stay alive to 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 that became a 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  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024