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Friday, February 25, 2011

AFI/BFI #217: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
Composer: George M. Cohan, Leo F. Forbstein, Ray Heindorf & Heinz Roemheld
AFI Rank:  100 (1998) 98 (2007)
BFI Rank: -

Ok. This is going to be a tough sell. A black and white musical that is nearly seventy years old and is also probably the most patriotic American film ever made. It was the next movie on my combined AFI and BFI top 100 lists and I had committed to myself to watch them all in order. I really enjoy musicals so that was not to be a handicap, and the timing couldn't be better. I decided to watch it the same day as my US citizenship swearing in ceremony. The rampant patriotism of the ceremony itself would help prepare me for the red, white and blue extravaganza that is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I had never seen it before, especially growing up in England. In fact even today it has not seen a UK DVD release. To be honest I hadn't even heard of the film before I had set myself the challenge, which of course was the point of the exercise. I was familiar with George M. Cohan's music but not the man himself. I basically did not know what to expect, my favorite way of seeing a movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a musical biography of George M. Cohan, the man who owned broadway. It was made while he was still alive and so pulls some of its punches (George had to approve its release). As a musical biography it succeeds well, even better as an historical record of George's stage performances. Cagney did his homework. You cannot help feeling though that without Cagney this film would have been a forgotten memory by now. He steals every scene and boy can he dance. For those of you like me who only thought of him as a gangster this will be a revelation, just as it was for audiences at the time. Watch him dance down those stairs and then think about what that would really involve. He took home his only Oscar as George.

This was also the movie that Michael Curtiz directed right before Casablanca. He was nominated for the Oscar for Yankee but won it for Casablanca the following year.

Is it a truly great film? I am still on the fence to be honest. It doesn't have worldwide appeal for one thing. But put into context alongside the first world war, the McCarthy witch hunts, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the escalation of the war, this is truly a great American film. The 2-disc special edition comes with a nice bonus, the well put together Warner Night at the Movies, 1942 introduced by Leonard Maltin including trailers, a newsreel, musical short subject and "Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid".  I'm very glad I watched it and it brought me a new found respect for James Cagney, but I don't expect to wear out the DVD anytime soon.


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