Wednesday, December 5, 2012

1942 - Yankee Doodle Dandy

As has become the norm lately, I've left the gap between posts grow so much that I now have too many things to talk about in my little preamble here. Especially considering that it's coming into awards season and there will be lots to talk about in the coming weeks. On that note, the first thing to mention is that Kat and I were lucky enough to be among the first audience to see the finished version of Les Miserables. Director Tom Hooper introduced the special screening, commenting (perhaps with hyperbole) that he had only completed the movie at 2 a.m. that morning. The film is quite simply amazing. With all the singing recorded live (rather than having actors pre-tape them, then lip-sync on set), the emotion of the incredibly dramatic songs is, at times, overpowering. This has Oscar written all over it. Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, particularly.

Two acting gigs to mention. First, I shot a guest role on an episode of Law & Order: SVU last week. I play Counselor Andy Guthrie, a court-appointed attorney who is up against the hard-as-nails DA for a suburban district, played by Jane Kaczmarek (of Malcolm in the Middle fame). So much fun. The episode is due to air on January 9th on NBC.

Second, Kat's and my theatre company's latest play, Speaking In Tongues, has just opened to rave reviews (from Backstage and Show Business Weekly, among others). If you're in the New York City area in the next two weeks, come and see us. We play until December 16th.

With a couple of days off from performances, I watched the next nominee from the Best Picture shortlist of 1942...

Yankee Doodle Dandy
Michael Curtiz
Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Cagney)

A traditional biopic of Broadway pioneer, George M. Cohan (James Cagney), Yankee Doodle Dandy literally tells the story of his life. From his birth on the fourth of July to his regional vaudeville act with his parents (Huston and DeCamp) and sister (Jeanne Cagney) to his professional partnership with Sam Harris (Whorf) and his romantic partnership with Mary (Leslie) to his conquering of Broadway, the story is book-ended by a trip to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, who presents Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal.

As you would expect from a decades-spanning biopic, things move relatively fast. Add to that the numerous musical numbers (including recognizable hits "Give My Regards To Broadway" and "Over There") and there's not much time to spend on any one incident in Cohan's life. Consequently, his ascent to theatrical success seems to occur without much struggle. Most problems sort themselves out rather quickly, partly due to Cohan's easy-going spouse, who hardly bats an eyelid when Cohan allows another woman to sing "Mary Is a Grand Old Name", a song he wrote for her.

The biggest conflict that arises in the picture is Cohan's arrogance as a fledgling performer, demanding better deals and causing lost contracts for his family. If Cohan as an adult were depicted in this way, the film may have been edgier, but Cohan outgrows this behaviour early on and, despite holding on to his passionate drive to succeed, he remains rather pleasant. And "pleasant" is a good word to describe the picture as a whole. Since Cohan is mostly a nice guy, the drama never gets particularly heavy, so the result is a film that puts a smile on your face, which, considering it is a musical, is probably its intent.

James Cagney is infinitely appealing in this role and is an impressive song-and-dance man himself, a sentiment the Academy clearly agreed with since they presented him a Best Actor Oscar. And in a bout of nepotistic casting, Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne, plays his on-screen sister, Josie. Yankee Doodle Dandy's witty script is also worthy of attention, represented by the following random example of its dialogue: while in Switzerland, Cohan tries yodelling, describing it as "Nothing but hog calling with frost on it."


  1. James Cagney has been my favorite actor, of all time, since age 16 (I'm now 52). I've seen about 45 of his 65 films (GOT to the me act togetha re the other 20 ...) He is incandescent. - Check out his acceptance speech (You can Google it) for the 2nd-ever Amer. Film Inst. Lifetime Achievement Award (the 1st one, in 1970, I think, went to Dir. John Ford). JC has SUCH range ... such a real, spiritual, accomplished soul ... There are not enough good things one can say about him. Thanks for sending him out there, Matt! (and wonderful work, all of you, in "Speaking in Tongues." GREAT re "L&O SUV"
    (oops - SVU - Jeez ...)

    Virginia Hammer & Midlantic Theatre Co.
    Theatre in Renaissance Newark, NJ + Schools & PPrisons
    A NJ 501(c)3 nonprofit corp.

  2. The Best Picture nominees for the first half of the 1940s will certainly be rife with flag-waving patriotism that occasionally borders on propaganda. This isn’t unnecessarily a bad thing. While it does date the films, it also serves as a record of what was going on in the world and the overwhelming effect of a more horrendous follow-up the The Great War. To those of us who didn’t live through it, (becoming fewer by the year), films like Mrs. Miniver and Yankee Doodle Dandy stir up emotions that may never be felt again in our modern society.

    Yankee Doodle Dandy’s biography of George M. Cohan uses his time period of WWI for the most part. As a biography it is pretty much a by the numbers Hollywoodization of his life. What sets Yankee Doodle Dandy apart is the great charismatic performance of James Cagney. Cagney was my father’s favorite actor. I think it was because they were both tough, streetwise bantamweight Irishmen. I grew up watching just about all of his gangster movies that showed regularly on local television. Truth be told, I still feel that as deserved as his Oscar was for his change of pace work, his best acting came with Angels with Dirty Faces and White Heat. His song and dance man talent was there, however, idiosyncratic as it was. I don’t think it was ever duplicated with the possible exception of Robert Preston in The Music Man. I can actually see the Cagney of 1942 as Harold Hill, telling us about “Trouble” right here in River City.

    Two pieces of trivia. Cagney’s Oscar was the first given for a musical performance, and the film itself has the dubious distinction of being the first to be subjected to Ted Turner’s colorization experiment.

    I also wish to offer my congratulations on your second successful theatrical production. As an admirer of Lantana, I would have loved to have seen Speaking in Tongues.