This week, I’m aiming for patriotic movies in honor of the 4th of July. Of course, as you’re looking at your calendar, you’ll notice it’s more than a week after the 4th. I have some lead time issues I might want to address. But regardless, this week’s films are:
Michael Curtiz – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
George Sidney – Anchors Aweigh (1945)
As I discovered after I watched both of these, only one is really focused on patriotism, but it might be the most nakedly patriotic film ever made, so it makes up for things.
So how did it go? Let’s get into it.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Songwriter, playwright, actor, singer and dancer George M. Cohan has his triumphant return to the stage and is invited to the White House to talk to the President. He tells the President his entire life story, and we go along for the ride, learning about his entire life in show business, along with all the ups and downs, including his most famous songs and moments.
The film stars James Cagney and is directed by Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca. James Cagney we’ve covered before in his role in gangster films, but in this film, we see his major talent as a song and dance man. Cagney is a major force in this film, and everyone else pales in comparison to his performance, but that’s by design. The film is based on a book by the main character, George M. Cohan, and I’ll talk about my thoughts on that later. The film also stars Walter Huston, of Treasure of the Sierra Madre fame. What’s interesting is that in this movie, he looks hale and hearty, while in Treasure he looks like 10 miles of bad road, but the movies are only 6 years apart. It’s a major testament to his acting talent to pull off both roles so close together.
The film opens on a new play opening up on Broadway, about the current President, Franklin Roosevelt. After the show, he travels to Washington DC at the request of the president. The film makes no attempt to hide that this is the current sitting President, FDR, which is not a move most films would make. But this film is based on a true story, and they appeared to want to give the impression that they were really sticking to that truth.
In his talk with the President, he decides to tell his entire life story, starting with his birth, which was on the 4th of July. The film never lets us forget that the core value of Cohan is patriotism. It seems almost obsessed or even apologetic about this fact. Cohan himself constantly mentions that his main criticism is that his only value is in waving the flag. I’m unsure if this is something that the filmmakers were sensitive about, or if Cohan himself was sensitive about it, but we are constantly reminded.
This is a good time to talk about the disconnect between the character Cohan, and the person Cohan. George Cohan didn’t write the screenplay, but he did write the book it was based on. And throughout the film, Cohan is often portrayed as an unpleasant person. As a child, he’s portrayed as a fame hungry monster, constantly demanding special treatment after his first play as a star. Later on, he’s blackballed by theater owners after getting into a fight. Since he’s part of a family act, he damages their careers as well. To be fair, he convinces them to go out without him, but only by lying about his own success. Further, when he’s pitching his work to producers, he refuses to believe his songs aren’t the greatest, calling the producers names and generally being a jerk.
Even after he’s had some success, he still treats other people badly, having a run-in with a star of a show who he wants to hire, insulting her immediately upon entering the room. Perhaps these scenes played differently in 1942, but it makes me wonder who made the decision to portray Cohan this way. If it was clear in the book, then we might assume that this shows a real vulnerability on Cohan’s part. It’s possible that he revealed these things about himself unvarnished to show some growth, and maybe even atone for it. Or it’s possible he wrote the book that way because he was completely unaware that there was anything wrong with acting that way, and he has no self-awareness at all.
Considering how heroic the film wants Cohan to look as a genuine patriot, I can’t imagine they would intentionally make him look bad, so I have to assume Cohan was honest about his behavior in the book, and looking back, decided it was important to show his growth over time.
The other major disconnect for me was seeing what was seen as great entertainment in the era this film was portraying, which was the first half of the 20th century. We see a lot of the family act of the Cohans, called The 4 Cohans, made up of father, mother, son, and daughter. George Cohan is the son of this group. Their act is essentially the four of them in various costumes (including one scene in black face that definitely didn’t age well) and doing a little song and dance number. To my eyes, this looked insanely boring. But throughout the film, we’re told that the 4 Cohans act could sell out anywhere in the country. They were a major talent. But the film doesn’t really sell this to a modern audience.
However, some of the stage shows that are portrayed are pretty stunning. Once Cohan connects with Sam Harris as a partner, he’s really able to get noticed, and when his first show “Yankee Doodle Dandy” premieres, starring him, we really understand why this person has a movie made about them. The stage show gets even more exciting when we see the portrayal of George Washington Jr, which was a huge production.
This is where the film shines, when Cagney is on stage singing and dancing his heart out in these huge productions. The film really revels in showing off the stage craft. I have no idea if they’re an accurate portrayal of what the original productions were like or what they were capable of in the 20s and 30s, but I do know that stage productions were the major form of entertainment innovation at the time, so I find it fairly plausible.
The supporting cast unfortunately doesn’t bring much to the table. Cagney is amazing, and Walter Huston is perfect as the big personality that sired the even bigger personality of George Cohan, but everyone else is fairly forgettable. The female characters in particular are just placeholders for roles in Cohan’s life. His sister, his mother, his wife. They’re all sort of bland and interchangeable.
The one thing that’s missing is any real sense of struggle or hardship. We see a brief moment when Cohan is trying to get taken seriously as a songwriter, but the film tries to suggest that he has these amazing songs and everyone’s just too stupid to realize it, which I don’t think is true at all. In one meeting he’s singing a song in which an Irishman named Harrigan is telling everyone how great he is. It’s a really bad song. Perhaps it was popular in it’s day, but it just seems ridiculous that he would consider it his ticket to stardom. This is contrasted later when we hear Yankee Doodle Dandy for the first time, which is actually a really clever and enjoyable song, which is the song which gives him his great breakthrough. This at least makes sense.
However, the film does succeed at capturing the sense of patriotism that was core to Cohan’s work. At the end of the film, Cohan is given the congressional medal of honor for his two most famous songs, “Grand Ol’ Flag” and “Over There”. The film also has a great ending, in which Cohan leaves the White House out into a military parade, which for some reason is happening in the middle of the night, and they’re all singing “Over There” and everyone knows all the words. There’s also a shot in this sequence that I’m certain includes the real George Cohan, just from the way the shot is framed.
It’s a nice ending. But let’s get onto the next film.
Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Two navy men, Joe and Clarence are given the Silver Star for their acts of courage, and as part of the reward, are given 4 days of shore leave in Hollywood. While Joe starts making dates with his regular girl, Clarence finally opens up and tells Joe that he doesn’t know anything about girls, and wants help. Joe agrees to help him get a date, thinking it will be a quick evening task, then he can go on with his life. But when the police enlist their help in taking care of a young boy who is obsessed with the Navy, the two men get sucked into a completely unexpected adventure.
The film stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, in their first film together. It also featured the film debut of another young actor, Dean Stockwell, who has worked continuously since he was 6 years old. He’s best know as Al in Quantum Leap, and more recently as one of the Cylon-Human hybrids on Battlestar Galactica.
This film was also very early in the film careers of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Kelly had been a Broadway star, and Sinatra of course was a major singing talent. Pairing the two men was a genius move. The film also leans heavily on the men’s individual talents. Kelly might be the greatest dancer of all time, and certainly the best of his generation, and he has half a dozen big set piece dancing scenes. And no one sang like Sinatra, and the film gives him half a dozen solo singing scenes throughout the film. But they also trade off for a couple scenes, giving Sinatra one big dance number, and Kelly has a couple songs.
Now Kelly has a nice singing voice, and Sinatra manages to hold his own in his dance number with Kelly. But, it’s clear from this film as well that Kelly was an instant star. Having a background on Broadway, he could clearly do it all. From the minute that he appears on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. Sinatra on the other hand, isn’t much of an actor at this point. Sinatra would eventually become a great actor. In fact, I think he’s a really underrated actor, and he had great parts in two of the greatest films of all-time, From Here To Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate, not to mention lesser known stuff like The Man With The Golden Arm. So when I say Sinatra isn’t much of an actor, it’s with the respect of knowing that he took things seriously, and became a great actor. But also, Sinatra is playing a naive person who’s completely unsure of himself in most cases, so it actually ends up working. But up against the polished Gene Kelly, his performance stands out, but not necessarily in a good way.
This film is incredibly plot heavy. We have Joe(Kelly) as the ladies man who has agreed to help Clarence (Sinatra) get a date, who are grabbed by the police who want their help talking to a young boy (Dean Stockwell), who has been wandering the streets by himself trying to join the Navy. They agree to help the boy and have to wait for his Aunt Susan, who is taking care of him as his parents are dead. Their vision of “Aunt Susan” is someone middle aged, but she’s actually young and beautiful. Clarence falls for her, while Joe tries to talk him out of it. But Joe is a good friend and does his best for Clarence. When he tries to scare off a potential suitor, they find out it was an industry contact Susan was trying to connect with. To keep Clarence in good standing, Joe tells her that Clarence is friends with the famous pianist Jose Iturbi, who plays himself in the film, and that Clarence has gotten her an audition in a few days.
The rest of the the film follows their attempts to actually meet Jose Iturbi and try to make this actually happen, while Joe tries to convince Susan to fall in love with Clarence. But meanwhile, Joe and Susan begin to fall for each other, and Clarence actually meets a waitress who is from Brooklyn like him who he hits it off with and falls for. Joe feels guilty because he’s fallen for the girl that he assumes his friend is crazy about, while Clarence feels guilty that all of Joe’s hard work will go to waste and that he might end up hurting Susan. And they’re both feeling guilty that they can’t actually get the audition for Susan.
Every scene in this movie moves the plot forward, and it never seems to slow down. The structure of the film is actually really impressive. I wrote the previous 2 paragraphs about 5 times trying to figure out how to explain this plot. It seems every scene sets up another bit of the story that makes things more complex.
But that’s also what makes it fun. It’s not quite as madcap as a screwball comedy, but the two main characters keep getting in deeper and deeper, and trying increasingly brash things to solve the problem. One of the most fun plans they have is to go to the MGM studios to find Iturbi himself. This leads to a great scene where Clarence actually finds him, but has no idea who he is, assuming he’s a piano tuner.
Kelly’s dance numbers are excellent, as usual. And Sinatra’s singing is off the charts. The two men would do another two films together, and they really have great chemistry. As I said before, these two were a great pairing.
One of my favorite parts of the film is how strong the friendship between Joe and Clarence is. As it’s becoming clear to the audience that Joe has feelings for Susan, it’s also clear that she has feelings too, and he could easily take her for himself, but he doesn’t do that. Even as he unintentionally reveals his feelings, he brings it back to Clarence to talk him up, even to the point of frustration for Susan. The entire film revolves around the scene where Clarence and Joe come together and finally have to tell each other the truth, both assuming the other will be furious. It’s a great little scene that leads us into the end of the film, when Susan randomly bumps into Jose Iturbi in the commissary, and realizes that there was no audition. She’s distraught, but Iturbi gives her some good advice, saying not to give up a good friend in anger, and she gets her audition anyway.
I’m not sure what the message here is, but the film doesn’t dwell on it, as we get the standard Hollywood happy ending, where all the couples come together.
The Double Feature
So here we have two films, one focused on music, the other a full musical. One a biopic, one a comedy. My initial read on these was that they were both really patriotic films, and while Yankee Doodle Dandy is for sure, Anchors Aweigh is about Navy men in war time, but not as nakedly patriotic. We definitely get some flavor of it, but Yankee Doodle Dandy is on another level. It’s a film designed to evoke American patriotism.
As far as my feelings, I really loved Anchors Aweigh. The film is so joyous and fun. Kelly is so clearly ready to be a movie star and he shines through in this film. Sinatra is the perfect support for Kelly, and he shows flashes of the actor he’d become.
Yankee Doodle Dandy I have mixed feelings on. There are some major bright spots in the film. But too many of the song and dance numbers are boring, and the supporting cast short of Walter Huston are completely forgettable. That’s unfortunate, and reduces my interest in the film a fair bit. I think it’s still worth seeing, but of the two films, I can see myself seeing Anchors Aweigh again.
I changed up the format a bit this week. Rather than giving individual thoughts on each movie, I moved it into the double feature section at the end. I always struggle with those sections, and I felt like rolling them into one section might work. I’ll stick with this for a few weeks, and see how it goes.
So what about next week’s films? I was looking through FilmStruck and they had a series of Eighties Fantasy films which caught my eye, including one of my secret favorite films. Next week’s films are:
John Boorman – Excalibur (1981)
Joe Dante – Innerspace (1987)
Innerspace is one of those films I saw when it first came out, and it’s always held a strong place in my memory. I’ve never actually seen Excalibur, but I’m looking forward to it.
See you next week.