I do not love musicals.
I couldn’t get through five minutes of “West Side Story.” I managed to watch all of “Singin’ in the Rain” but I didn’t enjoy it. Gene Kelly’s big fake grin was off-putting.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is the one classic musical that lives up to the hype. It is non-stop fun.
As an added bonus, I found it educational. The film introduced me to George Cohan, the most important Patriot between Abraham Lincoln and Tom Brady. Cohan isn’t famous anymore, but his American anthems are still remembered.
The film tells a breezy, occasionally factual biography of the entertainer.
Born into a successful Vaudeville family, Cohan (Jamey Cagney) became the king of patriotic Broadway musicals. The songs he wrote – “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Boy” – became instant classics (true!).
Cohan had a fairy tale romance and splendid partnership with his one wife, with whom he had no children (utterly false).
His love of country led him to try in vain to enlist in the army in 1916. And the rejection inspired him to pen “Over There”: the ultimate WWI war anthem (probably untrue but I kind of want to believe it)
But I don’t think anyone is watching “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a history lesson. They are watching it for James Cagney’s legendary performance. Cagney is Game 7 Jason Tatum: an unstoppable force.
James Cagney is remembered as a great singer and dancer. But the unique magic of the performance is that he wasn’t a gifted song and dance man. He’s driven by enthusiasm and showmanship, not talent.
Cagney performs the songs in a half speaking-half singing hybrid. It makes the music even catchier and the lyrics easier to understand and memorize.
And his dancing is nothing like the smooth elegance of Fred Astaire (who turned down the part). Cagney doesn’t so much dance as stomp gleefully around the stage, propelled by a love of the material and love of show-business itself.
The actor isn’t trying to impress us; he’s trying to connect with us with his lust for life.
When he’s not singing and dancing, Cagney’s performance is spot-on, too. To me, it felt like the exact opposite of Gene Kelly’s acting style that I find so unpleasant.
Gene Kelly plainly had a bit of a dark side. But he hid his prickliness behind a big, fake smirk. It was like Jack Nicholson as the Joker, except unintentional. It makes his movies almost unwatchable to me.
Conversely, James Cagney is plainly having the time of his life playing George Cohan. But he doesn’t feel the need to turn Cohan into a lovable cartoon character. Cagney’s Cohan is appropriately cocksure and egotistical. He grew up a star and became a superstar. His flaws only make him more relatable.
I don’t love musicals. And I’m not a flag-waving patriot. But I was bowled over by “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It’s like James Cagney is reaching out from 80 years ago – grabbing you by the collar – and imploring you to share in his joy.