A second review requested by David Nemes, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Specifically, he asked me to review a film from this list that I wanted to revisit, for any reason. With a decade of hindsight, I've completed flipped my opinion on about one-third of those films, still dislike another third, and haven't thought about the last third in most of the more than ten years since I wrote those words. You'll have to forgive me if I've selected a film from the first category.


So with that in mind, special additional thanks to David for giving me the opportunity, much too rare for a film critic, to publicly acknowledge my own intellectual evolution.

I write this review as a man of intense biases, and that needs to be admitted out front. I have, towards the cinematic genre of the biopic, a dislike that verges on religious mania; it is maybe the only narrative stock type that can earn my urgent and focused dislike simply by fulfilling the requirements of that stock type. So it's entirely possible that I'm the wrong person to say this, but I think that Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1942 biopic of songwriter, singer-dancer-actor-comedian, and re-inventor of the American theatrical musical George M. Cohan, is maybe the best-case scenario for what happens when a film in that genre does everything right. In this case "doing everything right" does, admittedly, involve an almost wholesale reinvention of the details of Cohan's life, most significantly in replacing his failed first marriage with his second, erasing all four of his children, and completely re-writing the events of the last six years of his life (he died only a few months after the film's premiere) in order to serve more effectively as pro-WWII propaganda (it also revised the FDR-hating, hard-right Republican into a lifelong liberal Democrat). There is a story that Cohan, after the premiere, admiringly said "It was a good movie. Who was it about?", which is so marvelous that I can't imagine that it really happened. But in the spirit of Yankee Doodle Dandy's unerring willingness to lie for effect, let's run with it.

Started prior to America's entry in the war on 8 December, 1941, and completed well after it, Yankee Doodle Dandy occupies a weird place relative to the culture surrounding it. I bring this up because to look at it, you would assume that it takes place in November, 1937, when the Rodgers & Hart musical I'd Rather Be Right was brand new, or maybe even in June, 1936, when the events of its penultimate scene take place, but it also turns out to be far enough into 1942 that U.S. troops are mobilising to head overseas. The damnable thing is that none of this occurs to you while you're watching it. Lying for effect. Anyway, it's early in the run of I'd Rather Be Right, probably even the first week, and musical theater legend Cohan (James Cagney) has been receiving adulation for his giddy portrayal of an irascible President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with the usual post-show accolades on this particular night comes a telegram from the White House, which Cohan interprets as a sign of impending doom: apparently word of his japery has reached the president, and his is to be executed for treason, or worse. Upon arriving in Washington, the actor finds it's nothing of the sort: oddly, given that he's currently leading a nation at war, FDR merely wants to ask Cohan some questions about his life. Well-trained ballyhoo artist that he is, Cohan has no problem launching into a narrative that starts when he was born on the Fourth of July, 1878, first child of regional vaudeville stars Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp), "the Irish Darlings".

Before you can say "Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays", Cohan has rolled through the entire events of his life from the moment his father playfully pressed an American flag into his newborn fingers right up until his performance in I'd Rather Be Right the evening that he received Roosevelt's telegram. The idea of using an end-of-life frame narrative for launching into the life story of an iconic figure is perhaps newer than the rest of Yankee Doodle Dandy, but the rest of the way it tells its story was already old hat in '42: swinging from highlight to highlight in a decade-long career, presenting the creation of a Greatest Hit (the rousing pro-intervention WWI anthem "Over There") as a sudden inspiration, synopsising the boring repetitive bits after the hero becomes world-famous as a montage.

Even with the evidence of the film in front of me, I cannot say how or why it works so much better here than in so many other instances. It possibly helps that the film's tone is such a highly peculiar beast. The basic notion behind the thing is 100% pure patriotic hokum: Warner Bros., the studio most rapturously supportive of FDR and eager for the U.S. to intercede into the Second World War on behalf of the Allies, obviously wanted a vigorous flag-waving epic jammed to the rafters with Cohan's most famous patriotic anthems - "The Yankee Doodle Boy", "Over There", "You're a Grand Old Flag" - and saturated with Cohan's zeal for the dream of America as a place of the noblest aspirations and highest opportunities. And this comes through in the script, credited to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, but galvanized with considerable input from uncredited script doctors Julius & Philip Epstein (whose other great contribution to the annals of cinematic Americana, Casablanca, was just a few months behind this one in the Warner pipeline).

What also comes through, however, is much less sentimental strand of American hucksterism, carried along on a wave of quick-witted show business patter, and this anyway seems to be very much the contribution of the Epsteins. For as much as it's unmistakably a tribute to the most idealistic version of the United States as a glowing symbol of democracy and prosperity, Yankee Doodle Dandy is maybe even more a tribute to the cutthroat fearlessness of America's vaudeville tradition, positioning the Four Cohans (sister Josie, played by Cagney's own sister Jeanne) as the best kind of troupers, endlessly plying their trade in crap theaters across the continent according to a robust, unwritten code of ethics. One of the film's most exciting scenes is also it's most sardonic: Cohan makes a lifelong business partner on the spot out of a total stranger, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), and drops a load of fast-moving bullshit on Broadway producer Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) so quickly that the other man has no clue that he's just given a couple of untried nobodies their big break. It's a scintillating tribute to the Great American Con Job, played immaculately by Cagney and Sakall (who got along exceedingly poorly on the set). There's not a cynical bone to be found anywhere in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but there's quite a lot of clear-eyed, unsentimental appreciation for the desperate work done by desperate people to drive the entertainment industry, and that tends to help the gloppy sentimental passages go down easier.

Also contributing to that feeling is director Michael Curtiz, a man whose storytelling style was mercilessly lean and efficient. I do not know if history records Curtiz's feelings about this project's unabashedly jingoistic aims; the general rule is that first-generation immigrants working in Hollywood (Curtiz was born Kertรฉsz Manรณ, in Budapest) were more gung-ho about such matters than the average citizen, but there are exceptions to every rule. Certainly, Curtiz's treatment of patriotic material (such as Casablanca) rarely gives in to sentimental iconography; he even made 1943's This Is the Army, a fundraising film whose solitary purpose was to stir patriotic feelings in the audience, with the same sinewy, fleet rhythm of his thrillers. Yankee Doodle Dandy is no different: when tasked with the job of capturing a man defined by the screenplay as an avatar of patriotic fervor, Curtiz answers that task the exact same way he depicts Rick's weary self-loathing narcissism, by relentlessly contextualising Cohan within physical spaces and presenting hims as a collection of actions. Patriotism, in this treatment, isn't a feeling, but a behavior. That the films ends up being overwhelmingly emotional (and of course it is; there's a reason it's a U.S. Independence Day viewing staple) is largely due to the inescapable fact that Cohan's music cannot be any other way; as a work of cinema, though, it's hard to imagine a filmmaker spending any less time foregrounding that. Even the big "Over There" setpiece, with Cohan entertaining a huge audience of troops at a training camp, is transformed by an emotionally detached crane shot and a no-nonsense lighting effect midway through, into a miniature procedural about doing theatrical work rather than anything else.

All of that being said, the thing that makes Yankee Doodle Dandy what it is, is surely Cagney. He certainly was a patriot, politically engaged in a somewhat unfocused way (he was heavily invested in leftist politics around this time, and ended his life stumping for President Ronald Reagan), but always motivated by some manner of passionate belief in America. Perhaps that's part of why he supposedly considered this his favorite role (it could also just be that he hated playing gangsters, and never had a better chance than this film to show off his song-and-dance skills). At any rate, Cagney's fervor for the role and the movie radiate off the screen. He's quite fearlessly weird, embracing Cohan's stilted speak-singing style and rigid-legged dancing style without any apparent hesitation or embarrassment, and the results are endlessly captivating: we're watching someone that isn't quite Cagney, certainly isn't Cohan, but is, absolutely and in every way, the perfect embodiment of the film's ideas about dogged commitment to the traditions of the theater and defining oneself as a committed, unerringly idealistic patriot.

If it's not the best work of Cagney's exceptional career (1949's White Heat represents the kind of high-water mark that not even the best of the best could just go out and hit every time), it has some of the very best individual moments in his career, earning the hell out of his Best Actor Oscar not just for the physical commitment of the performance, which is exceptional in its own right, but for the mix of feelings present throughout the film, too. Sometimes, admittedly, this consists solely of doing the Expected Thing very well: the scene of Cohan gently comforting his dying father is unabashedly corny and would be almost unendurable without a pair of tremendously good performances anchoring it, and everything that Cagney and Huston are up to in that scene is beautiful, right down to Cagney finally breaking down and crying at exactly the moment that you expect he will. But you know what, a good breakdown is a good breakdown.

There are plenty of more interesting, subtler moments, though: the layers of Cagney playing Cohan playing characters onstage in the film's perhaps too-indulgent re-creations of the real stage triumphs of Cohan's life; the little moments where Cagney shows us how Cohan steels himself up for arguments, always sure he can be the smartest person in the room but maybe not convinced that he comes by that naturally. The best part of the performance, and the movie - one of the best moments of '40s cinema, really - comes when Cohan is leaving the president at the very end, and Cagney throws in a few seconds of tap-dancing down the stairs (an on-camera improvisation, they say, which seems potentially worthy of skepticism; but this actor, this director, and this project is probably the right combination for it to be true). It's a brief burst of celebratory energy, an old man who has all the intellectual and emotional vitality of a brazen young artist flexing his muscles, and it's the heart and soul of the film in one beat, followed in just a few moments of screentime by the second-best moment of Cagney's performance, a close-up with a single tear as he sings "Over There" next to some G.I.s headed off to war, a moment in which Cohan is very happy and also, maybe, very sad, in a fascinating and ambivalent image that Curtiz hangs on for a good long while as the movie ends.

Perhaps... no, probably this film doesn't tell us anything real about George M. Cohan, and in that respect I suppose it is a failed biopic. But it tells us a lot: about the noble position of vaudeville in American entertainment history, about the way Warner Bros. cared passionately about the country and believed fervently in the war and selling it in the most rich and robust way possible, about the kinetic energy of a terrific musical performance, about the lines between politics and pop culture, about the way that public sentiment is forged and reinforced. It is a film with whose themes I vigorously disagree, and a film which I anyway find utterly rewarding to watch. Outside of a few clots in its racing 126 minutes (Eddie Foy, Jr. playing Eddie Foy, Sr. in a tepidly "cutesy" bit of antagonistic banter; Cohan explaining Variety to teenagers and wincing when they sing "Jeepers Creepers"), it's a beautiful example of precision-crafted, thoroughly beguiling Hollywood entertainment from the war years.