Movie:Year: 1942 Genre(s): Musical, Comedy, Biographical
Starring: James Cagney
I’ll be honest… I put this one off for a while because, well, I don’t like musicals. I dread them, in fact. They just aren’t “realistic” enough for me – hence the slightly sarcastic comment I made in my Toy Story review about the Disney folks singing to the Pixar folks about the “musical” argument for that movie.
Not. A. Fan.
So, I put this off a few days. But… I decided tonight that I would read the back story and see if it might be something I’d be more inclined to see tomorrow night… or maybe Thursday.
Once I started reading the back story, though, I became a lot more interested in this movie. First of all, it is a biography and I had no idea who the man was until tonight. I love biographies, especially of interesting folks, and friends, I find this guy interesting. His name is George M. Cohan (pronounced co-han). Maybe it is a generational thing or maybe I am just not as “into” theater and Broadway… I can’t explain it, but I had not heard of him. I can’t tell you how many times I sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a kid, never thinking about the man that wrote the song… until tonight. He was a singer, traveling vaudeville actor, dancer and incidentally a great musical writer. And… he was a bit of a smart ass, a trait I can relate to. Next interesting fact: it has James Cagney in it. He’s kind of a bad ass in some of the gangster movies and, well, he’s snarky Irish man, so he gets type-cast a lot and that’s been my experience so far with James Cagney movies. I was surprised to discover that James Cagney is not only a great actor (totally deserved that Oscar), but a good singer and dancer, too.
There isn’t as much of a back story on this movie as I’ve found for others – it won a lot of awards, including an Oscar for Cagney. Cagney’s real-life sister played Cohan’s sister. They made their money back on the cost of the film. They took a few liberties with Cohan’s real life and some of the timeline, but stuck pretty close to events in his life. They won awards for the costumes…. that’s pretty much it for the business side of the film. To me, the more interesting part of this one was the life of the man it was about.
I think I was most surprised, however, about the fact that, for a musical, it wasn’t as “musical” as I expected. It isn’t the usual formula of people randomly breaking out in song to sing about the events or their feelings; the songs in this one were all contained to the shows or to him writing the shows. It was actually very well done.
The story starts near the end of Cohan’s life (he passed away the year this movie was finished, although, he did get to see it and really liked Cagney’s portrayal of him) as he is starring in a show called “I’d Rather Be Right” that features a singing, dancing Franklin Roosevelt. FDR calls him in to ultimately give him a congressional medal of honor, but before giving him the medal, decides to have a chat with him. Cohan tells FDR the story of his life in all flashback.
Cohan was born to a pair of traveling Vaudevillian actors who toured and brought their children with them – ultimately including them in the show (including George’s sister Josie) so theater and show business was all they knew. As he grew up, he became more of a star of the shows, and started to write skits and songs for the family (The Four Cohans) to perform. However, as he grew up and gained more popularity and praise for his work, his humility deminished and became more of a wisenheimer than his parents would have liked. My favorite scene is him getting a spanking from his father and his mother saying “not the hands! he has to play violin! oh… Not the face – he has to sing!” his father puts him over his knee, spanks his behind and says “this part has no talent!” – I’m still laughing about that one. Eventually, he breaks away from the family to write on his own, but has a hard time selling anything because of his lack of humility and his wise cracking.
Eventually, he worms his way in with another down-and-out playwright named Sam Harris who, when then worked together, made multiple hits, the first of which is a play about a jockey called “Little Johnny Jones” who rides a horse (pony!) called Yankee Doodle – that’s what the song was about – that made “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (actual name of the song is “Yankee Doodle Boy”) a hit. From this point on, the majority of the story is him and Harris writing plays, a bit of his relationship with his aging parents and his wife Mary (which was his first wife in reality – he was married twice), and songs from the shows he and Harris wrote and produced during this phase of his life. He apparently was in and out of retirement, never able to fully tear himself away from the theater.
A staunch patriot, though (he claimed to be born on July 4th, though there are disputes saying he was actually born on the 3rd), the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 prompted Cohan to try to enlist to fight in World War I. Told he was too old to enlist, he decided to entertain the troops and ended up writing the song “Over There” the World War I “fight” song. I first heard this song in the movie “1941” in the scene where Hollis Wood is kidnapped by the Japanese looking for Hollywood and, until tonight, had always thought of that scene when I heard this song. I have a different memory of it now. The movie ends with FDR giving him the medal of honor and him walking through a parade singing that song. Very sweet.
I was pleasantly surprised by this one in many ways and I recommend it!
On that note… it is time for me to go to bed.
The next on the list: Blade Runner (1982) #97 – still haven’t seen this Cult Classic yet – I’m intrigued by the gasps I’ve been getting when I admit I haven’t seen it yet… Besides, it has Han Solo… I mean, Harrison Ford, in it, so how bad can it be??