AFI List: Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942 (98)

Movie: Yankee Doodle Dandy 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??

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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List


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AFI List: Toy Story – 1995 (99)

Movie: Toy Story Year: 1995 Genre(s): Animated, Comedy, Family

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

I was actually pretty excited to see this one again because I have long been a big fan of Disney animated films, even before I had kids. In fact, it used to be a tradition that my sister and I had at Christmas and for birthdays: we would buy each other a Disney animated film and build out the other’s collection – first we built out the VHS collection, and then eventually DVDs. Once we had kids it got difficult to manage and the tradition has since slipped away. I might pick that up again this year with her.

I have seen this movie a few times, but not really since I’ve had kids (believe it or not). My kids were born in 2005 and 2006 and by then, Toy Story was a relic. Cars was even kind of old by the time they cared enough to watch it, so they never really got into the Toy Story franchise until Toy Story 3 came out. I had forgotten how much I loved this movie and how much it made me laugh! However, this time watching it, I am a mother and I have a rapidly growing interest in the business behind the movies, so watch it with a different perspective.

So, first, the mother angle – one of the biggest chuckles from me was at the end when Andy becomes reunited with his toys (after they chase the moving van – see the story synopsis below) and his mother basically tells him that they had been in the car all along. I hear those words coming out of my mouth a lot around here and now the thought of the toys getting up and walking off by themselves (something I promised the boys would never happen) crosses my mind as I say it. Also, the relationship between the mother and Andy is poignant to me because it reminds me so much of the relationship I have with my boys as I see it. Although the movie didn’t discuss or show it a lot – it wasn’t even central to the story – resonated with me as a mother to two boys who are about the age of Andy in this movie. I thought it was really sweet.

Next… the business filter… One of the more interesting business facts about this film is the interest Disney had in it, long before Disney owned Pixar. The director was actually an animator at Disney and pitched an idea for a full-length computer generated animated film that was summarily rejected. He went on to found Pixar (no hard feelings). The film was being distributed by Disney, so they had a say in how it was produced and what the end product would be – and, even though they were not yet joined officially, took sole branding in the title of the movie (Pixar was added to the branding in later releases). They also rejected the first draft of the movie because they thought the Woody character was too sarcastic and threatened to take over the project entirely. The Pixar guys said “no, no, we’ll rewrite it… in 2 weeks”.

And they did. *that* amazes me.

Another fact I found interesting is the argument the Pixar guys had with Disney about the film being a musical. The Pixar guys absolutely did not want it to be a musical. At all. Disney, on the other hand, basically told Pixar “hey… that’s what we do” (in my mind, Disney execs sang that sentence… that would be funny). The compromise, if you can call it that, is that the soundtrack to the movie is filled with Randy Newman songs. I type this with gritted teeth because I do not like Randy Newman (sorry Randy). That dumb song from 1984 “I Love L.A.” ruined him for me. This sound track was no different. I am glad, however, that the Pixar guys stuck to their guns about this point – I think having the characters sing in this film would have completely ruined it.

From a technical point of view, the animation is still pretty phenomenal to me. I *cannot* believe how realistic things still look in this film after 17 years – and the attention to detail they have in there – scratches on the floor. Dents in the wall. The dog’s eyes dilating while he’s chasing the toys. I can’t believe this movie is 17 years old… now that I write that. The Budget for this film was $30 million and had only a staff of 110 people. Contrast that with The Lion King from just the year before with a cost of $45 Million and a staff of over 800. The characters were all built with clay first, then transferred to the computer design, when they then added the controls. Of all the characters, Woody was the most time consuming and difficult. I was surprised because I thought the dog would have been tougher since it was so realistic.

Fair warning… from this point on, I’m going to give my impression of the story, just in case you know the story or don’t want a spoiler…

The story is a pretty simple buddy comedy formula, only with toys. The toys belong to a young boy named Andy and come to life when nobody is around. There is the favorite (Woody the cowboy) who is, more or less, seen as the “leader” of the lot of Andy’s toys. On Andy’s birthday, he gets a new toy called Buzz Lightyear, which is an astronaut (and yes, he’s named after Buzz Aldrin… and yes, the contrast between the older cowboy theme contrasts well with the newer astronaut theme in the characters, I think).

Although Buzz doesn’t realize he is a toy, he quickly becomes Andy’s new favorite, which leaves Woody feeling jealous. When the family goes out for pizza, Woody tries to become the toy chosen for the outing (“you may bring one – ONE – toy” is a pretty common thing heard in my house, too) by trying to make Buzz fall behind the bed. Instead, Buzz falls out the window and the rest of the toys accuse Woody of trying to get rid of Buzz altogether.

Because Andy can’t find Buzz, he takes Woody to the Pizza place, but Buzz sees Andy carrying Woody into the car and hitches on to the car. While in the Dinoco (yes, from Cars!) gas station, the toys have a confrontation, fall out of the car, and are left behind. Hitching a ride on a delivery truck for the pizza place, they make their way into the restaurant (called Pizza Planet) which has a space theme. Buzz, still thinking he is a real astronaut, crawls into a space ship that is actually one of those “grab-a-toy-with-a-claw” games and Woody goes after him to try to save him. Unfortunately, Andy lives next to Sid, the creepiest kid on the planet – who blows up toys – and Sid happens to be good at Grab a Toy games. Sid grabs Buzz out of the machine and, because Woody can’t pull Buzz out, he gets Woody too.

This is the part that, I honestly think would creep out my kids. I mentioned that Sid likes to blow stuff up – he also likes to make Franken-Toys made with various parts of broken (or in his case destroyed) toys. Sid puts Woody and Buzz in his room and they are confronted with the Franken-toys which, honestly, kind of creeped me out. They try to escape, only to be chased by a very realistic looking family dog that looks kind of like a bull dog mixed with a pitt bull. During all of these scenes, Woody is unsuccessful at convincing Buzz he is a toy – but while Buzz is hiding from the dog during an escape attempt, he sees a TV commercial for himself and starts to believe Woody…

But, an indigent streak hits him, and setting out to prove to Woody he is real, he attempts to fly from the banister to an open window (an earlier attempt at flying was Buzz getting help from other toys and Woody’s response was “that’s not flying! that’s falling with style” probably the best line in this movie). He crashes on the floor, loosing his arm and becomes depressed. Sid ends up getting a rocket he ordered, and tapes Buzz to it, intending to blow him up. Buzz gets a reprieve, thanks to a thunder storm, and, overnight, Woody finally convinces Buzz they need to escape and get back to Andy. They enlist the help of the Franken-Toys (which they have befriended by now) and all toys meet Sid in the back yard to teach him a lesson by “coming to life” again – which freaks the kid out.

Buzz and Woody get over to Andy’s but not in time before the moving truck (I forgot to mention: Andy’s moving) and the last few scenes are Buzz, Woody, an RC (the car) trying to get back onto the moving truck. They do and they get back into the car where Andy’s mother says (as I know I have a million times) “see what happens when you look?” haha.

On that note… it is time for me to go to bed.

The next on the list: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). That one should be fun – James Cagney!


Posted by on March 1, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List


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AFI List: Ben Hur – 1959 (100)

Movie: Ben-Hur Year: 1959 Genre: Drama

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd

Let me start by saying: the chariot scene is the reason I thought Charlton Heston was a bad-ass. That was a pretty awesome scene – and very realistic for the film itself and the time period… I mean, he was pulled out of the chariot and hopped back in. Amazing. Can I also be shallow here? This man was just beautiful. The galley scene – well – that’s burned into my brain now as the epitome of a man. This is how I choose to remember Charlton Heston.

Ok, gushing aside… I did research this one before I decided to watch it. I knew it was on the “Epic Historical Drama” genre films of late 1950s/early 1960s, but I had not seen it before tonight and thought I’d pay closer attention to it if I already knew the story beforehand. I’m glad I did. I will warn you – I am going to practice in spoilers because I’ve seen it and I assume that, if you’re reading this, you most likely did, too.

Interesting the timing of this film – at the beginning of Lent for me – a time of reflection. The screenplay is an adaptation from a novel written in 1880 called “Ben-Hur a Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace. It is a work of fiction, set in the first century AD. In fact, this 1959 version is the second movie adapted from this book – the first was in 1925 – and I’m truly intrigued by this now and want to see that one, too. I also now want to read the book because I have since learned that this book was the biggest selling book until “Gone with the Wind” in 1936, and, because of this movie, beat “Gone with the Wind” in 1960. It has been my experience that the book is almost always better than the movie.

The story revolves around a man named Judah Ben-Hur who is an aristocrat from what is currently known as Jerusalem. When he was a child, he was friends with a Roman boy, Messala. Messala comes back to Jerusalem as a sentry and is reunited with Judah, only to shortly develop a rift with him because Judah refuses to assist the Romans in getting the Jews “on board” with the Roman rule. During a parade for the new governor, a tile from Judah’s house falls onto the governor, hurting him. While the Romans know it is an accident, they condemn Judah, his mother and his sister because Judah is seen as a trouble maker and Messala is making an example of him – he puts all three of them in jail. Judah is then sentenced to the galley of a Roman war ship. The Consul of the ship Judah is on becomes impressed with his dedication and orders his chains removed while Judah is in the galley. The boat is engaged in battle and Judah saves the Consul’s life, so the consul takes Judah back to Rome where he adopts him.

Judah eventually gets the itch to go back to Jerusalem. On his way back, be befriends a Sheik that has four beautiful white Arabian horses. The Sheik discovers that, while in Rome, Judah was pretty much a chariot champion and he asks Judah to race his horses for him. Judah declines to race, but offers the Sheik advice… that is until Judah realizes that Messala (now a mortal enemy) is also in the race. He races Messala, and although Messala is trying to cheat by tearing up the wheels of the opponents, Messala’s cheating ends up tearing up his own chariot, falls out and is trampled – Judah wins the race. Judah goes back to his house to find his old servants and eventually, his mother and sister (who contracted leprosy while also in prison and are now in a leper colony outside of town), and then witnesses the crucifixion of Christ.

I bet that at this point you’re wondering what this all has to do with Christ – Judah, Messala and Christ are all about the same age. And, as it turns out, Judah crosses paths with Christ several times, the first where Christ gives him water when he passes out in a Chain Gang on his way to the Galley – then the last, symbolically, where Judah gives Christ water when he is on his way to his crucifixion. The crucifixion wasn’t terribly graphic, but pretty realistic and with a lot of symbolism, especially at the end when Judah’s mother and sister are in the cave just after the crucifixion and a rain storm washes the blood from Christ onto them to heal them from leprosy. Pretty moving to me.

I learned a lot by researching and watching this film:

  • The film was shot in a relatively new format at the time, 65mm, with an extra wide aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1 – too wide to play on the 35mm projectors, so, to maintain aspect ratio without cutting off the sides of the picture, they had to “letter box” it by putting plates on the tops and bottoms of the projectors – I never knew that’s how they did it. I grew up in the VHS age and with square TVs so watching a letterbox version of a movie meant you got to see everything. One day I’ll have a wide-screen and will be able to handle an aspect ratio close to this without diminishing the height of the image.
  • In addition to the running and enjoyment of movies, I’m also a bit of a photographer, so I really enjoyed watching the cinematography of this film – the colors, the shadows, the depth of field. The lead cinematographer loved to play around with depth of field and discussed it quite a bit so it was fun keeping an eye out for it – it was especially cool in the ship scene. I knew the ships were mini models and that the “ocean” was a pool (you can tell), but it was still cool to see the mixed depth of field and how they accomplished that sounded like a lot of work.
  • This film took about 7 years to complete from conception in 1952 to final wrap in 1959. The budget grew from $5 to $15 during that time and it sounded like it was one frustrating project to be involved with. The screenplay was written by one guy, but then finished by two others (who didn’t get credits for it) by them writing at either end and meeting in the middle. That impresses me. And… they had the (at the time) highest paid director and actor on any film.
  • The guy who played Jesus didn’t get credit and you never see his face or hear him talk. He’s just an extra – who was actually an Italian Opera singer. Impressive.
  • It was shot on location in Italy (actually, this was another huge reason it took so long… trying to find a place to shoot it). They repurposed sets from other movies for use with this one and most of the extras they had in the crowd shots were poor locals that didn’t have phones so they had to send messengers through the towns to round them up.

On that note… it is time for me to go to bed. I know I have a few other long ones ahead of me – maybe I’ll watch those on a Saturday!

The next on the list: Toy Story (1995). Looking forward to this one!


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in AFI 100 Years List


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What? Another one? (sigh)

Ok… I admit. I feel like I’m missing out. The Oscars are tonight and, quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen most of the movies that are up for awards tonight. I am a single mom, holding down a full-time job, already not cleaning the house enough, and, while I’m at it, I’m also chipping slowly away at this other huge goal of running a half marathon in every state (as of today: 6 done, 44 left to do).

I’m going to watch as many movies on the AFI 100 Years of 100 Movies (10th edition) that I can. And, I’m going to write about them – because I’m a nerd that way.

So… why take on yet *another* huge goal? I’m curious. I love good stories. And… I feel like I need to keep the conversations fresh with my running buddies, both of which have seen a pretty large portion of the movies I’m going to start with. In fact, one of them discussed how he and his wife actually started – at one time – going through this very list. I thought “hmm… that’s a good idea. Oh. and I’ll blog about it.”

Because, you know, I have time for that.

I’m probably feeling the effects of giving up Facebook for Lent (4 days now and I am starting to miss my friends a little more than I thought I would) so maybe… just maybe… I’m starting to branch out a little.

First up: #100 – Ben Hur, 1959. I’m actually pretty excited about this one because Charlton Heston was quite the bad ass in his day. Not to mention, pretty good looking. It is a rather long movie and I want to do a little research on it before I watch it so I hope to have blog entry ready next weekend. Until then, enjoy the Oscars and have a great week!

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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Non-Movie Post