4 JULY – AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE DAY
Belated Happy ‘Independence Day’ to all my US family and friends.
In honour of the day I have watched two wonderful American movies – Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and 1776 (1972) – both musicals and in their own unique and respective ways quintessentially ‘American’, and in particular involved in presenting an America as a romantic ‘Idea’, and the celebration of passionate individualism. This first of two posts concentrates on Yankee Doodle Dandy.
My attraction to the US as an ‘Idea’ is not necessarily associated with the patriotic ‘flag-waving’ that some may find ostentatious and vulgar. No – the US as an ‘Idea’ is more associated with the old cliche of ‘the American Dream’; an idealised state that is essentially and act of the imagination, which the respective films present in different ways. The US as an “Idea” appeals to the optimist in me of the possibility of achieving great things. It is a romantic position to take, and some may say ridiculous in light of the up-coming Presidential election and the possibility of Donald Trump becoming President – it is just an ‘Idea’ – at present.
I have different reasons for loving these two very American works. They are both based on real people and real events, which appeals to my fascination with how the performing arts, particularly theatre, film and television, has interpreted history, often re-inventing it to suit a particular modern attitude and/or concern – ‘holding the mirror up to nature’ etc. Subsequently, this post can also be regarded a continuation of research and exploration of history and the performing arts, which was initially inspired by Gore Vidal’s Screening History (1994), as well as discussing this issue with my current students particularly in regard to the many and various re-inventions of Queen Elizabeth I in the 21st Century.
Another reason is quite simply the ‘showmanship’, or if your prefer the ‘showbiz’; and I like musicals. Whilst American cinema is not alone in producing marvellous musicals in film and in the theatre (particularly the American Broadway Theatre), nonetheless, the US virtually created it and most certainly elevated the musical into an art form. There is, however, no point whatsoever in debating the value, importance, diversity and artistic accomplishment of the musical theatre and film with those whose personal tastes dictates an abhorrence with the art form, regarding it as trivial entertainment and unnatural.
Well – yes; they are right. Musical Theatre can be trite, and simply designed to entertain – and no more. However, they can also be extremely special, comic and/or serious, critical, satiric, funny,and very moving. Musicals push any notion of ‘normality ‘ to the limit. Like Opera, there is nothing ‘naturalistic’ about characters suddenly bursting into song. I’ve never really understood why this is seen as a ‘bad thing’ by some people with whom, to be frank, was my misfortune to come in contact. To such people musicals are regarded as inferior in some way – a populist piece of entertainment that is equivalent to devouring sickly sweet ice cream.
Whilst my own personal tastes throughout my 50 odd years of regularly attending or participating in the performing arts has also dictated a changing and evolving preference, nonetheless, I never put another art form down simply because I don’t like it. Sadly, from my experience, there are far too many who do.
I tend to avoid such people nowadays, as their despair and disdain of musical theatre stands as an anathema to what to me American musicals are essentially about – Hope and ‘the pursuit of happiness’. This is exemplified in both Yankee Doodle Dandy and 1776, particularly in regard to two extraordinary Americans – George M. Cohan (1878-1942) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and thus to spend time in reacquainting oneself with these great men seems very appropriate to me in my current frame of mind this 4 July, 2016.
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a Warner Brothers musical bio-pic about George M. Cohan (1878-1942), one the most dazzling and prolific and popular actor-producer-writer-composers of the American theatre. James Cagney, who played George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, admired Cohan immensely, stating that he was the ‘real thing’ and unique in that he was the first American performing artist who could ‘do it all’, in that he was often at the same time writer, composer, producer, director, as well as actor. Like his European contemporaries, such as Anton Chekhov, Cohan was re-inventing a form of theatre, with his own unique stamp, that was to have a major influence on the subsequent evolution of the American Musical Theatre in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
George M. Cohan started as a child actor working with his parents and sister in American Vaudeville as one of The Four Cohan’s.
He had his first major success with Little Johnny Jones (1904), which he wrote, directed, co-produced, as well as playing the title role. In terms of theatre history it stands as not only catapulting Cohan to the status of Broadway ‘star’, but also as a major development in the evolution of the ‘Book’ musical with the successful integration of book (story & plot), character, singing and dancing. Furthermore, the show contained two of Cohan’s most potent and influential songs – ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘Give My Regards To Broadway’.
The choice of this tale about a disgraced American horse jockey came about partly due to forced circumstances. George M. Cohan was not a particularly big person physically; he was in fact relatively quite short. It took a certain amount of time in seeking a story and a character that would ideally suit him in this major leap towards personal fame and success. How he eventually connected with a story about a jockey, a profession that matched his own physical dimension, is a little uncertain; it was possibly through a family member’s suggestion; but there is no uncertainty in regard to the subsequent success of Little Johnny Jones in launching Cohan as a major Broadway ‘star’.
This was just the beginning of a phenomenally prolific, successful and brilliant career. In the decade before World War I George M. Cohan was known as ‘the man who owned Broadway’, and later ‘the father of Broadway’.
In a very long career of successes Cohan was also responsible for two of the most catchy and rousing American patriotic songs – and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ (1906) and ‘Over There’ (1917). In 1936 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan with a Congressional Medal of Honor due to the impact and importance these two songs played in regard to US ‘morale’ during World War I. George M. Cohan was the first American performing artists to be awarded this highly prestigious honor.
Cohan continued working throughout his entire life, appearing in the 1930s in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness (1933) as well as in the political satiric musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937) by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, with a book by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In I’d Rather Be Right Cohan played a modern-day US President that was very much modelled on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When he died in November 1942, at the age of 64, his ‘Obituary’ in The New York Times stated that he was ‘the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced – as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer’.
There is only one statue of a performing artist in Times Square, New York – and it is of George M. Cohan. This statue was created and placed in Times Square at the bequest of Oscar Hammerstein II in 1959. It stands 8 feet tall, is made of bronze, and cost $100,000. As the pictures show, he stands looking over the heart of the Broadway theatre district, for which he was and is very much responsible for creating
George M. Cohan did not make many movies – he did not like the medium, preferring ‘live’ theatre. Subsequently, it is a little difficult to get a good grasp of how electrifying and charismatic he was in performance. However, there is always the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
As well as being a truly wonderful musical bio-pic about the life and times of George M. Cohan, the film is also in the historical context of its time an example of Hollywood World War 2 propaganda, designed to stir the emotions for patriotic and nationalistic pride. There are numerous examples of this during the film, particularly in the presentation of the songs Over There and You’re A Grand Old Flag, two of Cohan’s most popular songs. It is also discernible in small but significant changes that Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, wanted in the film. This includes a lyric change to the song Off the Record from the musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937) that directly refers to Hitler. The use of the film for propaganda is also discernible in the premiere of the film in New York that was used to raise money via the sale of ‘War Bonds’.
In Yankee Doodle Dandy George M. Cohan was played by James Cagney (1899-1986), who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in this film. Some regarded this as a major departure for Cagney who was at the time more associated with playing gangsters. However, as Cagney himself pointed out, he was always a ‘song and dance man’, it was how he began his acting career – in 1919 in a WWI musical Every Sailor (1919) – in ‘drag’ as a chorus girl! Prior to Yankee Doodle Dandy , during the 1930s when Cagney was a contract player with Warner Bothers and establishing his ‘tough guy’ film persona with such films as The Public Enemy (1931) , and later Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), Cagney also was in the lavish Warner Brothers musical Footlight Parade (1932), memorably singing and dancing with Ruby Keeler in the song Shanghai Lil.
By 1942 James Cagney was a well established Hollywood ‘star’. In looking at the canon of his work at the time, despite the considerable diversity in film genres, Yankee Doodle Dandy was a side of James Cagney formidable talent that had not been seen for a while.
Cagney was ruthlessly disciplined in preparing and working on Yankee Doodle Dandy, particularly on the singing and dancing. In this he was greatly assisted, as Cagney later publicly acknowledged, by Jack Boyle who had worked with George M. Cohan numerous times. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, James Cagney had enormous respect for George M. Cohan. He even told a story about when he was a young actor he auditioned for Cohan for a role in a touring production of one of Cohan’s shows. Cohan rejected Cagney – the rumour being not that Cagney was bad but that he was too good and Cohan didn’t want a rival on-stage.
In regard to Yankee Doodle Dandy, despite the character of Cohan’s wife Mary (beautifully played by the then 17 years old Joan Leslie) being a composite figure based on ‘the best’ aspects of the two women to whom Cohan was married at different times in his life, overall Yankee Doodle Dandy is regarded as being relatively historically accurate, at least in regards to the world of American vaudeville and musical theatre in the late-19th and early 20th Century. This is particularly the case in regard to the numerous songs and production numbers, as well as scenes such as those backstage in a theatre, and in the theatrical boarding houses, which were where most actors lived when touring not be regarded as socially and financially ideal long-term residents at hotels.
The issue of solid historical accuracy is is somewhat surprising considering that the film script had not been finalised by the time shooting began in late 1941. Consequently, it was a somewhat difficult shoot, with constant delays, coupled with injuries and the Warner Brothers front desk constantly complaining about the production going over budget. Blame was directed at the director Michael Curtiz (1886-1962), and legendary Cinematographer James Wong Howe (1899-1976).
James Wong Howe was Chinese born, but raised in the US from infancy, and became one of the most celebrated Hollywood cinematographers, raising the artistic standard of this particular aspect of film-making from the 1920s ‘silent film’ era to Funny Lady (1975). His most acclaimed work includes – Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Shanghai Express (1932), The Thin Man (1934), Fire Over England (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Algiers (1938) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). In the same year he did Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), he also did King’s Row (1942). Still to come were Body and Soul (1947), Picnic (1955), The Rose Tattoo (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Hud (1963), This Property is Condemned (1966), Seconds (1966), Hombre (1967), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), The Molly Maguires (1970), and Funny Lady (1975).
Michael Curtiz is sometimes referred to as ‘the most famous director nobody knows’. Hungarian born and bred, Curtiz came to the US in 1926, and it was in the 1930s and 1940s that his career as a director, primarily with Warner Brothers, really took off. Amongst the numerous films he directed are – Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940) and The Sea Wolf (1941). Just prior to Yankee Doodle Dandy he directed Casablanca (1942) – one of my all-time great films! Still to come were Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), White Christmas (1954), The Egyptian (1954), and Kid Creole (1958) with Elvis Presley in perhaps Elvis’ best acting performance in a film.
Curtiz was not known for his musicals but for his epic dramas, such as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis. Yankee Doodle Dandy stands unique amongst Curtiz’s most known films and is a testament to his wonderful, thrilling and diverse talent and artistry. Despite the success of the respective films he made, he was not generally liked by actors. This is a little understandable as he had a blunt manner, unintelligible at times with his thick Hungarian accent, and was rather dismissive of actors. Nonetheless, with certain actors, such as James Cagney, he allowed them a fair degree of room for improvisation. This was particularly the case with Yankee Doodle Dandy, partly due to the lack of a final script and constant re-writes and new scenes being added all through the making of the film.
There are many moments in the film in which Cagney and the other actors improvised that ended up in the final cut of the film. For example, the first scene between Cagney and Joan Leslie, backstage in a dressing room with Cagney dressed up as an old man with make-up and wig. The cheeky clicking of his teeth and stomping on his wig to relieve the distress Leslie’s character, Mary – the future Mrs. Cohan were improvised. In a later scene Joan Leslie also did the teeth clicking, seemingly spontaneous but was planned as a response to Cagney earlier improvisation. Many of the back-stage scenes required improvisation due to the restrictions in shooting; Curtiz and James Wong Howe using clever angles and close shots to capture the back-stage activities for a number of different locations even though they were all basically done on the same set. Various injuries also demanded Curtiz and the actors to improvise. For example, Walter Houston, who is wonderful as Cohan’s father, injured his foot early in the shoot that restricted his movement; to the observant he can sometimes be discerned slightly limping. Thankfully he was able to do his dance sequences, which was lucky as the stand-in for his first solo number as an Irish dance-master also had an injury compelling Houston, not known for his dancing skills, to do it all by himself.
The scenes with George Tobias (Dietz), George Barbier (Erlanger), and S.Z. Sakall (Schwab) all contain elements of improvisation. In actual fact Cagney loathed S.Z. Sakall , stating that he would never work with him again due to his up-staging. S. Z. Sakall (aka as ‘Cuddles’ Sakall) was a popular character actor, an old Hungarian colleague of Michael Curtiz whom he used in a number of films including Casablanca. Cagney objected to Sakall’s ‘schtick’ (meaning ‘business’) and improvised interjections in scenes that he regarded as ‘information’ scenes. Whilst there was some compromise Curtiz did not censure Sakall.
Perhaps the most famous improvisation in the film is in the final sequence, after his character of George M. Cohan has received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. In leaving the White House as he descends the marble staircase Cagney suddenly does a tap routine traveling down the stairs – inspirational and memorable. Whenever I see or descend a similar type of staircase I flash on this moment in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and occasionally have been known to start tapping down the respective staircase.
Cagney is so spirited, energetic and engaging that for me, and I suspect many others, he was George M. Cohan!
So – this one way I celebrate American Independence Day – watching and thoroughly enjoying James Cagney (and the rest of the acting ensemble) in Yankee Doodle Dandy, shamelessly singing along to the irresistible catchy patriotic songs.
HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY – 4 JULY, 2016.