February 9, 2015

James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Won: Academy Award - Best Actor | New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor

Yankee Doodle Dandy is quite literally a two hour commercial about how great America is / a two hour WWII recruitment video. I wanted nothing more but to straight up hate it (and I pretty much did for much of the first half) but ultimately beyond the shitty dialogue it's still a solid song and dance show, and I love me a good song and dance show. I had my qualms with James Cagney--because like Gary Cooper before him, I wondered if he had won the Best Actor prizes that year because the picture and role pandered flawlessly to America's fears and mindset at the time. Like Alvin York, George M. Cohan is damn near saintly, without a single flaw to be mentioned of (though apparently the picture ignored the fact that Cohan was married twice). You and I both know that there was most likely a sentimental bias that factored into Cagney's victory, but I was pleased to find that he's pretty good.

By now I had only seen Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces and The Public Enemy, so I'm used to seeing him grimace and shoot foreboding glances my way as if he was about to smash a grapefruit into my face. So it comes as a bit of a grating surprise to find that not only is he is a wholesome song-and-dance man in this flick, but he's also a good song-and-dance man. (I didn't know it beforehand, but turns out Cagney had been dancing for years...a very big who'da thunkit moment on my part) Okay--so maybe his singing did leave me a tiny bit cold, as he is not so much singing as he is speaking all the song lyrics, but his dancing is pretty excellent and his stage presence in all his musical numbers is filled to the brim of confidence. Cagney often put a smile on my face throughout his numbers, just through the sheer virtuoso of his self-assurance, as if to dare me not to be impressed by him. In terms of his acting, he is great at conveying George as a cocky showman, and he is surprisingly good at playing up a sweet version of George in all those scenes with Joan Leslie. He's also just plain likable--he might crack a smile in one scene and I'd just find myself feeling a little bit better. What's more, Cagney nails what is hands down the most touching scene in the film and in his entire performance--his last scene with Walter Huston. It's such a stripped, tender and emotional moment, and unlike anything I had seen from him before. I think that's why I enjoyed his performance as much as I did--not only because the performance in and of itself is good but it also challenged my existing perception of what he is able to offer as an actor. It's always refreshing to see that an actor can be talented in more than one style of acting, especially of contrasting characters, and that's something you don't see quite too often with actors of this time period. Yankee Doodle Dandy is obnoxiously sappy at times but Cagney manages to make that all tolerable, and I forgot how much I hated the film because of him. That's pretty much the thesis of this entire situation--him making you feel better amidst a dire situation--and thus it's no surprise that he claimed the statue that year. But I'm happy to say that despite the influence of the time...it's still a pretty nice victory.


  1. After your tweet I was expecting a much, much, much lower grade for him but I'm pleased to see that you came around on him by the time all was said and done. It's been a long, long while since I've seen YDD but I remember both it and Cagney fondly. It's almost certainly him vs. Colman for the win this year (certainly not Pidgeon).

    1. Yeah, I'm surprised myself. Still not big on the film, but at least Cagney is enjoyable.

      How can you be so sure about Pidgeon??! Never say never Derek!!

  2. I'm not sure I've seen this all the way through, and Cagney deserves better than that from me. As long as he won for something, then all's well, because Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and White Heat certainly stick with you once seen. I was amazed also by Love Me Or Leave Me, not only by Cagney's work, but a Doris Day character who wasn't unremittingly nice, which was a welcome change. He was nominated; she, surprisingly was not, for some of her best dramatic work.