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Warner Home Video presents
"My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you."
DVD ReviewRevisiting Yankee Doodle Dandy better than sixty years after its initial theatrical release provides a reminder of some useful lessons: that all the hokey old stuff about America, especially during wartime, has a lot of truth to it; that no portion of the political spectrum has a monopoly on patriotism; and that, when it comes to musicals and movie stars, they don't make 'em like they used to. Even the most jaded, politically and cinematically, are likely to get caught up in the fun and fervor of this movie; and you should never have to apologize for being a big fan of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
This film aside, the screen legacy of James Cagney is almost exclusively as a gangster. He was a ferocious little spark plug of a man, exuding menace and clocking in at all of 5'6"—with that venom in his eyes and a tommy gun in his hand, you knew that you wanted to stay on his good side. But Cagney was a vaudevillian before he was a movie thug, and this picture gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he could hold his own with any song-and-dance man out there. In fact, he plays one of the great ones: the movie tell the life story of George M. Cohan, Broadway star, producer, and composer, whose most lasting legacy may have been his patriotic numbers, like the title song and Over There, which became the de facto anthem of World War I. The film is an old style, rags-to-riches movie biography, in which George, the son of performers, was literally born on the fourth of July; teamed with his parents and his sister to become The Four Cohans, vaudeville topliners; and then went onto even greater glory on his own, as the toast of Broadway.
As that brief summary suggests, in the screen telling there aren't a whole lot of obstacles and conflict in Cohan's life; the biographical bits are tinged deeply with nostalgia, and aside from providing that warm and fuzzy feeling, work principally in getting us from song to song. The whole movie, in fact, is framed by a visit that Cohan paid to the White House in 1942, when President Roosevelt bestowed upon the showman the Congressional Medal of Honor. (FDR, the President at the time of the film's production, is shot only from behind; we never see his face, and he's treated much like Christ is in movies like Ben-Hur.) So what you get here is not a searing biographical portrait, but a big old slice of Americana, one in which Cohan's life is loaded up with everything great and good about this country.
But you know what? It all works. Maybe it's because the film was released just months after Pearl Harbor, or because this DVD release comes at a time when the country still displays a post-9/11 skittishness; whatever the case, it's especially nice to see that Cohan's patriotism doesn't come at the expense of anyone else's. He loves his family, he loves his country, and if you're up for the ride, come on along, friend. Many of Cohan's best-loved songs would have been well known to 1940s audiences, and many of them must have had a new sort of resonance, at the start of a new world war. And aside from the Stars and Stripes, the movie is a valentine of sorts to show business, with the loving depiction of the vaudeville circuit; the greatest thing a man can be, it seems, is to be a star on Broadway.
Cagney is in just about every scene of the film, and he really is just amazing. He doesn't have a terrific singing voice—he talks his way through some of the songs, in a manner that anticipates things like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady—but gracious heavens, this man could dance. He seems to be having an absolutely glorious time in the part, and he's a gracious movie star, too, one who doesn't need a spotlight and a closeup at all times to do his best work. His generosity helps to lift the rest of the cast to admirable heights, too—Walter Huston, as Cohan's father, is a warm and reassuring presence, and his death scene remains genuinely moving; Cagney's own sister, Jeanne, plays George M.'s sister, and she's a natural; and Joan Leslie plays Mary, the love of the on-screen Cohan's life, with warmth and grace.
In his time, some dismissed Cohan as a vulgarian, and some of his act might not wear well these days—if a contemporary performer showed up flanked by other actors dressed up as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, I admit that I'd be the first to want to throw up. But maybe it's the distance that makes this seem much more palatable—this was nostalgic even in the 1940s, in giving us a portrait of a world with newsboys on ever corner, hollering "Extree, extree! Read all about it!" And the film pushes late into Cohan's life, when he was something of a forgotten figure himself; he made a comeback on Broadway playing FDR in a Kaufman/Hart vehicle, which provides the pretext for his visit to the Oval Office. You'll no doubt come away humming at least one of Cohan's tunes, and one of the final images, of Cagney as an aging Cohan, tap dancing beautifully and merrily down a huge flight of White House steps, is about as joyous a moment as has ever been put on screen.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Another of the great heroes of this film is cinematographer James Wong Howe, and his work is shown off very effectively in this spanking new transfer. The Broadway scenes look especially luminous, with just the right balance—the sequences pay respect to the fact that what we're watching happened on stage, but also to the truth that this is a movie. Very little interference or debris in the transfer, and the blacks are dark and lush.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track has been perked up, too, and it sounds pretty swell. It's quiet when it should be, with little or no hissing or room tone; the lush orchestrations don't sound as full as they would in a stereo or Dolby track, but given when this film was produced, it sounds awfully good.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 38 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer
Packaging: Tri-Fold Amaray with slipcase
It's time for another Warner Night at the Movies (41m:02s)—Leonard Maltin provides an introduction (03m:21s) of this effort to re-create what it might have been like for 1942 audiences to see Yankee Doodle Dandy in the theaters. It starts with a trailer for Casablanca, which is followed by a newsreel, in which anxiety about the new war is palpable—reference is made to "an overwhelmingly superior Japanese force," and there are even a couple of blatantly offensive intertitles: "U.S. Chinese Air Force Blasts Japs!" Next is Beyond the Line of Duty, in which Ronald Reagan narrates the story of one young Texas feller, following him from the ranch to the cockpit to wartime glory to mention in an FDR speech. Things lighten up a little with Bugs Bunny Gets The Boid, in which said rabbit goes toe to toe with a dorky buzzard who sings a goofy version of Blues in the Night.
Also on the first disc: a Cagney trailer gallery, and a roster of the awards won by the cast and crew of the feature.
Disc Two is full of goodies, too, as you might expect. Michael J. Fox hosts James Cagney: Top of the World (46m:31s), produced in 1992, a rather cursory if good-hearted overview of Cagney's career. There are plenty of clips of Cagney, from his breakthrough in The Public Enemy up through One, Two, Three, and especially good in interview footage are Julius Epstein, who with his brother did uncredited rewrite work on Yankee Doodle Dandy; and Mae Clarke, who was on the receiving end of what's perhaps the most famous piece of citrus in cinema history—she's the one who took a grapefruit to the face from Cagney in The Public Enemy. Let Freedom Sing! The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy (44m:30s) is a look back, mostly by film historians, on the production; the movie is, according to writer Patrick McGilligan, "the kind of film critics hate to love." It's hokum, but they can't help themselves. Those assembled here are very knowledgeable—Cohan originally wanted Fred Astaire playing him—and this is also the only place on the set where you can hear Cohan's own voice.
John Travolta Remembers James Cagney (05m:10s) is self-explanatory; apparently they got to know one another in Cagney's last years, and Yankee Doodle Dandy was Travolta's favorite film as a child. He's a good choice for this, too—he's no James Cagney (no one is), but he may be the only contemporary leading man who can do both musicals and gangster pictures. (Pulp Fiction is to Grease as White Heat is to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Discuss.) Out of the audio vault come more great things: the Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Show (29m:30s), broadcast October 19, 1942, in which all the principal cast members are on hand to perform highlights from the "forthcoming brilliant motion picture," "a picture which every American must see." Cagney sounds a little hoarse, and Lady Esther her own self does the ads at intermission, shilling her Lady Esther Face Powder. Five audio clips (06m:22s) of outtakes and rehearsals are highlighted by Cagney's especially lively rendition of Harrigan.
AOL Time Warner synergy is at work in the inclusion of two more cartoon shorts, Yankee Doodle Daffy (06m:45s) and Yankee Doodle Bugs (06m:54s); you'll never guess who stars in these. You, John Jones! (10m:25s) is a 1943 short directed by Mervyn Le Roy and starring Cagney and Ann Southern, in which the apocalyptic vision of the war coming home is made real—Cagney has a dialogue with an offscreen, thunderous God, and offers up this prayer: "I just wanted you to know how much we appreciate not being bombed here in our own country." Finally, the Waving the Flag Galleries features images of Cohan sheet music, dressed set stills, scene stills, and publicity shots and posters from the film's release.
If you ask for still more extras, John Ashcroft may come looking for you.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsA terrific, classic, rip-roaring old style movie, for which Warner Bros. has pulled out all the stops. Big fun for even the most cynical, and a chance to see James Cagney give what's perhaps his best performance.
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