Oct 27, 2014

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) on Blu-ray

When I settled in to watch the new Warner Archive Blu-ray of Yankee Doodle Dandy, I was expecting good, corny fun. Lively dance numbers, old-fashioned tunes--sweet-natured stuff. It had been several years since I'd seen it, and I had forgotten the emotional impact this deeply patriotic film could have. As I later snorted into a soggy tissue, I remembered.

There are several things that make this highly-fictionalized biopic of composer George M. Cohen good: legendary songs, straightforward, but energetically paced production numbers, smooth direction by Michael Curtiz and a cast including seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie and Walter Huston.

James Cagney makes it great though. It's a pleasure just to watch him move. He's made of springs, jelly and grasshopper legs. His dancing is great, he apparently did a fine impression of Cohan's stiff-legged style. However, it's just as much fun to watch him walk, turn his head or poke his finger in the air.

He was so alive, so explosive that you can see why he was cast as all those live-wire mobsters, but the actor also used that quality to great effect in Footlight Parade (1933). How could Warner Bros. have allowed nine years to pass before they cast Cagney in another musical? I always think of him as a great musical star, but sadly those were his two big opportunities to show what he could do in tap shoes, and so little at that in the earlier film.

Cagney was a life-long dancer though. In his autobiography, he talks about taking out his tap board whenever he felt the need to get a little exercise. He was always in good form and he proved that in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What makes Cagney's performance a cut above the typical musical leading man was that he was also a deeply effective dramatic actor. That is what elevates this production beyond a simple fantasy about a famous man.

Of course there's more to this meticulously crafted film. The period details are strung together nicely, from the elaborate costumes to gas flames flickering from wall sconces in the vaudeville dressing rooms. One of the best thing about this Blu-ray edition is that you can enjoy all the craft that went into what you see on the screen.

By now I'm used to having my socks knocked off while newly appreciating a movie on Blu-ray, but I found I was especially appreciative of this one. I've always thought that this musical would have been more effective in color, but after seeing it in Blu, I no longer feel that way. I changed my mind in the middle of the famous Yankee Doodle Dandy number, when the camera scanned a line of chorus girls garbed in glamorous gowns.

You could see every strand of their swept up hairdos, each detail of their gowns. There was added sparkle in their jewelry. It elevated the whole experience.

Special features include a trailer, commentary by Warner Bros. film historian Rudy Behlmer, several audio clips of song rehearsals, a radio show, a cartoon, a short documentary of the making of the film, and a rather brutal wartime short starring Cagney, Ann Sothern and a very young Margaret O'Brien orating for dear life. Leonard Maltin also presents "Warner Night at the Movies" which adds a Casablanca trailer and newsreel to mimic a 1942 cinematic program. I was especially touched by a brief interview with John Travolta, in which he reminisced about his five year friendship with Cagney.

I'm delighted to have been reminded what a treasure this film is. I can just imagine how comforting its patriotism must have been to a country at war. Today that feeling of pride still rings true in an age of deeper cynicism.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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