It is very possible to regard a great film without the obstruction of the contextual framework surrounding it ... but it is difficult to miss the contextual scaffolding built around Yankee Doodle Dandy. Released at a time when the United States was preparing to enter World War II, the film begins with nationalist symbol George Cohan being summoned before Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office. The rest of the story, a biography of its protagonist told by its protagonist, is a story about the birth of the musical comedy told as a musical comedy; the fact that both the true story and film versions of Cohan revolve around his own sense of nationalistic pride and patriotism-by-way-of-propaganda is no accident. Context, sometimes, can seem like everything a story is built around.
The entire film is centered around a flashback begun as Cohan tells President Roosevelt his entire life story before being given the Congressional Medal by the president for expressing a true “American Spirit” throughout his life by way of inspiring ordinary Americans off to World War I. It’s hard to argue with Roosevelt’s logic in awarding the song-and-dance man with the Congressional Medal, as Cohan is as appropriate a symbol of Americana and patriotic duty as any.
His songs, including “Over There,” “You're a Grand Old Flag,” and “Johnnie Get Your Gun” serve as good old-fashioned pieces of American warmongering propaganda, with their triumphant horns and battle-cry drums giving Cohan’s “ordinary guys” audience an appropriate soundtrack for fighting Germans and preserving American democracy within and abroad. The film itself would get lead actor James Cagney his own piece of gold in the form of his first Academy Award, and would also improve Cagney’s image after he had been suspected of harboring communist sympathies.
After all, what better exemplifies patriotism than by seeing Cagney’s rubber-leg and stiff-backed jolting rhythm of a dance, all manic twists and twirls, set to the timeless melody of the titular song and Cohan’s lyrics celebrating his self-identification with America’s birth as a nation? How could an American Spirit be better exemplified?
George Cohan’s nationalistic philosophy that drives both the film and the character’s accomplishments isn’t just made by interpretative inference—he flat out explains it when he makes an argument for the power of nationalism itself, and how when Americans “get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we're a push-over all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn't long before we're looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag's still waving over us.” Cohan is there throughout to remind us of that flag, especially when it’s projected across an entire stage of patriotic dancers marching on treadmills The idea of the American Spirit being particularly potent during wartime isn’t anything new—it’s a well-tested model of nationalistic motivation.
The “American Spirit” of the film is not just embodied by Cohen’s sense of nationalist pride, but also by his strict adherence to the gold standard of the American Dream: that it is within every man’s power to achieve the highest level of success along with a healthy sense of ego and entitlement; the American Spirit does not see arrogance as a hindrance, but as a necessary side effect of enterprise. Throughout the film, Cohen’s arrogance and ego leads not to his downfall, but to his ascension. It is largely a positive trait in the film, and while this sense of ego on Cohan’s part may be challenged at times throughout the film, it is never for long.
His father, for instance, admonishes George for hogging the stage, so George apologizes, seems ready to learn from his prideful behavior, but then gets right back to being an arrogant showboat. He later seems ready to find hubris after he writes a bad play—but then he just uses the negative press attention to sell tickets for the show’s final performances, utilizing his abilities in showmanship to continue manipulating his audience for ticket sales. Late in the film, a group of kids don’t recognize the great old man for who he once was, so does he learn that success and pride is a fleeting thing? Hell no—he comes right back out with a new musical and flouts his own star power again.
He even seems to only be able to show his affection to others through the reflective surface of his own ego: his gift to his wife is a song for her to use to become a successful starlet, and his birthday present to his father is all about extending to him a business partnership opportunity. In terms of the American Spirit of capitalistic enterprising, Cohan comes out just ahead of Uncle Sam.
The differences between the myth of this American Spirit made manifest, and the real man behind the brand name, has already been discussed this week, but it’s important to understand that for any biography, especially one created in the throes of La La Land rhetoric, reality has a way of being mythologized for the sake of the “Big Picture.” The filmmakers knew they were making an All-American motion picture. Cagney himself knew that he was rebranding himself as a patriotic song-and-dance man. Cohan himself, overseeing the picture, knew that he was manufacturing a legacy for himself upon the immortal binding that is celluloid. This is not to say that mythologizing is bad—it may be essential for American culture as well as for those it portrays on screen—but understanding its intent allows one to recognize the themes that run under the musical current and push the film’s agenda forward.
The film itself may not be successful in its more modern context of capturing the American Spirit, but it does represent that spirit well in its own context and time period. When we see the intentions of the storytellers—whether it be ideological, political, or personal—we see beyond the song and dance and into the reality. In many ways, the film was reminiscent to me of another Hollywood story of colossal ego: Citizen Kane. I was reminded of Welles’s portrayal of Kane several times, but whereas that movie sought to show the audience the hubris involved in pride’s fall, Yankee Doodle Dandy illustrates how pride, in one’s own success and in one’s own country, can raise the common man skyward. The myth of reality it presents is meaningless to the perception intended; what does it matter if George Cohan wasn’t “born on the fourth of July,” but the day before? Like America itself, the myth may just capture the reality better than the truth ultimately can, and the spirit need not know the difference—so long as we remember the flag waving over us and the songs that ride on its coattails.