The sound of those flutes and drums conjure up images of a group of scruffy soldiers fighting against incalculable odds in the Revolutionary War. The song evokes the national origin story hammered into every American since kindergarten. It reminds Americans today of the aspirations they share with the men that fought in the Battle of Lexington. The 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy may not carry the same weight as its namesake, but it’s no less successful at burnishing the American narrative and reminding viewers of what America has always wanted to stand for.
Yankee Doodle Dandy traces the life of famed entertainer George M. Cohan. The name itself has been washed away by the passage of time, but Cohan’s work is immortal. His legacy includes toe-tapping patriotic favorites like "Over There" and "You’re a Grand Old Flag." Undoubtedly Cohan stands in the top tier of individuals who have shaped American self-identity.
The movie has garnered high praise. James Cagney, previously known for his gangster roles, won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of George Cohan. It also grabbed the 98th spot in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the greatest American films of all time. Why is this movie so highly regarded? The simple answer might be James Cagney’s performance. His Oscar is well-deserved. With every line uttered, he practically leaps off the screen. In every musical scene, Cagney delights as he emulates Cohan’s half-speaking style of song. He dances in a hail of taps so energetic that it’s a wonder that his feet don’t burst into flame. Still, can a film be considered one of the best on the merits of one performance?
Other than Cagney’s performance, one might be forgiven for thinking the film quite ordinary. Beside the electric James Cagney, the supporting cast looks like the undead. There’s nothing remarkable about the cinematography or the camera-work, although some of the reproductions of his musicals are impressive. In particular, one memorable number featuring a mob of dancers marching on an jumbo conveyor belt vividly illustrates the magnitude of Cohan productions. More problematically, the story is trite. Abusing an already cliched plot device, the entire film is told as a flashback. Cohan narrates his entire life to FDR in 1942, as if the president doesn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. Furthermore, the movie lacks any significant conflict. Where most traditional movies build and release tension as a way to hold attention, Yankee Doodle Dandy simply rockets Cohan from his early years as a hot head in a family vaudeville act, though his unbridled success as a multi-talented Broadway show-runner and star. All of Cohan’s difficulties are brushed aside by a rising tide of optimism and sense of inevitable progress. When he fails to impress critics with his only attempt at a dramatic play, the movie simply moves on as if nothing happened. His mother and sister die off screen with nary a mention, and even his father’s death, where we see Cohan upset for the first and only time in the movie, is forgotten by the next scene.
Despite these flaws, the movie deserves its praise. More than a good movie, it’s an important movie. It expresses the aspirations of an entire country more succinctly than any other. In the world of Yankee Doodle Dandy, America is Winthrop’s city on a hill with limitless possibilities spread before it and the moral authority to pursue them. Like George Cohan, the America of Yankee Doodle Dandy is endlessly optimistic and constantly striving for improvement through an explosive mix of creativity and diligence. Like George Cohan, it is propelled forward by a belief that it is a force for good. Even the unusually tension free plot mirrors these sentiments. It skips right over the booms and busts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It doesn’t even mention the Great Depression. Instead Cohan is on an uninterrupted upward trajectory that any American might emulate with enough elbow grease and ingenuity. Cohan’s life improves so quickly that he doesn’t have time to notice the bumps along the way. It’s a quintessentially American movie that takes the ideas of American exceptionalism and the American dream and fuses them into the story of an American icon. James Cagney’s supercharged performance serves as the dynamo that draws everything together.
This optimism might be difficult for a modern American to identify with. We face a world that feels increasingly uncertain and dangerous. Talking heads refer to Rome and the Third Reich. People across the political spectrum believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. They lay the blame squarely on ideological opponents with whom they feel they have less and less in common. Reading social media feeds makes me feel as though a great tear is forming in the country. Watching the news, I feel like I’m watching helplessly as a violent storm approaches.
How can we believe in the optimistic America of Yankee Doodle Dandy? How can we watch this movie with anything but scorn or nostalgia? Yet one has to wonder what was going through the minds of audiences as they watched this film in 1942. The country was just crawling out of over a decade of economic catastrophe only to plunge itself into the largest military conflict of all time. Maybe they were more like us. Maybe they, too, felt overwhelmed by approaching storm clouds. Maybe they, too, pondered whether the America of Yankee Doodle Dandy was a thing of the past.
It’s easy to be cynical about this movie. It’s easy to dismiss its over-the-top set pieces and parades of patriotic songs as nothing more than propaganda. It’s easy to see it as a remnant of a jingoistic past. Look deeper. It’s not a film that expresses the sentiments of a bygone America. Transcending the fleeting issues of its time, the film reflects the aspirations of a nation that, for all its flaws and transgressions, wants to see itself as hard working, optimistic, and charitable in spirit. In this way Yankee Doodle Dandy speaks as much of our time as of the past.
To be sure, things have changed drastically since the 1940s, but I would contend that American aspirations have changed surprisingly little. They’re baked into our telling of history, our popular entertainment, our public policy, and our social lives. They undergird so much of our everyday lives that we forget that they’re there at all, but they are. Even in this moment, where two halves of the country seem incapable of trusting, or even understanding, each other, we have those aspirations in common. We all look to the future and demand something better than what’s here today. We each dream our own dreams of George Cohan’s America. As long as we have that, there’s the hope that, in the future, we might all dream together again.