Me, I’m the first television generation. Those just a couple of years older or born somewhere other than on the coasts are not. They are firmly radio generation. And, while I did listen some to radio, we had a television much earlier than people in our financial circumstances probably should have.
As a consequence I fondly recall a lot of early television. This ranged from shows made for TV like Crusader Rabbit, Captan Kangaroo, the Roy Rogers Show, and I Love Lucy to adaptations of earlier forms to various odds and ends collected from theatrical release. These ranged from military films from the 2nd World War like Why We Fight that filled out earliest morning television to rehashed theatrical cartoons that filled much of Saturday mornings.
One early feature was the annual seasonal movie. Like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life near Christmas. And on or about the 4th of July, was James Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. In an era before it was possible to own and replay a movie over and over and over again, watching these movies year after year was as close as we came to such a phenomenon.
My father particularly loved Yankee Doodle Dandy, and I figure I saw it five or six times. Maybe even seven. (And, okay, a couple of times as an adult, too.) Today this is nothing compared to the many dozens, to the sometimes hundreds of times some children see some movies.
But, it is the closest analog for my generation.
Fast forward a bunch of years. We had moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where I was called as senior minister at the First Unitarian Church. While driving down Wickenden Street in the Fox Point neighborhood not far from the church I saw a peculiar statue of a man holding his hat in one hand in what I guess I’d call a theatrical pose. I parked, got out of the car, walked over and saw it was dedicated to George M. Cohan, the real life subject of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Turned out the real George M Cohan was born in 1878 somewhere in the neighborhood on the 3rd of July (unlike the 4th as he appears to have claimed for his whole life, and is presented in the film as fact).
The movie was made in 1942, and it is a patriotic extravaganza from soup to nuts.
The story opens with an elderly Cohan telling his story to President Franklin Roosevelt. It ends with the president presenting the old actor with the Congressional Gold Medal in appreciation for his many songs including “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and maybe most of all for “Over There.”
The real George M Cohan was an actor, singer, dancer, playwright, composer, lyricist, and producer. He started out in Vaudeville. He ended up on Broadway, where he wrote over fifty shows, and, importantly, over three hundred songs. Cohan was called “the man who owned Broadway.”
The film was made the year he died.
I fondly remember the film. Probably for the family at home thing as much as anything else, but it also sticks with me.
Roger Ebert wrote a review of it some years back. He loved it. Ebert acknowledged the films limitations, and there are many. But he puts his finger on why it works. And that can be summed up in two words: Jimmy Cagney.
Ebert opines how “the greatness of the film resides entirely in the Cagney performance.” He goes on to say, “(M)ostly its bio by the numbers–except for Cagney’s electricity. He doesn’t dance so much as strut; he doesn’t act so much as sell you his desire to entertain. In dialogue scenes, when other actors are talking, his eyes dart across their faces, silently urging them to pick up the energy; he’s like Michael Jordan impatiently willing his co-stars to keep up with him. And when he’s in full sail, as in “Give My Regards to Broadway” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” it’s like regarding a force of nature.”
That he, Cagney, certainly was.
The movie itself is such pure patriotism unalloyed with any complexities that it can be wearing, particularly in our age so marked with a consciousness of the severe limitations of the nation state, any nation state.
That said, my recollection of the film is so completely connected to being together with my mother and father and brother, the parents on the couch, my brother and me on the floor, that I can’t think of it in any way except fondly.
As I write these words I find myself wondering if the old chestnut is playing someone on the two or three hundred channels we appear to get on our television today.
After all, the season has rolled around once again…