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How Does It Feel To Be 75 Years Old?
by Jon Schuller

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World War I began in 1914 and the movies were only a decade or so old then. Films about the war began to appear in the 1920s and 1930s, like Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell's Angels and The Dawn Patrol. I don't believe that any of these post-war pictures were considered "propaganda" films, taking pro- or anti-war stances at the time of their premiers. Those types of films didn't start to appear until the late 1930s and early 1940s as World War II was on the horizon or soon after it began in 1939. Many 1940s films were comedies and made light of military service. As the United States was slowly pulled into the conflict, helping Great Britain and Russia during their darkest hours against Germany, President Roosevelt was doing everything he could (in secret, in many instances) with supplies and aircraft. Once Pearl Harbor happened he made winning the war, on 2 fronts, the country's priorities. He also enlisted Hollywood and the motion picture industry into the fight. There was a slow but steady stream of films specifically made to show how America and its allies were going to win the ultimate victory.
Stories of individual heroism and bravery, at home and overseas, began to dominate home movie screens. Casablanca, Bataan, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Dive Bomber, A Yank in the RAF, Desperate Journey, Mrs. Miniver, Saboteur and, an instant classic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney, which premiered on May 29, 1942 in New York City. It featured Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, and Richard Whorf, with Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, and Vera Lewis. It was directed by Michael Curtiz.

Cagney was the natural choice to portray Cohan. Before he became a household name as a movie gangster and tough guy, Cagney was a true song-and-dance man (he always saw himself that way throughout his career) and his own inimitable style of singing while dancing his own inventive steps was an accurate imitation of Cohan himself. The film stayed true to Cohan's music and musicals, even down to the sets and costumes.

The film opens as Cohan is seen entering the White House to meet President Roosevelt and receive a Congressional Gold Medal for his service over the years, especially for visiting the
troops, boosting morale. The film then flashes back to Cohan's earliest days on the vaudeville stages with his sister (Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne) and parents. The Four Cohans become famous and George gets notices about his own style of song-and-dance. Eventually he wants to write, produce and star in his own musicals, all essentially based on Cohan's fervent passions for all things American. He teams up with another struggling writer, Sam Harris (Whorf) and together they find backing in the lovable Mr. Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) who loves musicals with pretty girls.

Along the way Cohan falls in love with Mary (Joan Leslie) who was a dancer in his musicals. He will eventually write a song about her and we watch as the then-famous musical star, Fay Templeton (Manning), decides that she wants to sing the song as her own in a Cohan musical.

President Roosevelt tells Cohan that America needs more citizens like him to help in the war effort, to give unselfishly of time and resources so the war will be won and over with as soon as possible. Cohan thanks the President, and we see him tap dancing down the grand
staircase - "which Cagney thought up before the scene was filmed and performed with no rehearsal."

One of Cohan's most famous songs, Over There, was originally written during World War I. As he leaves the White House, soldiers are marching and the crowd is cheering them, as the same song is being played. Cohan joins the crowd and someone notices he isn't singing. He prompts Cohan to sing, asking if he knows the words.

This movie, now 75 years old, is still as fresh as it was when it opened. There are so many songs, so many familiar faces, so many gags and jokes and, overall, how it makes you feel as you watch and listen. Its value as an historical document and movie archive never diminishes. Watching James Cagney do his unforgettable singing and dancing routines simply makes you feel good. Just as the man he was imitating, Cagney gave of himself unselfishly throughout his career to many charitable causes, in many cases anonymously. It has received many awards, especially those from the American Film Institute 100 Movies, 100 Songs, 100 Movie Quotes, etc.

If you've seen it, well, all I can really say is see it again.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Homage: Respect or Reverence Paid

There's a Call for You. Please Tell Them to Wait.

20 Before. 20 After. 20 Since.

Sit. Relax. Watch. Enjoy. Repeat.

One Is All It Usually Takes

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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