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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Yankee Doodle Dandy is a classic 1942 musical in which James Cagney plays Broadway legend George M. Cohan. While overall a rousing movie that fully embodies a time when entertainment was enjoyed as a means of temporary escape from Great Depressions and World Wars, there are some dated moments that could be troubling to contemporary audiences. Namely, in one scene, a white family of performers engages in minstrelsy -- wearing "black face" while singing and dancing in the worst kinds of African American stereotypes. It's also a movie released during America's entry into World War II -- a movie intended to keep morale and patriotic fervor sky-high at the expense of the harsh realities of war. On the positive side, George M. Cohan is shown as a living embodiment of the American Dream, of hard work and dedication to one's gifts and talents leading to incredible success. The movie also hearkens back to a time when love of country went beyond ideology, when people could set aside their differences for the greater good.
What's the story?
In YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, James Cagney plays George M. Cohan, the legendary Broadway performer. After a comeback performance spoofing FDR, Cohan receives a telegram from FDR inviting Cohan to the Oval Office. During the meeting, in which Cohan is to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, Cohan tells the story of his career. It begins with his earliest days as a young boy performing on the vaudeville circuit with his family, and the lessons he learned in showmanship from his mother and father (Walter Huston). While his stubbornness and cockiness sometimes get the best of him, resulting in him finding it difficult to find producers willing to bankroll his acts, Cohan perseveres, and he brings to Broadway a succession of hit musicals. Unable to serve during World War I, Cohan pens the number "Over There," credited for keeping morale up amongst families at home and soldiers abroad. During his meeting with FDR, Cohan expresses gratitude for the inspiration his family has given him in his career, as well as to the country that gave him the freedom to work hard and succeed.
Is it any good?
This film is a testament to the power of entertainment during a time when people needed the escape. The song-and-dance of James Cagney as "The Man Who Owned Broadway," George M. Cohan, is timeless cinema. Yankee Doodle Dandy shows a time when talent was the most important "lowest common denominator" rather than sex, violence, CGI bombast, etc. It shows a time when Americans were capable of setting aside their ideological differences for the democratic ideal. A time when Cohan, upon receiving a telegram from FDR after performing in what is by today's standards a tame parody of FDR, is worried that he has offended the President. It should give for many, during the ups and downs of a showbiz life spanning roughly six decades, a sense of what seems now lost in a 21st century of entertainment saturation, infotainment bubbles, and uncivil discourse.
However, this movie also shows a time when minstrelsy was not only accepted, but also quite popular. It also skirts the line between patriotism and jingoism. The horrors of World War I are glossed over at best, and war is seen as a romantic endeavor, not coincidentally at a time when the United States was getting into the Second World War. One can't help but wonder what Cohan's views on war would be if he had actually served in the military and witnessed the carnage of World War I. Still, it's easy to still feel transported to a place away from the concerns of everyday life even today during the movie's most spectacular performances, and feel a thrill and wonder at a time when talent alone kept audiences in their seats.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the changing nature of entertainment throughout history. Yankee Doodle Dandy shows a young Cohan and his family touring on the vaudeville circuit, his days as a Broadway performer and songwriter, and then his contributions to timeless popular music such as "Over There" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." How has the consumption of entertainment changed over the years? How might a "night at the movies" in 1942 be in marked contrast to seeing a movie today, when entertainment is seemingly all-pervasive?
This movie has a scene of minstrelsy, of a white family performing in "black face" while singing and dancing while imitating African Americans. Minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment during the first half of the 20th century. How does this movie reflect societal attitudes toward African Americans at the time?
What are some of the ways in which the movie depicts patriotism?
- In theaters: June 6, 1942
- On DVD or streaming: April 5, 2005
- Cast: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston
- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Musical
- Topics: Arts and Dance, Great Boy Role Models, History, Music and Sing-Along
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 126 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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