Yankee Doodle Dandy

I meant to review this on July 4th. Then I might have been able to get away with my unabashed appreciation of Jimmy Cagney’s performance. Yes, the story of George M. Cohan’s life is as schmaltzy as they come. And the patriotic song and dance numbers are way over the top.

Ha! Now I’ll bet you’ve got “Yankee Doodle Dandy” stuck in your head, too. Later on, you’ll find yourself whistling it. Even if you’re a lousy whistler. The song was made to be whistled, and that’s part of the reason I love this film.

George M. Cohan was brilliant. The world would be a poorer place without his songs. Not only can’t I resist “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but the chorus of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” is enough to get me waving the stars and stripes. And when patriotism gets tiresome, there’s still “Give my Regards to Broadway.” Listen to Judy Garland’s rendition:

But getting back to Jimmy Cagney, the way he threw himself into the part of Cohan, the sheer joy he displays every time he starts tap dancing, is impossible to resist. Cohan lived long enough to see the film. “My God, what an act to follow!” he’s supposed to have said.

Cagney claimed that he never prepared for his roles. “You either know what you’re gonna do or forget it,” he told the film critic Richard Schickel toward the end of his career. Hoodlum roles came easily. “I understood that type perfectly well.” Cagney found the bad boy in every character he played, even George M. Cohan. Here he is, improvising a little tap dance on the way out of the White House, after receiving a medal from FDR himself:

Who doesn’t love this picture?

A Star is Born

You can’t watch this picture without a tremendous sense of loss, knowing that it would be Judy Garland’s last great role. And then there’s the story. James Mason may be playing the part of the self-destructive actor on a downward spiral who is bowled over by Garland’s character’s talent, but his hard-won insights all apply to Judy. “You’re a great star.  Don’t let that change you too much,” he tells her. “Don’t let it take over your life.”

Too late, Mr. Mason. Judy was addicted to pills by the time she made “A Star is Born,” and was on her third troubled marriage. For all her talent, and despite her stunning success, beginning with “The Wizard of Oz,” she had no faith in herself. Years of being told she was too plump, that she lacked the right nose, the right eyebrows, years of being stuck in girl-next-door roles, took their toll on her psyche.

But in “A Star is Born,” Judy is allowed to grow up. She’s ready to give up her career for Mason’s character, but he drowns himself in the ocean rather than drag her down with him. She’s got no choice but to carry on, but you see the price she’s paid for her success.

Poor Judy. Watch how she handles the torch song that convinces Mason’s character that she’s a true star, “The Man That Got Away.”  It’s all there:  the talent, the passion, and the pain.  What a loss!

(22 June 2011)

The Wizard of Oz

Growing up in the sixties, the once-a-year broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” was a big event, a sacred ritual in our family. I must have watched it a dozen times, but I saw that movie through the eyes of a child. Captivated by the story, terrified by the flying monkeys, wowed by the extravagance of the big numbers, I took the supporting characters for granted.

Only Dorothy mattered. Sure, the Cowardly Lion was good for a few laughs, but who cared about his dilemma? Ditto the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. Courage, brains, a heart:  well, okay, they obviously needed reasons of their own to accompany Dorothy to Oz. You couldn’t have her skipping alone down the yellow brick road, or fretting about lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) if there was nobody to fret with; sidekicks have their uses.

So it came as a surprise, this time around, to realize that it’s the sidekicks who carry the picture. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry were preoccupied with their own worries. Farming’s tough—I get that—but couldn’t they have fought a bit harder to keep Toto out of the clutches of Miss Gulch? As for the Wizard, I’m sure he meant well, but his wisdom consisted largely of smoke and lights, as he was the first to admit. And Glinda the Good Witch of the North was pretty patronizing, don’t you think, floating around in that bubble of hers? No wonder the Munchkins’ growth was stunted!

Only the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion see Dorothy for who she is, and in their company she becomes her better self. Don’t get me wrong. Judy Garland holds a special place in my heart. There she was, achingly young, her yearning expressed with such fervor in “Over the Rainbow.” I wish I didn’t know how her life began to unravel from that point onwards.

If only she’d had her three companions to see her through, she’d have kept her wits about her, trusted her heart, and discovered her reservoir of strength. She’d have stood up to the studio bosses who put her on pills and micro-managed her life, stopped marrying the wrong men, treated Lorna and Liza like daughters instead of rivals. Oh, and she’d have kept those ruby slippers. With good friends and the right pair of shoes, a girl can do anything

(24 October 2011)