Movies 21 Apr 2009 08:23 pm
My film studies class has been watching musicals lately. This is genre I generally avoid, selfishly, because I have little appreciation for the artistry involved. It’s hard to get past the convention of folks breaking into song and dance at a moment’s notice and nobody else in the scene thinking it is strange. I have been slowly overcoming this hangup, however, because the convention is no worse than some others — I’m thinking of soliloquies and asides in the legitimate theater — and is a silly reason to avoid musicals.
Our first sojourn into the musical realm was Yankee Doodle Dandy, a very atypical role for James Cagney, who usually plays tough guys and gangsters. My favorite Cagney performance (and I haven’t seen them all) is 1949’s White Heat — “Look at me, ma, I’m on top of the world!” — but his performance in Yankee Doodle is pretty good, too. Plus, he took home his only Oscar here.
I was impressed with Cagney’s dancing, not so impressed with his singing. He’s a spry little guy in this picture, based on the life and times of Broadway impresario George M. Cohan. Because it’s a movie about a guy who is in vaudeville and musicals, all the numbers in the film are songs that Cohan is either writing, producing or performing in solo or as part of the Four Cohans act. (Said Cohans being his mother, father and sister, in addition to George.) This cuts down on the need for suspension of disbelief considerably; these people aren’t just bursting into song with no provocation, but as part of rehearsal or performance.
Less believable is the framing story: An elderly George Cohan bends the ear of no less a head of state than FDR himself, who summons him to the White House after Cohan imitates the president on stage. I had a hard time with Cohan’s story as presented here because it had virtually no conflict or obstacles: If the guy wanted something, he went out and got it, seemingly by the force of his personality. To believe this movie, ascending to the top of the Broadway heap is no more difficult for Cohan than saying he was going to do it. Like a Horatio Alger story brought to life, Cohan succeeds by glorifying mom and apple pie — not that there is anything wrong with mothers or baked pastries. Director Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) keeps the proceedings moving at a furious clip (his forte), and the songs are memorable, especially the title tune and the wartime “Over There” ditty.
This week, we’re watching Singing in the Rain, another first for me. So far, I’m enjoying it quite a bit. More when we’ve finished viewing.