Blindspotting #2 – Yankee Doodle Dandy and Swing Time
Though I suspect that the decision to choose two films per “Blind Spot” post is going to nip me in the butt at some point, it’s proving to yield some nice parallels and contrasts between films so far. This time around I chose two black and white musicals – the James Cagney star vehicle Yankee Doodle Dandy” from 1942 and the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers hoofing fest Swing Time” from 1936 – and they’ve provided a slew of comparison points. While each film has rafts of familiar popular songs and big name directors overshadowed by even bigger name stars, there are also contrasting points like their dancing styles (smooth flow vs. brute physical athleticism) and approaches to set design (lavish vs. minimal). Not to mention the unexpected and unappreciated occurrence of a “blackface” musical/dance number in each film. I have to say I did not see that coming.
Another surprising commonality between the two films are the very poor opening set of scenes…Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a bio-musical-pic of famous songwriter and stage performer George M. Cohan and frames his life story within bookends of a meeting with the President of the United States (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). It’s an awkward beginning and is followed by additional awkwardness as Cohan recollects his early life. Though there’s a quickness to the film’s pace as it settles into displaying vignettes instead of providing straight narrative, it’s slow to get going as we have to make it through scenes of the annoyingly cocky little George. Fortunately Cagney shows up when Cohan hits his early adult years and the story settles into the meaty song and dance segments. Swing Time doesn’t exactly endear itself to the viewer early on either – in fact, its opening 20 minutes are painful. The comedy is strained and forced, the characters are this close to being unlikeable (and, except for Victor Moore’s slightly drunken sounding Pop, without a single interesting attribute) and the plot is set in motion about as effectively and efficiently as any task run by government committee. Things will get moving, but not without a lot of effort. Fortunately Ginger Rogers shows up just in time to lend her hefty charm and spirit.
Which exposes one of the major issues of Swing Time: Astaire’s acting. He’s simply not very good here. His comedic timing is the pits while his reactions are overly broad and unnatural. His character isn’t much to write about either – he’s a bit of a jerk and seems to have all his problems resolved for him. That feels somewhat par for the course with Astaire though – I’ve rarely liked his characters in pretty much any of his musicals (even as he became a better actor). He simply never manages to bring an abundance of charm to his roles. Rogers, on the other hand, does it with ease. The script doesn’t give her much to work with, but she has a presence that dwarfs the rest of the cast. It’s easy to see why Astaire starts to fall for her and decides to postpone his task of saving $25000 so that he can return from the big city to his fiancee back home. However, except for his dancing there’s little reason to see why Rogers might fall for him. Then again, his dancing is spectacular. The above mentioned blackface number is an 8 minute long sequence that incorporates Astaire dancing with 30 dancers at once (which happens towards the end of a single 3 minute long unedited shot) and ends with him dancing solo against three shadows. Short of the unnecessary and embarrassing makeup, it’s a marvel of planning and creativity. As a couple, Rogers and Astaire have three separate long dance routines and the film simply glows during these sequences. Across the three routines, there are only three edits – with one of the dances done completely in one single shot – and it’s simply wonderful to be allowed to see these unbroken takes of their artistry (whether it took 1 or 100 takes is irrelevant).
When it comes to Yankee Doodle Dandy its focus is solely on George M. Cohan, which of course means it’s really all Cagney. And that’s just fine. He exudes command of every frame he’s in – whether it’s his forceful control of a conversation, his ability to pull all attention towards him with a sly expression of satisfaction or the way he whips his legs into a frenzy during one of his stage numbers (as well as the several off stage demonstrations he loves to provide). The film doesn’t provide us much real background on Cohan, explain his early stubbornness or give much more than passing background on his family members, but it’s pretty easily forgivable since the focus is Cohan’s music and ability to tap into what grabs the common man. His war time song “Over There” is a fine example of both – immediately hummable with simple lyrics that hit directly at the patriotic soul. If the film is a bit awash in flag-waving, it’s also quite forgivable since it appears that was a Cohan specialty. As well, the film was released in 1942 after the U.S. had just joined the follow-up war to the one that inspired “Over There”.
Technically, Yankee Doodle Dandy far exceeds Swing Time in terms of the quality and smoothness of its editing, pacing and general framing of its shots. It may be spliced up into a selection of scenes instead of an A–>B narrative, but its energy rarely lags and overall provides an entertaining look at some of the best known popular music of early 20th century America through the prism of top form James Cagney. Swing Time simply can’t compete on the same level of overall quality (except for a few comedic moments between Moore and Helen Broderick), but it shines – no, scratch that – radiates during its dance sequences. The large multi-tiered sets of the cafes and clubs are marvels by themselves, but almost fade to the background when upstaged by the sparkling Rogers and Astaire. I’m willing to give the rest of the rather poorly constructed film a complete pass just simply because it gave us a brilliant 20 minutes or so of glorious art.