I was, well, not TERRIBLY recently, but somewhat recently, admonished by my father for the gaping holes in my collection when it comes to musicals, as he is quite a fan of them himself. I’ll admit that in most of my life I have not been a fan. I am particularly loathe to associate with the sort where characters burst out randomly into song without context during the plot to convey the story forward. I have difficulty accepting this outside of animation, except in instances where it’s fitting for an odd tone for a film–the obvious example (one which perhaps proves that conditional exception) is my long-time love for the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors–but that could also be tied to my affection for 60s “girl groups.”
Going backward through film as I have been in the past year or two, though, I’ve discovered a fairly large number of films that don’t approach musicals in that fashion which is much more suited to my taste. When it’s a musical number even inside the movie, what issue is there to take, unless the song itself is unpleasant? Now, I’ve also found that that approach bothers me a lot less than it used to, and I think I was bothered far more by the songs and overall plots (as musicals can have that tendency toward the syrupy sweet) than by that process.
But that’s moot because this is a movie about an author of musicals–George M. Cohan, author of songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” As such, the songs occur as songs that George is writing or has written, or in snippets of in-play performances. I suppose this is a sort of indirect violation if you indeed do not like characters bursting into song, but here it’s an actor playing an actor playing a character bursting into song, which is different in its way. Cohan is played by James Cagney, and he earned an Oscar for the role. I first saw Cagney as a part of an introduction to film class in Angels with Dirty Faces, and instantly liked him a lot. Much like Bogart, he just has a magnetic charisma that just instantly makes what he’s doing and saying interesting. It’s such an instinctual reaction that I’m not sure I can explain it any better than that. That role, however, is the kind Cagney is most known for (as encompassed by the infamous–and non-existent–line, “You dirty rat!”) but I’ve heard since that he thought of himself far more as a song-and-dance man than a gangster, even if he found himself almost constantly relegated to such a role. Here you can just barely see why–he’s a fantastic dancer. This wonderfully loose-legged sort of style he pulls out throughout is an absolute joy to watch, and his last few steps–involving a staircase–brought a smile to my face just in their joyful energy.
His singing style is a bit odd; he half-sings, half-recites (as someone put it, and I only couldn’t think of the second word…) the lyrics to “his” songs–but apparently that’s how Cohan himself did it. And perhaps it’s what comes naturally to Cagney as well, considering he has a similar background as a poor Irishman who got his start in vaudeville, just like the real Cohan. We tend not to hear whole songs throughou the film though, as it’s more about his life than about his musicals themselves, but we do see him go from being born all the way up through–well, let’s not spoil it for those who don’t know his history, but the reason FDR sends a message for him after he finishes performing a play as none other than FDR himself.
The film bears what I consider a very 40s style to it, but considering the volume of 40s movies I’ve seen that are directed by Michael Curtiz, it may well be the Curtiz style that I’m speaking of instead (as this, too, was directed by Curtiz). Things feel as if they’re still holding onto their theatrical roots, with more specific blocking and somewhat stiff acting that seems more focused on conveying lines and story than creating “characters.” It also seems as if it still feels the freshness of the motion picture medium, with heavy, constant camera moves–though not distracting ones–and the feeling that they’re almost still reeling from being able to make dialogue audible instead of typing it up on cards to insert between scenes. This gives movies like this a great feel, like they’re still staring wide-eyed at the distant horizons and boundaries now re-set for motion pictures, as if they can now see so much more that they’re able to do, but have yet to make use of much of that space and instead feel some comfort in drawing from what they’re most familiar with. They feel so very honest and strong, the way even background characters speak in that rapid but clearly understandable way, as if they’ve all been doing this for years–which they probably have. It seems a lot more training was likely present in these actors than in those that would come in decades to follow, and while it contributes to that sort of awkwardness they seem to exhibit by being in a film set instead of on a stage, they feel more real in some ways despite that. I rather like it a lot, but it’s not enough to save a bad movie. That’s not the case here though, as it’s quite snappy in dialogue, moves at a nicely brisk pace, has wonderful–and apparently historically accurate–set design for Cohan’s plays, and is excellently performed by Cagney and the rest of the cast, including George Tobias as a grumpy and judgmental theatrical producer and Walter Huston (alas, the only two names I had even rough knowledge of) as Cohan’s father Jerry (apparently actually “Jere” in reality).
I guess I should go ahead and branch out into more Warner musicals, even if no one else’s, huh?