George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.
R: This film is fairly ancient but a fifth of the films on the AFI’s list are even older. After watching this I’m more excited than I was before at the prospect of getting to know all these oldies. It was a fun movie!
F: I liked how it was billed as a musical but it wasn’t like most musicals where the characters just burst into song in the middle of a conversation. All the songs are instead part of the Broadway shows. And James Cagney can really tap dance!
R: Yes I have real difficulty suspending my disbelief in musicals where people just burst into song in the middle of a scene so was pleasantly surprised to discover this is a proper biopic. Although seeing as George Cohan died in the same year it came out perhaps it’d be more fitting to call it a eulogy? It’s far from a critical examination of his life.
F: Apparently the film has taken some liberties with his life story (no ex-wife, changed the order of events, etc) but I do think the film is more a story of his stage shows rather than the man himself.
R: I suppose in fairness it is set up so that Cohan is telling the story of his life to the president of the United States, so they do have an excuse for the narrative being unreliable and glossing over some of the darker parts of his history. Although the fact they expect us to believe he would be given a couple of hours to tell the story of his life to the president is one of several dubious bits of plotting.
F: Yes there were elements of the plot that did make it feel like a musical. It is also very flag waving. Interesting as well that James Cagney was one of the Hollywood stars blacklisted as a communist in the 1940s and here he is in perhaps the most patriotic American film I think I’ve ever seen!
R: Yes, they definitely don’t make them like this any more. I guess you have to let them off for some of the unflinching patriotism given it was released in the middle of the second World War. Unfortunately that does mean it lacks a bit in the way of drama. Would you say it’s a combination of the stage choreography and Cagney’s performance that carry the film? I thought Cagney made the slightly cartoonish characterisation of George Cohan quite believable.
F: Cagney is really great in this film. His acting, as well as being able to sing and dance, make this a convincing performance. I’d quite like to go and see more of his work. Yes I do think it’s his performance, along with the well done set pieces of the stage shows, which lift this film above other similar movies from this time. What did you think of the songs in the movie?
R: There are a few that sound pretty similar to each other, but I don’t often listen to early 20th century show tunes so I’ll accept my ear might not be very well tuned in to some of the subtle differences. You certainly hear why they were such crowd pleasing hits though and I’ll probably be humming Over There to myself for at least the next month or two. In short: they’re good enough songs to hide the fact there’s not much going on in the plot.
F: I agree the story wasn’t the most gripping and very ‘America is the best’ and it’s not really the sort of film I usually like. That said, it was a fun enough way to pass a couple of hours.
R: Yeah I’d happily watch it again if it came on TV on a rainy Sunday afternoon, which is more than I’d say of most musicals.
Is it worthy of the top 100?
F: No it wasn’t that great but was definitely more fun than I thought it would be!
R: I was entertained but there are at least 100 better American films than this.