film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943)

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You’ll notice I haven’t had the best track record with avant-garde experimental film.  The only way I could make sense of L’Age D’or was to compare it to Monty Python; Limite I had no idea what was going on, and Un Chien Andalou sent me into full-on body horror.  So I approached Meshes Of The Afternoon with some trepidation.

And…lo and behold, I think I kind of “get it”.

Perhaps it’s because it feels more like a hyper-extended dream sequence.  I’ve always been fascinated by dreams – there’s a joke that implies that someone else telling you about a dream they had at length would be tedious, but I’d actually be fascinated, and might happily volunteer to pitch in and help you speculate about what it might “mean” (or laugh with you if you conclude it was triggered by something you ate).

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This film feels exactly like the kind of dream I’d rub my hands over.  Filmmaker and artist Maya Deren is the “star”, a woman whom we first meet wandering down a leafy Los Angeles street and entering a little cottage.  After giving the room a look-over – studying a couple of items carefully, like a bread knife and a record player – she settles into an armchair for a nap, where she dreams that she’s walking down a leafy Los Angeles street and enters a little cottage, where her double is asleep in an armchair; so she goes to the window, where she sees herself walking down a leafy Los Angeles street towards the cottage to let herself in…

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There is a lot of that funky dream-logic going on.  Things loop back on themselves again and again, random objects take on unexplained significance, or spontaneously disappear and reappear, or move around the room.  The bread knife turns into a house key.  One of the multiple Mayas in the room suddenly sees she has ink or blood on her hands.  A mysterious figure in a cloak with a mirror for a face wanders up and down the street, and eventually into the house, over and over again.  A handsome man enters the cottage towards the end, but treads the same path as the mirror-faced figure.

The other experimental works I’ve seen haven’t grabbed me the way this one has – perhaps this had just the right level of implied import to trigger my “come on, that’s got to mean something” Jungian-analysis button.  It’s also tantalizingly short, leaving you thinking that maybe if there were just one more scene you’d get the key that unlocked it all.  But no, this is all there is.

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This film established Maya and her then-husband Alexander Hammid as innovators in avant-garde filmmaking (he held the camera and he’s the man who enters the house).  Her style in this film particularly has influenced a couple of David Lynch’s films, and in more recent years some of the images have left their stamp on music videos (this is where Janelle Monae got the idea for the mirror-faced figures in the video for “Tightrope” in particular).

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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This film really snuck up on me and gave me a sucker punch.

The whole thing is set in an around a small town in Nevada in the 1880s. The very beginning is really trope-y – Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his buddy Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are a pair of drifters who are making one of their periodic stops in Bridger’s Well, a Podunk of a town where the saloonkeeper advises them that all there is to do in town is “eat, sleep, drink, play poker or fight”.   Gil and Art opt for option 3, but Gil is antsy after hearing about an ex-girlfriend who’s left town and quickly adds on option 5, picking a fight with another bar patron and forcing the saloonkeeper to knock him out with a whiskey bottle.  When Gil comes around (thanks to Art throwing a bucket of water in his face), he just shrugs and goes back to drinking.

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This was the point where I rolled my eyes a little and paused to make dinner, remarking to Alex as I did that “so far it seems like it’s just checking off a list of ‘things that need to happen in a Western’.”  But when I went on, dinner in hand, I realized that that was all just setup for the real story, something that affected me so much I went back to Alex after and said “I take back everything I said.”

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The real story kicks off when a ranch hand from the Kincaid property outside town rides in sounding an alarm – several head of the Kincaid’s cattle have been rustled, and someone was found shot dead on the Kincaid property.  Not sure who – their face was too badly damaged – but Kincaid isn’t around, so it’s probably him.  Most of the patrons in the bar quickly tumble out to fetch their horses and form a posse, with “Major” Tetley (Frank Conroy), a wealthy self-styled veteran, spurring the posse on.  Major Tetley drags his son Gerald (William Eythe) into the fray as well to “make a man out of him”.  Gil and Art join reluctantly, knowing that suspicion will fall on them if they sit out; but Gil does persuade the local judge to come by first and try to quell the passions of the crowd first. But by the time they come back, the crowd is about 20 strong and everyone’s at a fever pitch, so all the judge can do is warn them that they need to bring the suspects back alive so they get a fair trial.  The crowd nods and says a whatever-you-say mumble and then hits the road, finding three suspects in the mountains in short order – three men sleeping by a campfire, beside a herd of cattle bearing Kincaid’s brand.

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The posse wakes the men – young aspiring rancher Donald (Dana Andrews), and his two assistants, feeble-minded elderly Alva (Francis Ford) and Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) who speaks no English.  Donald quickly protests that he bought the cattle fair and square and knows nothing about Kincaid’s murder.  But the posse is dubious – and out for blood – and subjects the three to a lengthy trial by kangaroo court, treating their eventual guilty verdict and execution by hanging as a foregone conclusion the whole while.  Gil and Art, and a handful of others, do dissent, but their influence may not be great enough to stop it…

The whole thing is meant as a cautionary tale against mob violence, with a denouement that reminded me of The Bacchae. What stood out even more so for me, though, was the initial growth of the mob – some of the participants join as a way to Prove Themselves, some are just mean, and some (Gil and Art) are joining in out of peer pressure.  And some are joining in out of fear – the town has been plagued by rustlers in recent weeks and this is a chance to finally stop that lurking dread.

But mostly it felt like the biggest reason people had for joining in was simply that it was something to do. Bridger’s Well had only one saloon, everyone had probably played poker with each other several times over, and as the saloonkeeper says early on the only single woman in town was 82 years old and blind.  Everyone in town was probably itching for some kind of break in the monotony, and the mob presented a chance to do something that many people jumped at without thinking.  Mind you, I’m not claiming that that’s the only reason people might have joined the posse, or that they would have admitted to this themselves, but I suspect that this was lurking underneath their thinking.

“Mob justice” takes a different form today – these days it’s threats in email and SWATTing (“SWATTING” means to call in a fake report of a violent crime-in-progress at the house of someone you want to harass).  The consequences aren’t always as dire as those that befell Donald and his ranchhands, but sometimes they can be.  And it’s got me wondering whether “because it’s just something to do” might be fueling a lot of the mob mentality here as well.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Fires Were Started (1943)

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So – remember those true-crime type of TV shows from the 90s and Aughts which had a dramatic recreation of key points of the crime in question?  And remember how some of them used the actual participants in the story in the recreations?  That is precisely what Fires Were Started does as well.

Early on in World War II, British fire departments soon found themselves overwhelmed by the special challenges of fighting fires during wartime; bombs would blow up water mains as well as houses, and the sheer number of fires started during air raids was staggering. Initially Great Britain formed a series of “Auxiliary Fire Brigades” as part of their Civil Defense program, which were meant as backup to each community’s own regular fire service.  But the Auxiliary Brigades faced considerable logistic problems – poor communication, an all-volunteer staff, and most damaging, equipment issues (auxiliary brigades were all issued the same pump trucks, but each community had different-shaped hydrants, so the pump trucks often couldn’t access the hydrants in the communities where they were stationed).  After a couple years the UK rolled out a nationalized wartime fire service to cope with the burden.

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Director Humphrey Jennings chose to make a “docudrama” set just before the nationalized service was rolled out, illustrating the struggles of the former “regular firefighters and auxiliary” system.  It’s a slice-of-life glimpse into the workings of one London fire brigade, showing staff on daily patrols, hanging around the station, and responding to an alarm.  The only nod to a plot is to have a character for whom this is his first day on the job, a plot point that lets some of the others introduce him around to various characters and have people explain things to him for our benefit.

This is not a fast-paced film. A lot of attention is paid to the nuts-and-bolts procedural work – the cleaning of the machines, the unrolling and setting-up of the pump trucks, the communications hub tracking the locations of each stations’ trucks.  We do see an actual fire fight, too, but as much attention is paid to the unrolling of the hoses before the team gets to work and the rolling-up of hoses after as it is to actually fighting the fire. Backdraft this ain’t.

Part of the pacing and the granular detail, however, may be because Jennings cast actual firefighters for this project, recruiting one or two staff from each stationhouse in London so no one station was left too short.  While Jennings had a general idea for the overall plot, the firefighters were free to contribute smaller detail within each scene, and most of the dialogue was ad-libbed.  This interview excerpt by one of the firefighters gives a fascinating “making-of” view.

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And even though the earlier bits did feel like they dragged some, the non-fussy “performances” from the cast gave things a freshness and immediacy that carried over the slow bits.  It also lent a weight to the one or two things you could call “stunts” – there’s a scene when an injured firefighter is being lowered down off the roof via a rope, and even though he’s pretty solidly locked into place, when a sudden jolt made the cable spin unexpectedly I found myself gasping.  There’s even a fair bit of wartime solidarity-raising; the main fire sequence takes place near a dock where a munitions supply ship is prepped for launch on the following morning, and the firemen are working as diligently as they are to ensure the fire doesn’t spread to the ship and its ammunition.  The final sequences include one of the exhausted firefighters remarking after the fire is out that the unaffected ship is “a sight for sore eyes”, and the shots of the weary firemen returning to their station are intercut with the munitions ship safely setting sail for the front.

Still, it’s more of an intellectually interesting film than it is an emotionally arresting one.  Not anything I can see myself revisiting, but still intriguing.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cat People (1942)

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This was weird, yo.

Cat People is a sort of psychological horror film – the story of Irina (Simone Simon), a young woman from a small town in Serbia now living in New York.  She is sketching the black panther at the Central Park Zoo when she catches the eye of engineer Oliver (Kent Smith), who strolls over to chat her up. Irina is hesitant at first, but she’s also lonely, and the pair begin a whirlwind romance that leads in short order to marriage.

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There’s just one eensy problem – Irina seems weirdly obsessed with old Serbian folktales about an evil family from her village; in moments of high passion, they would turn into cats. In fact, she’s not just obsessed – she’s convinced that she has a personal connection to the tale.  She’s so spooked that she insists on she and Oliver sleeping in separate rooms after their marriage until she can get past this fear.  The smitten Oliver goes along with her at first, teasing her gently about her fears.  Then he starts to push her towards seeing a psychiatrist.

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He starts spending more time with a work colleague, Alice (Jane Randolph), who’s always had a crush on him; meanwhile, Irina is strangely compelled to visit the zoo panther again and again. And one night as Irina heads back home from the zoo, she spots Oliver and Alice in a coffee house and starts getting a little miffed…

So: this is definitely a B movie. The acting is not all that great, the plot is ridiculous (and a little bit lurid). The movie’s depiction of psychiatry is completely ridiculous.  There are even moments you could chalk up to exploitative skin-flashing – Irina curled up and sobbing in frustration in a bathtub, Alice having a swim in a skimpy bathing suit (well, skimpy for the 1940s).

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But alongside the cheese there are some genuinely creepy elements. When it comes to terror, the monster you can’t see is always more frightening than the one you can – and director Jacques Tourneur knows this full well, throwing several scenes into dim lighting and hinting at a lurking menace rather than outright showing it.  That swim Alice takes is in an indoor pool at night, lit only by the glow of the moon outside a window; the light reflecting off the ripping water throws rippling shadows on the walls, shadows which might or might not start to look catlike as Alice swims. Especially when she starts hearing a growling panther in the room.  There’s another growl during a later scene with Oliver and Alice at their office, interrupting their discussion about Irina – and this time Oliver thinks he can smell Irina’s perfume.

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Spookier still is a scene where Alice is wending her way homeward after a coffee outing with Oliver, walking alone on a footpath that takes her under some bridges.  At least she thinks she’s alone – Irina has been spying on the couple, and when Alice takes her leave, Irina follows her. At first we see them both – Alice passing into and out of the pools of light from the streetlamps, Irina following after her just far enough behind.  We hear Alice’s distinct step; we hear Irina’s steps just after, quickening as they follow her.  Then we stop seeing Irina.  But we hear her still.  And then Alice starts to hear her too, casting fearful glances behind her as she walks.  Alice’s step quickens.  So does the sound of Irina’s steps.

Then Irina’s footsteps suddenly go silent. And we hear what might be a low growl.  …It might also be the bus pulling up to the stop where Alice has paused, but she’s creeped out enough to hastily board the bus even though it’s going the wrong way.  But as the bus is pulling away, Alice sees strange movement in the bushes right near where she’d been standing.

It’s just bizarre that Jacques Tourneur knew how to make something genuinely that unsettling, but didn’t seem to notice how flat everyone’s acting was.  Still, the film did well enough at the box office, and even inspired a 1980s remake that fleshed out the plot some and threw in a couple of sex scenes (the remake is perhaps wisely not included on the 1001 list).  The film also introduced Tourneur to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, now regarded as one of the pioneers of the film noir style.  Tourneur and producer Val Lewton worked with Musuraca frequently, often in other similar B-movie fare, but Musuraca’s technique left a chilling stamp on their works.

Extra Credit, film, movies

Quick Extra-Credit Crosspromotion

MCU: Assembled

Hang on, that picture’s not got anything to do with the Crash Course*, what’s going on?

My roommate Alex, whom I’ve invoked in a few reviews, is participating in another movie-review project; he’s one of the panelists for a limited-run podcast series, which is examining each and every film in the Marvel Comic Universe in the days leading up to Avengers: Endgame.  I’ve been sitting in on some of the living room screenings (and getting my own secondary crash course in the MCU works, which has been a hoot), and wanted to give you a heads-up.

Sure, watching Thor: Ragnarok is a really different experience from watching Casablanca, but I wanted to share anyway; the discussions have been great fun to listen to, and all the panelists really go deep in their discussions.  (Alex was part of the panel for Iron Man 3, and apparently had a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard full of notes he was referring to as they spoke and invoked things like postmodernism and semiotics.)

They broadcast live at 9:30 pm Eastern Time every evening or so over at their podcast platform, and episodes are available on iTunes and Google Play after that.  And there is a chance that Tim Blake Nelson just might be following the podcast under an assumed name….Check it out!

 

*There are two MCU films on the list that I’ll be getting to eventually – Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Black Panther – but that won’t be for quite some time.
film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

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Mrs. Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is doing quite well when this film starts.  It’s 1939, and times are prosperous again.  Her architect husband Clem  (Walter Pidgeon) makes enough for them to live a comfortable middle-class existence in a suburb outside London – not too wealthy, but enough for them to have a house on the Thames and pay for piano lessons for daughter Judy and a cat for little Toby and send their oldest Vincent to Oxford, and still allow Kay to splurge on the occasional new hat.  But wealth doesn’t go to their heads, like with Lady Beldon up in the big house in town; they’re polite and charming to everyone, so much so that the kindly old railway stationmaster, Mr. Ballard, wants to name the new breed of rose he’s developed after Kay, and even pit his “Mrs. Miniver” rose against Lady Beldon’s own blooms.  Things are ticking along quite nicely for everyone.

….And then war comes and things start to change.

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Not as fast as all that, though.  It’s only in retrospect that I realize how cleverly this film works –  I actually felt like the first half was a little slow and plodding, but only later did I realize it was lulling me into the easy comfortable groove that the Minivers were enjoying, with family teas and occasional dances at the social hall, and their regular visits to church each week, all the Minivers dutifully filing into the pew opposite Lady Beldon and her pretty granddaughter Carol.  There is the occasional reminder of the war –  Vincent enlists in the RAF, the family is encouraged to set up a shelter in their basement – but at first it seems a grand adventure, with Vincent close enough to home to still pop in for family dinner and spin tall tales for little Toby, and woo and win Carol Beldon.  Even when Clem is one of the many men summoned to the town hall for an “emergency” at 2 am one morning, they think nothing of it at first, and make time for quick glasses of sherry while they wait for the civil defense agent to arrive.

That’s actually the point that the film turned for me – because when the civil defense agent does arrive, he orders that all the men present were summoned because they own boats, and they’re to immediately go get them and head to the coast, to await further orders.   As soon as he said that I guessed – correctly – that they were about to be sent to Dunkirk.  We never see Clem in Dunkirk, mind you; but I’d seen the 2017 film and knew he was about to head into some heavy stuff.  And Vincent is called up on his first air mission at the same time, leaving Kay behind to fret about them both.  But she’s also got her hands full constructing the family shelter and keeping an eye out for a rumored fugitive German pilot that’s supposed to be skulking about town.  The air raids are starting to come more frequently as well.  Both Clem and Vincent come home in one piece and in good spirits, but we definitely kept a vigil with Kay, and that sense of cozy security has started to erode.  Within only a couple scenes we’re watching the family huddle in their air raid shelter and seeing great craters dot the lovely English town where the Minivers live.  Then the damage from the air raids creeps closer to the Miniver’s own house – and household.

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And the Minivers stiff-upper-lip through it all, even as things get worse and worse.  The Minivers’ little boat is in sorry shape after Dunkirk, but when Kay remarks on it and asks what happened, Clem just waves things off with a smile – don’t fuss about the boat when he’s okay. During a scary air raid, as the whole family huddles in their shelter, Kay tries to soothe her children by calmly reading them a chapter of Alice in Wonderland.  Lady Beldon goes on with her flower show, serenely inviting all attendees to shelter in her own basement when an air raid interrupts the proceedings.  Everyone tries to carry on in the face of war despite it growing nearer and nearer. And that is why the beginning went on so long, I realized – I needed to be grounded in the “before” to really get what they were losing, and appreciate how brave the Minivers and their neighbors were.

As a piece of propaganda it’s an absolute masterwork.  It’s one of the first Hollywood films not to pull its punches against the Third Reich, and Churchill applauded its depiction of English fortitude and bravery, predicting that it would boost American support of the Allies.  FDR was so struck by a lengthy speech towards the film’s end that he had it translated into German and printed on leaflets the US Airforce dropped over German cities.  Even Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels acknowledged the power of the film – “…its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.”

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But its propaganda is not so blatant as to keep this from being a good film in and of itself. There’s an impressive sequence showing the boats heading off to Dunkirk, a whole flotilla of little tugboats and pleasure craft silently puttering on down the Thames by moonlight. First there are just a few, then a dozen in the next shot, then a few dozen next, and on and on until there’s a massive fleet gliding down the Thames, filling up the whole river.  It’s a stirring image.  I was also quite charmed by the romance between Carol Beldon and Vincent; she meets him before the war, when he’s come home spouting lofty ideals about the class system – she punctures his puffery with a remark so cutting I’m half tempted to use it on Twitter (I’m not sharing just so I can keep it for myself – it’s that good).  Speaking of Vincent, his casting was literally the only thing I didn’t quite accept; Greer Garson seemed awfully young to have a college-age son, and something about Kay’s relationship with Vincent seemed just a shade overly-intimate.  Not to the point that I was creeped out.  But enough that when I later learned that Garson was actually dating the guy who played Vincent in real life that I thought “oh, that explains it”.

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But still this got under my skin to the point that I caught myself involuntarily saying “oh no” when someone’s death is reported towards the end.  I couldn’t really relate to the Minivers at first blush – but by the end I’d been made well enough acquainted with their little world that I felt their losses as keenly as they did. That’s almost a miracle.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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If you look back through my review for films with Jimmy Cagney, you’ll notice an interesting progression.  I started with a low opinion of him, based on some clips I’d seen years ago and found unimpressive.  But over the course of a handful of films, I discovered his acting chops…and then his dance prowess…and then with Yankee Doodle Dandy, we finally come to the film that soured me on him all those years ago.  And it’s time for me to admit that I owe Jimmy Cagney an apology.

In my defense, the film doesn’t do him any tremendous favors – at least from the perspective of today.  It’s a fairly standard show-biz biopic, telling the story of theater showman George M. Cohan – the vaudevillian-turned-Tin-Pan-Alley-composer who wrote the spirited patriotic standards “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There”, plus “Give  My Regards To Broadway” and countless other show tunes from Broadway’s early years.  FDR awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1942, an event that serves as the framing device for the film; at the top of the film, Cohan has just come out of retirement to play FDR in a new Broadway comedy, and after his curtain call he receives a telegram inviting him to the White House.

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He heads to Washington right away, is quickly shown into the Oval Office, and within a few brief minutes has started reminiscing about his life story, triggering a two-hour retrospective flashback covering Cohan’s birth, childhood in a vaudevillian family, initial early struggles, breakout success, ascendancy to fame, retirement, and a brief period of dotage before his return to the stage.  There are scores of musical numbers, scenes from his family’s act and his own musicals. There are scenes of him at a piano, frowning in concentration for a moment or two before finally getting an idea and hastily tapping out the tune to something the world now knows by heart. There are scenes when he is down on his luck but vows to just hang in there.  There are dancing girls and waving flags and World War I doughboys marching off to war whistling his songs.

There is, in short, nothing in the plot that you haven’t already seen in plenty of other biopics about famous showmen.  The film is more like a greatest-hits album than anything with a narrative; any “problems” are neatly resolved within minutes, and any “struggle” is also similarly dispatched with ease so that we can move on to the next Big Hit From The Songbook.

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It’s not anything I’d watch if it were a modern tale about a fictional person.  It’s doubtless I’d watch a modern remake like this even if it was about Cohan.  But at the same time, I can’t ignore that this came out a few months after Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was no doubt desperate for some heartwarming, sentimental rah-rah patriotism and good vibes, and so even while I want to cringe at moments like the staged recreations of that famous Spirit of ’76 painting or other similar numbers, I also am reminding myself that this was absolutely and exactly what audiences at the time were desperate for.

And – I have to say that Jimmy Cagney is one of the reasons why I’m able to forgive it.  Ironically, Cagney was not Cohan’s first choice for the part – Cohan was hoping to get Fred Astaire, whom he greatly admired.  Cagney wasn’t all that fond of Cohan either – Cohan was a little too much of a red-blooded Conservative for the progressive Cagney.  However, fate took a hand in things – first Fred Astaire turned down the part, since he felt Cagney’s dancing style was too stiff and clunky for him to recreate in a film. And as for Cagney, he was starting to get some unwelcome attention from the government due to suspicion he was a Communist.  So when Cohan and company next offered Cagney the part, Cagney jumped at the chance to deflect rumors of un-American activity by playing an uber-patriot – not just playing him, actually, but becoming him.

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Ironically, Cagney was so good at becoming George Cohan that that’s what lead to my initial distaste. The clips I’d seen before now all featured Cagney “singing” all the songs in this sort of spoken-word sungspiel, the kind that I’ve always associated with “this actor can’t sing but we had to cast him anyway and so we’re putting up with it”.  To my great surprise, I learned that this was how Cohan actually sang in his own shows; Cagney could sing all along, he was just taking on Cohan’s style.  He took on Cohan’s dancing style as well – a sort of wind-up toy stiff-legged thing, all stiff back and jerky kicks, but fast, blindingly fast and energetic.  It is indeed way off what the smooth and suave Astaire would have done – but Cagney throws himself into it, with all the gumption he has to spare (he was reportedly so enthusiastic he sprained his ankle twice during filming).  Whatever reservation Cagney may have initially had about the part, he left it behind.

Cohan was won over by his performance, heaping praise on the movie and calling Cagney “a tough act to follow” at the premiere.  Critics were also effusive in their praise, including awarding Cagney a Best Actor Oscar that year.  And…I have to admit, Cagney has also at long last won me over.  I’m still not wildly impressed by the film, but watching the film that put me off Jimmy Cagney has finally won me over to him again at last.