This 40s Movie: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Yankee Doodle Dandy is from 1942. When I was watching it for The Incomparables podcast, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I know some 30s and 40s movies (and I’m anxiously waiting for my randomizer to assign a theme week from that period to me), but I’ve never analyzed them the way I do here. The oldest movie yet was Lawrence of Arabia from 1962 and twenty years is a lot. Anyway, the movie is a biopic about George M. Cohan, who I only realized after the movie, was a real person. It’s somewhat entertaining, without the songs, if you can enjoy the old-fashioned humor and acting. I found it more watchable than 1776, for example, the other movie discussed in that podcast, that I wasn’t able to even finish. It’s enjoyable enough to keep you interested, despite all the things you can expect from a 40s movie. There is not much authenticity to anything as everyone is a “character” and talks as if they’re in the musical of a movie (or the other way around). Some of the direction is noticeable, but nothing jumps at you and the filmmaking is mostly ordinary.

Still, what fascinated me about this movie are all the things you wouldn’t really find in a modern day movie. For example:

Black servants who serve no other function but taking coat and hat and smile politely.

Disregard for crying babies, that aren’t calmed down by American flags.

A blackface musical number for the whole family.

Spanking and jokes about spanking. Including this amazing dialogue between George’s parents after he ruined something for them:

Jerry Cohan: Now you see what happens because you wouldn’t lay hand on him all these years?

Mary Cohan: A mother is not supposed to do any punishing, she just gives her permission.

Jerry Cohan: Have I your permission?

Mary Cohan: You certainly have.

George Cohan: Don’t you think you need to get my permission too, Dad?

Mary Cohan: Not on the hand, he has to play the violin!

Jerry Cohan: Alright, not on the hand.

Mary Cohan: Not on the mouth, he has to sing!

Jerry Cohan: Alright, not on the mouth. Come here. Here’s one place without any talent! (stars spanking his butt)

An extended scene in which George pretends to be an old man and fools his future wife into believing that he dates a 17-year-old girl (who looks older than 17).

A scene in which George and his future business try to sell a musical by adding more and more girls, to which the potential financer replies (with a mock-German accent): “Mhm, women, women, little rose petals.” (and some disgusting noises as if he was eating something delicious).

A moment in a musical number about the Civil War, where the slaves have to praise Abraham Lincoln…

…but have disappeared when everyone gathers on the stage for the final number.

And lots and lots of patriotism and war celebration.

The question for me is: How do you deal with that? Do you detest the movie for being racist and sexist? Do you laugh it off as ‘the good old naïve days’? Or do you wonder what has changed since then? Has our culture changed and is becoming more aware of prejudices and such? Is all of that evidence of a truly horrible and dark time? I’m not sure how to answer that and I might just wait until something like a 1942 week comes around. But it is certainly fascinating to see and think about it.