Tuesday 28 February 2012

Blind Spot #2 - "Yankee Doodle Dandy" & "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 month 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.


Chip Lary said...

I love Yankee Doodle Dandy. It's easily the greatest role of Cagney's career. I loved how he effortlessly just adlibbed the "tap dancing down the stairs" bit at the end. It was completely unscripted.

Swing Time is not as good an overall film as Yankee Doodle Dandy, but it is my favorite Astaire/Rogers film. While the blackface sequence is jarring to a modern audience, it is not unnecessary. The whole sequence was Astaire's tribute to Bill Robinson (aka Mr. Bojangles) who had had a huge influence on Astaire's dancing. Astaire knew Robinson would never get the opportunities that Astaire himself got to dance on screen, so Astaire became a proxy for Robinson in this scene.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks again for another fantastic comment Chip - it adds so much.

That's awesome that Cagney did that final stair walk as an improv. It's all kinds of awesome. I had debated whether I should mention the blackface segments of both films or not...I recognize that the Yankee Doodle Dandy sequence was set much earlier than the film and that the Swing Time one was indeed a dedication to Bojangles, so yeah, I guess my usage of the word "unnecessary" was, uh, unnecessary. I still think you can do a tribute without resorting to the over the top makeup, but I do get that it wasn't Astaire's intent to do anything but pay respect.

It was odd to see those scenes back-to-back though...B-)

Chip Lary said...

The blackface scene in a movie that was really jarring to me was in Holiday Inn (1942). They are singing a happy song about Lincoln and all of a sudden Marjorie Reynolds is not only in blackface, but she also has her hair up in a number of tied pieces of cloth. She's in blackface because her identity is supposed to be hidden, but still, it really floored me because it was completely out of nowhere. As you pointed out, the Yankee Doodle Dandy scene was historically accurate, and the Astaire scene didn't bother me because I knew of it ahead of time and that it was a tribute.

Unknown said...

I constantly go back and forth on my favorite Astaire-Rogers film, usually swapping between Top Hat and Swing Time, with The Gay Divorcee once in a while nosing its way into the running. Ultimately, think the stories in both Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee work a bit better, but there is NOTHING in any of the other films that can top the dances in Swing Time. Obviously, all of them have great dancing, but between the sheer fun of "Pick Yourself Up," the elegance of "Waltz in Swing Time," and the nuanced emotions of "Never Gonna Dance," I usually end up coming back to Swing Time more often than the others.

Unknown said...
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Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Jandy...Not sure if it was good that I started at the top of the Rogers/Astaire ladder or not. I intend to get to both Top Hat and Gay Divorcee, but we'll see if I go further - depends how much of a return I get from the dancing in those films. Hopefully the stories and humour are better too, but I'm guessing they won't be enough to keep me coming back.

Chip, yeah I think I lost sight of the fact that the blackface scene in Swing Time was meant as a tribute because I did not expect it - when I saw Astaire slather on the makeup, I exclaimed aloud at the film (and to no one else) "Really?!"

Unknown said...

I like all the Astaire-Rogers films to one degree or another. I'd say definitely the three I mentioned are must-sees. Then Follow the Fleet is fun to see them in a slightly different setting and with good Irving Berlin songs, and Shall We Dance has great Gershwin songs, which makes it worth it. Beyond that, they're not really worth it except for aficionados.

Bob Turnbull said...

Oh yeah, "Shall We Dance" - I forgot about that. OK, add that to the list. Tell me though - is Astaire better or worse in those other films? And is his character not a doofus?

Chip Lary said...

Bob - here's a quick take on their ten films from my perspective:

Flying Down to Rio - this is sort of their first pairing. They are not the focus of the film like in later ones. I think they only dance together once. This movie gets away with some pre-Hays Code lines.

The Gay Divorcee - the first real pairing. I only remember a very long dance sequence that I felt could have been shorter.

Roberta - Astaire and Rogers in Paris helping his fashion designer friend.

Top Hat and Swing Time - already discussed.

Follow the Fleet - Astaire has broken up his old dance team with Rogers in order to join the navy.

Shall We Dance - Astaire and Rogers are believed to be married even thought they aren't. Interesting roller skating dance sequence.

Carefree - Astaire is a hypnotist who accidentally gets Rogers to fall in love with him, instead of the man she is supposed to marry.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle - the only one based on real people and events, so it is also the only one without a happy ending.

The Barkley's of Broadway - one last paring more than 10 years after the last. Astaire and Rogers are a bickering married couple with pressures that might split them up (like her wanting to quit the team and be a "serious actress" - sound familiar?) It's the only one of the ten movies in color.

Each of them are entertaining. None of them has much of a plot. All are just devices to get the two together for the first time, or to reconcile the two - with much dancing and some singing.

Unknown said...

That's a pretty solid run-down, Chip. I like them all, but they're all really slight as far as plot goes. And Astaire is always Astaire, if that's the question.

Heh, I should do a Rank 'Em of Fred & Ginger movies.