The Arts Scene
Yankee Doodle Dandy: A Classic American Tale
MSM Class of 2017
(6/2015) Hello! My name is Jack Williams, and I will be taking over Caroline King’s role as reporter of the arts section of this great newspaper. At a moment like this, I am reminded of the words of the academic Gordon Gee
when he wrote, "The arts, quite simply, nourish the soul. They sustain, comfort, inspire. There is nothing like that exquisite moment when you first discover the beauty of connecting with others in celebration of larger ideals and shared wisdom." I have been gifted with the opportunity to share with you all some of the pieces, artists and local events that are so sustaining
and so inspiring. Where to begin!
I’d first like to thank and congratulate Caroline, whose contributions to this paper are known to many in our area. She has been nothing but supportive and kind throughout this transition, which should not come as much of a surprise. I’d also like to thank the other staff of this paper for welcoming me so openly. This is an amazing opportunity, and I
am so excited to celebrate larger ideals and shared wisdom. Flag Day is right around the corner! And summer is nipping at its heels. With Flag Day quickly approaching, the summer season right behind it, and the Fourth of July only a couple of weeks separate, I, like many of you, am starting to feel pretty patriotic. Perhaps some of you may remember the 1942 musical film
Yankee Doodle Dandy? For those of you who have not seen it, it is certainly worth the watch! Before I write more on that, allow me to introduce myself more fully, emphasizing my love of the arts.
I was born and raised in suburban New Jersey in the town of Basking Ridge, the son of a teacher and a sales manager at Verizon Wireless. From a very early age, that being about the age of five, I read voraciously. I found (and still find) incredible power in participating in someone else's story. Not as an actor necessarily, but certainly as an
observer. I remember once rushing to my mom when I was around seven, inexorably frustrated that a character I admired was being mistreated by some of the other characters. She was calm, and told me that it was just part of the story. This was pretty tedious initially, but it is an aspect of storytelling I have come to love: in almost all cases, the readers cannot adjust the
plot to their bidding. This can be a challenge, a difficult but revitalizing component of novelization that pushes all of us into perceiving the world in a different manner.
I have attended private schools for all of my life. I spent grades K-8 at a relatively small Catholic parochial school called St. James. And though I loved to watch movies, participated in a small stage production and enjoyed my art classes, my strongest preference for the arts came through the medium of books. That remained the case until I enrolled
at Seton Hall Preparatory School, a pretty prestigious all-boys school located about 45 minutes from New York City. I loved this school so much because it exposed me to abundant varieties of artistic expression. I took (among other things) courses in Cinema, Renaissance Italian art, and Classical Literature. It was here that I began to fully appreciate the numerous ways that
artists can express their messages.
I graduated from Seton Hall Prep and moved to Steubenville, Ohio to study philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I spent two great years there, studying some of the most influential thinkers in the recorded history of man. Ultimately, though, after great deliberation and through supportive input, I felt compelled to move someplace
else, to study at a different institution. After touring Mount St. Mary's University and exploring this beautifully quaint town, I knew right then that this is where I belong. As it stands today, as I write this, I am a prospective junior at the college, majoring in psychology with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist.
I imagine that many of you who read the arts section have a relatable interest in the arts in general, or perhaps some of you merely peruse this portion of the paper to discover what is happening locally. To all of you, even to those who have little interest in artistic matters, I hope that my time here will accurately reflect the beauty of and the
necessity for the arts in each of our lives.
With that said, let's look into an art piece! Even if you have not seen the musical film Yankee Doodle Dandy, I would certainly trust that you are familiar with the song of its title. It is a tune that is often introduced in elementary school, offering the kids a chance to listen to the music that their forefathers heard on and off the battlefield. It
is not uncommon either for children to laugh at the lyrics, usually at its apparent insensibility. But as you should expect, there is in fact meaning beneath the words! The song's opening number goes, "Yankee Doodle went to town / Riding on a pony / Stuck a feather in his hat / And called it macaroni!" So why would he call it macaroni? With a first guess, one might figure
that having a Yankee call it something so clearly unrelated is a mockery of their intelligence. But the answer is much more involved than that! Macaroni refers not to food, but instead to a mid-17th century fashion movement occurring in the upper echelons of British society. As such, the British soldiers (who initially used the song to mock the colonials) insinuated that
early Americans believed a feather in their hat merited them as fashionable individuals.
But perhaps my favorite tidbit of information regarding the song Yankee Doodle Dandy centers on its use during the Revolutionary War. Historians suggest that the song was being played as the British marched into the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Yet it is around this time that the colonial Yankees started to take considerable pride in its use, and
added their own words that taunted the British. Now at the last battle of this war, the Siege of Yorktown, General Charles Cornwallis and his remaining forces surrendered to General Washington in great shame, playing the song The World Turned Upside Down as they processed from their fort. An American band greeted the group by playing Yankee Doodle Dandy as onlookers sang its
newly American lyrics. Most assuredly, our forefathers had a sardonic, incisive sense of humor.
Almost a century and a half later, the director Michael Curtiz and James Cagney craft the musical film Yankee Doodle Dandy, a movie produced during the height of World War II, during a period in which American nationalism and patriotism were prevalent in American artistic expression. If the name Michael Curtiz sounds familiar, it is most likely because
he directed the internationally renowned Casablanca in that same year. And like Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a brilliant example of using lighting and shadows to embellish the look of a film. This is especially evident when George Cohan, played by the wonderful actor James Cagney, visits Washington D.C. on a stormy evening. The selective use of lighting in this scene
stresses the uninviting nature of the storm outside, while subtly contrasting with the welcoming ambiance of the White House when Conrad is permitted entrance.
I do not want to spoil any of the plot, because it is quite an enjoyable movie, but I will give a general outline of what the story is about. Yankee Doodle Dandy is biographically centered on the life of George Cohan, with whom some of you may be familiar. He is most strongly remembered today for his musical contributions, which include Give My Regards
to Broadway, You’re a Grand Old Flag, and The Yankee Doodle Boy. During his lifetime, Cohan was involved in the production of more than 36 Broadway musicals as a writer, producer, composer, or actor. In the movie, Cohan is read a letter from Washington D.C. by an associate, who informs him that President Roosevelt wishes to meet him at the White House. There, President
Roosevelt asks Cohan to play as him in the musical I’d Rather Be Right. In conversation, Cohan recalls his upbringing in the industry through the use of flashback. If you cannot watch the film, I would then recommend watching James Cagney’s tap-dance down the White House steps as Yankee Doodle Dandy plays in the background. It is easily findable on the Internet, as there is a
video of it already posted on YouTube. It is pretty impressive, made all the more magnificent by the fact that it was an impromptu decision completed on his first take!
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a classically American film, and it was met with acclaim upon its release. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won three, including one for Best Actor for James Cagney. Although it has a great history and is widely loved, it is not characteristically recommended around this time of year. Oftentimes the
recommendations pertain to relatively recent movies, like The Patriot, Saving Private Ryan, or Independence Day. And while each of these films is worth watching around this time of year, I believe Yankee Doodle Dandy offers us an American tale that need not be centered in action and fast pace. Instead, it shares with us the success story of a man who has achieved the American
Dream, and did so with a fervent love for his country. As President Roosevelt tells Cohan in the Oval Office, "You carry your love of country like a flag, right out in the open. It’s a great quality!" So as we prepare for Flag Day, let us bear this position in mind. As we continue to live our lives, pursuing happiness in the American Dream, let us display our love for this
great country openly, like a flag.
Read other articles by Jack Williams