07 July 2015

How Lucky Are We? A Thought About James Cagney and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

President Roosevelt with George M. Cohan

Performance seems to be a natural human instinct; it helps us understand the world we live in, or at least cope with it, and it reminds us of how much we share. If everyone can mysteriously sorrow for Hecuba's tears, as Hamlet suggested, it means that we all share that feeling, at least. So the arts of theater have been part of human life for untold millennia. And throughout history, as now, great performers have arisen from the human population, quite frequently out of nowhere. But all we'll ever know of them (unless that time machine turns up) is the loving and ecstatic descriptions left by their admirers.

One that has always appealed to me is the great English critic William Hazlitt's love for the Regency era actor, Edmund Kean. This is his description of Kean's appearance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in about 1815: "His style of acting is, if we may use the expression, more significant, more pregnant with meaning, more varied and alive in every part, than any we have almost ever witnessed." Hazlitt went on to write many thoughtful, enthusiastic and sympathetic reviews and essays about Kean's work. This was the era when performing artists were just beginning to achieve respect as artists, and both Kean's great talent and Hazlitt's admiration had a lot to do with it. Kean had risen from strolling player and pantomimist to classical star by means of his great talent and original ideas; Hazlitt lauded his skills as an acrobat as well as his modern take on Shakespeare's characters.

But we have to take his word for it; we'll never see these moving, frightening, enthralling, or delightful scenes. What we do have, however, is movies (thank you, Mr. Muybidge, Mr. LePrince, Mr. Friese-Greene, and Mr. Dickson!). And after more than a hundred years of movies, we can see records of great performers of all kinds -- sure, it's not the same as seeing someone live in a theater. But it's still a treasure.

And that's where Yankee Doodle Dandy comes in. This film is so superbly done, and so well loved and familiar, that we tend to forget that it also has one of the tour-de-force performances of all time -- James Cagney portraying George M. Cohan. He makes it look so easy and natural that you have to deliberately step back and consider what you're seeing. With the support of perfect script and direction, Cagney shows us Cohan, why he was important and why he was loved. By re-creating the breezy, wise-cracking (but not at all silly) persona Cohan made the central character in his plays, and by his brilliant evocation of Cohan's dancing, Cagney at once gives the marvel that was George M. Cohan and his own genius -- because I can hardly call it anything else -- to the future.    


Dancing for joy