Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Is there an accurate classic biopic? Bueller?

Lets recap right quick. 1980's made for tv (i think, i hope so, was it a theatrical release? oh, the horror) Bogie. 1965's Harlow - snooze fest. 57's Buster Keaton Story - don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Donald O'Connor. but if you're going to recap a legend, maybe make it, oh, I don't know, true. That goes for 82's Francis (Jessica Lange was amazing), 81's Mommy Dearest (Dunaway also was awesome), 92's Chaplin, 46's Jolson Story - all mostly complete BS ... the list goes on and on.

And not to say that list isn't full of decent movies and decent actors. it just seems if you're going to put the time and effort into what boils down to paying homage to a legend, you would think facts would be a little more important. How much do you really need to fabricate in a story about Hollywood in its prime to make it dramatic and interesting? The fact that "biopic" is just biography and picture squished together isn't lost on me, but it seems they always like to throw phrases like "true", "actual events" and "real life" into titles and descriptions, which annoy me when the credits roll and i rush online to fact check and find 85% of what ever I just watched was fabricated crap.

Keaton and O'Connor

I am a little disappointed that no one has really tackled a Peter Lorre bio. Drug addiction, illness, fame, defiance, affairs, the red scare, poverty, and one of the most waster talents Hollywood's ever seen? Really?  No love? I have no idea who could even play Lorre. Maybe Pete Doherty if he could act - he's got the look, accent and addiction part down. After seeing Hopkins dressed up as Hitchcock he might make a good Sidney Greenstreet,  Clooney or.. oh man this hurts to say... Ben Affleck (based on looks alone) as Bogie, and maybe Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting as Bertolt Brecht (seriously, look those two up. Dead ringer)... but I digress.



Back to movies that do exist - I was trying to think of a Hollywood biopic to write about that meets my very elitist standards of honest portrayal and entertaining to watch. In true Hollywood fashion, the truth is not out there. So then I started thinking if there was one that stood out as such a great film that maybe the truth didn't matter so much, and there are quite a few that I like, but my number one with a bullet would have to be James Cagney's portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Cohan and Cagney

This was the first time I saw Cagney as a song and dance man. No guns?  No grapefruits? Who is this man? And as anyone does when they see their favorite tough guy in a family movie, and *gasp* a musical, I thought it was going to be a flaming pile.

First of all, they nailed it with casting. Cagney and Cohan are about the same build, similar features, almost identical delivery, and they came from similar backgrounds, both being Irish-Americans originally from New England. You would also need someone with decent acting chops to portray a personality like Cohan, and Cagney had it in spades. In every scene he looks so thrilled just to be there you can't help but be drawn in.

A clip of Cohan dancing in 1932 

Second, yes they took some liberties with the story line. But a few name changes, a little chronological editing, and some inaccuracies (Roosevelt's wheelchair, some political glossing-over, Cohan's divorce and second wife, etc) are, to me, pretty minor in comparison. A lot of folks like to point out that Cohan was born on the 3rd of July, not the 4th, but he and his family told everyone he was born on the 4th to appear "all-American". That doesn't seem like a stretch to me in this movie. Cohan was an advisor on the film and one of his original producers, Jack Boyle, helped director Michael Curtiz to make the choreography, sets, and costumes as accurate as possible. Hey, at least they were trying. More than I can say for some of the others. It was no DeMille type effort for accuracy, but what they lacked in truth they made up for in entertainment quality, in my opinion.

And lastly, history aside, it's just a damn good movie. From Cohan's Vaudeville days to the peak of his career as "the man who owns Broadway" to the loss of his family and his spotlight, the production as a whole is just stellar. Every time I watch the scene with his father (played by Walter Huston) on his death bed, my heart just hurts.Watching Cagney go from optimistic when he arrives home, to sad when he sees his father, to the hope draining from his face as it sinks in... ugh it's no wonder he got the Oscar for that one. I am usually not a fan of  war era forced (and often faked) nationalism, but with Cohan's real life war efforts and the kind of songs he wrote you can't help but get an urge to wave a flag. The supporting cast is also amazing- Eddie Foy Jr plays his father, a 17 year old Joan Leslie plays Cohan's wife, everyone did wonderful jobs. You laugh, you cry, you sing along, it's a well rounded experience. After Cohan screened the film he said "my God, what an act to follow". Well said, sir. I couldn't imagine a better portrayal by anyone else.

For tons more reviews, opinions and ideas on biographical films, check out the Shoes They Wear blogathon going on at the Cinematic Katzenjammer. !


  1. I agreed with every word of this post. Cagney is terrific in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

    And how come there never was a biopic of Peter Lorre? I've never thought about it before, but now that you mention it, it's going to bother me a little bit.

  2. A biopic of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester is well overdue. Follow the campaign to get one made: