Yesterday I watched a conversation on Twitter about “Yankee Doodle Dandy” being number 100 on the American Film institute’s top-100 movies of all time. That reminded me of a specific scene and of course it’s on YouTube which means it’s embeddable here.
If you’re not using the Internet as the world’s finest reference source you’re leaving cash on the table! But I digress.
I found the scene with Jimmy Cagney tap dancing down a staircase at the White House from Yankee Doodle Dandy and watched it… and then watched it again… and then again.
I know the film well because when I was a kid Channel 9 in New York City would play it twice a day for the entire July 4th week on Million Dollar Movie.
How could Cagney be gutsy enough to do that? How could the studio allow the risk? There’s a story behind that and it too is on the Internet. The director didn’t know and Cagney never rehearsed it! What’s on the screen is take one!
Here’s the story from Roger Ebert:
Cagney wasn’t a dancer by Astaire’s standards, or a singer by anybody’s, but he was such a good actor he could fake it: “Cagney can’t really dance or sing,” observes the critic Edwin Jahiel, “but he acts so vigorously that it creates an illusion, and for dance-steps he substitutes a patented brand of robust, jerky walks, runs and other motions.”
You can sense that in an impromptu scene near the end of the movie. Cagney’s Cohan is walking down a marble staircase at the White House when he suddenly starts tapping and improvises all the way to the bottom. Cagney later said he dreamed that up five minutes before the scene was shot: “I didn’t consult with the director or anything, I just did it.”
Ann Nyberg and I discussed this tonight at the TV station. She rightly points out back in those days a good story like the one Cagney told might be cut from whole cloth to add a little spice to a movie’s promotion. Maybe so, but I’m going to believe it anyway.
This 13 second clip might be the most ambitious and dangerous dance ever put on the screen.