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Today is America's Independence Day. While in recent years my family has taken to watching modern films such as Will Smith's "Independence Day", a much older tradition was watching the classic musicals "1776" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I have a few prominent memories of July Fourth celebrations from my youth - complete with community carnivals, concerts and fireworks. I remember being glued to the TV watching the Tall Ships in 1976, listening to the Boston Pops, and seeing the fireworks over the National Mall. I also remember lots of sunburn.
However, one year my family planned a long weekend at a rented condo on (North) Padre Island, Texas. We planned to spend time on the beach, on the water, and in the sun - alas, it rained the whole time. So we sat inside, watching old movies. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was the first time I had seen James Cagney in any role other than a tough-guy gangster. For those not familiar with the movie, it tells the story of musical performer/producer George M. Cohan - a name as historically associated with patriotism music as Philip Sousa. Born to a vaudeville family, young Georgie was performing on stage since the age of 8, and went on to compose, act, perform, direct and produce musicals and songs such as "Give My Regards to Broadway", "The Yankee Doodle Boy" (i.e. the titular "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." The first two songs debuted in a show named "Little Johnny Jones" which was the second feature of our Rainy Fourth Film Festival. Cohan loved America, and it shows in his productions.
One of the most amazing things I learned from Yankee Doodle Dandy was that James Cagney got his own start in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man, and thus identified quite well with playing Cohan. Check out both movies, but in particular, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It showcases a cross section of nearly 40 years of American history in stage and screen.
At the ripe old age of 12, I was able go to the movie theater by myself, and one of the first movies I saw on my own was "1776." I was fascinated by this portrayal of events surrounding the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. While I knew the movie (and the Broadway musical) took some liberties with actual historical events, but I did not realize until much later how much it represented the realities as well. Writers Sherman Edwards and Peter Hunt carefully researched the historical records as well as personal writings of the members of the Continental Congress to artfully (yet reasonably accurately) relate the debate surrounding independence for the original 13 American colonies.
This particular movie has remained a favorite - being the first movie my wife and I rented (and then bought), and one of only a few movies I have viewed in theater, VHS, DVD, MP3 soundtrack and restored director's cut DVD. In a real-life connection to the movie, I once sat in an airport bar with a group of people conversing with actor Ken Howard, who played a young Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Upon discussion of his favorite roles, I mentioned 1776, and received an appreciative nod and a caution not to reveal too much of our mutual ages!
So, for this July Fourth, I recommend a trip into American History via movie musicals. You might just find yourself humming along!In the immortal words of G. Cohan: "My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you."