Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Plot: George M. Cohan (James Cagney) has been summoned to FDR’s office. He is concerned, as he’s currently playing the president in a show, but he goes to the office anyway and recounts his life in show business. At the end, FDR hands Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to the arts.

Best Moment: I watched this movie years ago, so I knew it was coming, but dangit if I didn’t tear up at the end when Cohan shakes FDR’s hand and says, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.” And then Cagney tap dances down the stairs. So sweet and genuine that it’s hard to be cynical.

Worst Moment: I know that Cagney had to be cast for a reason, but it really is a shame they didn’t get someone who could sing the part of Cohan.

Fun Facts: Courtesy of Wikipedia…Cagney was named as a Communist in the first round of HUAC hearings. Rumor has it the hyper-patriotism in the film is a result of the allegation. Also, Cagney didn’t like Cohan, as in an actor’s strike, Cohan sided with the producers and not the actors. Cagney won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Epiphany: I watched this with a similar lens that I watch Casablanca with–the film was clearly set up to help with the war effort. I missed that connection the first time I watched it. Fun reading for you, if you’re interested–here’s the manual for the Motion Picture Industry from the Office of War Information.

Recommendation: See it. It’s on the National Film Registry, and that alone makes it worthwhile. My only quibble–and this was common of many musicals of that time–the songs aren’t plot points. I much prefer the musicals where the songs help tell the story. Here, the songs are simply taken from a smattering of shows Cohan wrote. I understand why that is, but I’m still not a fan of that mode of storytelling in something billed as a musical.

I Love Public Schools Day: Music Edition

I planned to hang this in my classroom for I Love Public Schools Day.

I’ve written here before about my high school English teacher and my high school choir teacher. These women were foundational to my career in education. But I’ve never written how public schools helped me become a musician.

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I got a phone call from the choir teacher, Mr. Reimer. He was looking for an accompanist for the show choir.

Accompanying wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’d been down this road at church, and once I showed moderate proficiency with playing the piano, I never got to sing. But in my lapsed-logic-15-year-old brain, I thought if I played the piano for the show choir and sang in the sophomore choir, I’d have a better chance making the show choir as a singer my junior year.

Show choir music is sometimes challenging to play, and as a 15 year-old, I was often out of my element. But Mr. Reimer was encouraging and not critical when I’d miss notes. Which happened often.

We moved to Montana after my sophomore year, and though I delayed telling my new choir teacher that I could play the piano, she still made sure I accompanied the choir at least once a year. And sure, I resented it then, but what I didn’t realize at the time is that both of my high school choir teachers developed my accompanying skills, which have allowed me to earn a little extra money and continue to be a musician.

Fast forward several years: I was teaching at the high school I attended as a sophomore, and Mr. Reimer asked me to play piano for the school musical–nothing fancy, just the violin part on a synthesizer. And then he asked me to play more challenging four-hand accompaniments for his varsity choir.

When I came back from grad school, that choir teacher’s son AJ was teaching choir, and he carried on the tradition of asking me to play for the musicals and varsity choir.

Both Reimers taught me musicianship, the value that each person in a choir or an orchestra brings to every piece of music, and that participating in musical groups is fun, not stressful.

Last year I took over as principal pianist for the school musical. I constantly feel inadequate. But AJ, always the music educator, is nothing but encouraging. He never makes me feel stupid when I can’t figure out a rhythm or when a song pops up in G flat major and I keep forgetting the C flat. Instead, he teaches.

Without these opportunities to grow as an accompanist and musician, I’m not sure I would not still be playing the piano. I’m positive I wouldn’t be as good of a musician as I am. I definitely wouldn’t even consider myself a musician at all.

I’m a musician because of public schools.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)


Published by The Minneapolis Tribune-photo from Warner Bros. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Maltese Falcon,

I tried.

I tried twice.

The first time, I fell asleep and missed 45 minutes of you, but woke up to see the “who” in this whodunit. And I wanted to give you the respect I’d heard you might deserve, so I tried again.

This time, I had a Diet Coke and planned to type notes constantly; record my stream of thought in an attempt to stay awake.

And yet.

Twenty minutes in, my eyelids grew heavy and I couldn’t stay awake. Again.

Here’s what I loved about you: Humphrey Bogart. Oh, how I love him. His smarmy smile and nasally voice and the way he puts on a hat…I love all of it. And it was fun to see Bogart with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet: harbingers of the magic that would happen one year later on the Warner Brothers lot.

I think we might be too different, you and I, and despite Arthur Edeson’s brilliant cinematography, you simply weren’t enough to keep me with you. I appreciate you for the movie you are, and I trust that cinephiles will take plenty good care of you.

I just won’t be one of them.

With affection,


Citizen Kane (1941)

Plot: Charles Foster Kane has died, and his final word was “Rosebud.” Everyone clamors to know if this word held the key to understanding the former media-mogul-turned-recluse. So we get a series of flashbacks that explain Kane’s life.

Best Moment: I mean, with Gregg Toland as cinematographer, the entire movie is a best moment. There’s not a frame that doesn’t appear to be shot and lit with painstaking thought and detail. There’s a reason why Citizen Kane repeatedly shows up as the best film ever made. It really is a piece of art.

Worst Moment: Every single time I watch this movie, I fall asleep, and that includes the time that I took a small group of students to the local non-profit cinema for a free screening. I don’t know what it is about this movie that puts me to sleep, but it doesn’t matter where I see it or whether I feel rested: this film is chloroform to me at any given moment.

Epiphanies: For all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching we all do about “journalists these days” or “capitalism is destroying our democracy” or any number of connections between media, politics, and everyday life, we sure have short memories. Perhaps this is also part of what makes the film so good–its themes are timeless.

Fun Facts: This film was edited by Robert Wise, who 20 years later would direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Also, spoiler, if you didn’t know, Rosebud was his childhood sled. And if you haven’t seen Season 5, Episode 4 of The Simpsons, well, it’s a direct parody of Citizen Kane. Worth your time.

Recommendation: See it. Every time I watch it, I am blown away by the precision of every shot and that alone is worth your time, even if you fall asleep at some point.

Winter Break Movie Roundup

So I watched a lot of movies over break, and on Wednesday, I return to the Warner Bros. project I started last summer. But before then, I thought I’d give some quick reviews of movies I saw over break.

A Star is Born: I did not think Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga could do better than Judy Garland. And yet…I daresay this version is my favorite of them all.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse:  DELIGHTFUL. I grinned the entire length of the film. Hands down, my favorite Spider-Man movie ever.

Mary Poppins Returns: Good enough, given the pressure on Rob Marshall, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and of course Emily Blunt. I liked it for what it was, and I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t foresee an addition to my personal film library with this one.

Second Act: I really liked this one, and mad props to the marketing team here because there’s a MAJOR twist that was absent from all trailers (though I guessed it about 10 minutes before the reveal). Nice feel-good film.

Hearts Beat Loud: This one was on Hulu, one that I wanted to see over the summer but ran out of time. Nice coming-of-age story that is not only about a child coming of age, but also her father. Great music.

Juliet, Naked: I loved this book, and it had been long enough since I’d read it that I couldn’t remember any disappointing “Hey, that’s not how it happened” moments. I got to enjoy the film and story for the medium it was, and I liked it.

Minding the Gap: This is a documentary that I’d wanted to see at Film Streams but never got to. It’s on Hulu, and I thought it was going to be about skateboarding. And maybe that was the filmmaker’s initial intention, but it ended up being a harrowing commentary on poverty, abuse, and toxic masculinity, and when the credits rolled, my first thought was that every teacher needs to see this film.

Dumplin’: On Netflix. See it. Now. It is charming, has a great message, and might make you cry at least twice.

Harry Potter, 1-5: While I was calendaring January for all my classes I teach, I needed a marathon of some sorts, so I went with HP. Which was great until I got to Order of the Phoenix and Dolores Umbridge showed up. Her character and Hogwarts rules were just not fictional enough for me given the current political and educational climate. Plus I’m hyper-sensitive to the whole idea of evil grabbing any toehold in the world right now, so I quit those movies.

Hunger Games, 90 minutes of Catching Fire: TNT had a marathon one of the days of break, and I’d not seen these since I saw them in theaters, so I gave it a shot. How in the world these movies got PG-13 ratings is evidence of what we value as a society. You might notice there’s some R-rated films on my list here, and each one of them it’s because they crossed the f-word threshold of two. Not nudity, not gratuitous sex, a four-letter word, and definitely not two-plus hours of adults manipulating children to kill other children. I gave up halfway through Catching Fire because I could not take the violence anymore. Which makes the next marathon a bit ironic, I’m aware.

Mission: Impossible, 1-6: Okay, so what makes this violence different? First, it’s blowing stuff up and Tom Cruise finding new ways to break his bones. There’s not a high body count. Second, it’s not children killing other children. I know, I’m being choosy with what I tolerate when it comes to violence in my movies, but the MI movies are just over-the-top enough that it doesn’t seem real. Anyway. Tom Cruise is a national treasure, ages so very well, and what I loved most, watching these back to back, was to see the subtle non-verbals he used with each subsequent movie to communicate he knew he was probably a bit too old to be doing what he’s doing. But he’s Tom Cruise, so he’s gonna do it anyway. Très fun.

What about you? See any good movies over the break?