YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, 1942
Cast: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp
Musical biography of early 20th century American song and dance man, George M. Cohan.
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It’s impossible to consider this film now without acknowledging the moment in time when it was made. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was filmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. entered World War II. George M. Cohan, a fount of pumped up patriotic songs from the turn of the 20th century, must have seemed an irresistible subject for biographical treatment by Hollywood. (Cohan’s flag waving style is even mockingly referenced in the film). The film, as it was written by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph and directed by Michael Curtiz, served two main purposes apart from being a very enjoyable musical. It was an unapologetic morale booster to a country entering a long war and it was an equally unapologetic exercise in nostalgia for an earlier, seemingly more innocent time.
As such, this is a highly romanticized, but still highly entertaining bio pic with a great central performance by James Cagney as Cohan. Cagney had spent the 1930s mainly acting in gangster films for Warner Brothers. By the time he was offered this role, he was anxious to break free of the gangster mold and to display his chops as a song and dance man. He succeeded brilliantly here. Apart from some early scenes where Douglas Croft plays George as a boy, Cagney is on screen almost constantly and his delight in this part comes through in every frame. His energy is particularly evident in the dance sequences. Cagney developed a unique dance style for his vaudeville routines here that seemed to rely partially on the stiff upper body and flying legs of Irish step dancing, combined with the posture of a loose goose marionette; all held together by his inimitable cocky attitude. What is impressive is how Cagney’s dancing melds seamlessly with the character of the hyper-confident Cohan. The character’s confidence and joy in these routines is contagious, and indistinguishable from the actor’s delight in pulling it all off for us in the audience.
The dance numbers are aided by James Wong Howe’s high contrast black and white cinematography which is striking in its clarity. As a result, Cohan’s staged routines really pop off the screen, which is crucial as they provide the highlights of the film.
The structure of the film overall could not be more straightforward. It begins with a framing situation in which an elderly Cohan is invited to the White House by Franklin Roosevelt. From here Cohan revisits his life in the theatre taking us through his apprenticeship with his performing family, The Four Cohans and all of the life lessons he learns along the way to ultimate success. The trajectory is familiar - initial rejection and disappointment, followed by the peak years of his fame and then old age and retirement. There are no surprises, but it is all handled with style and skill.
As with so many musicals of the period, there is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a seemingly more innocent time in American life in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Indeed, setting a musical at the turn of the 20th century was almost a requirement for directors in the ‘40s, whether it was Vincente Minelli’s “Meet Me In St. Louis”(1944), or many of the Alice Faye or Betty Grable musicals of the period. There was a real desire to idealize a pre-Depression, pre-war America that both the studios and audiences of the time were heavily invested in.
The film is further aided by a strong supporting cast led by stage veteran Walter Huston, as George’s father, Jerry Cohan. Huston displays his versatility here, singing and dancing credibly and creates a genuinely engaging relationship with Cagney as his son. Joan Leslie as Mary Cohan, George’s wife, holds her own opposite Cagney’s powerful presence.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is both a product of its time and an enduringly entertaining musical. The great style, energy and joy of its central performance by James Cagney ensures that it lives on.