Directed By: Michael Curtiz
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston
Tag line: "Get ready to Laugh, to Sing, to Shout! ...For here comes Uncle Sam's Star Spangled Yankee Doodle Dandy!"
Trivia: James Cagney won his first and only Oscar for this movie
My introduction to James Cagney came courtesy of my father, when he recorded a trio of the actor's films off a local UHF station. In all three of these pictures: White Heat, The Fighting 69th, and Angels With Dirty Faces, Cagney played tough-as-nails characters who never backed down from a fight. Fascinated with his persona, I checked out a few more of his films, including The Roaring Twenties and The Public Enemy, which were every bit as gritty and unflinching as the other three. So, imagine my surprise when, a few years later, I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy. A far cry from his street-wise gangster movies, Yankee Doodle Dandy has Cagney portraying legendary song and dance man, George M. Cohan, an entertainer who wrote such patriotic tunes as “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Over There”, and, of course, “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.
George M. Cohan (Cagney) has been summoned to the Oval Office to meet with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and once there, tells the President the story of his life, starting with his early days when he joined his family’s vaudeville act. Billed as the Four Cohans, George, along with his father (Walter Huston), mother (Rosemary DeCamp) and sister (Jeanne Cagney), toured the country, and were a hit everywhere they played. But when George’s cocky attitude proved too much for some promoters to handle, he left the Four Cohans and struck out on his own. With the help of his new partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) and the support of his loving wife, Mary (Joan Leslie), Cohan soon took Broadway by storm, churning out one hit show after another on his way to becoming the most popular performer of his time.
Released at the height of World War II, Yankee Doodle Dandy is, in many respects, a propaganda film, glorifying America at a time when the country needed something to feel good about. But even today, this movie casts a spell over its audience, and James Cagney is the reason why. The actor gives it his all in each and every one of the film’s musical routines, energetically belting out the three songs mentioned above, as well as “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Harrigan”, and the very entertaining “Off the Record”, a humorous tune in which Cohan poses as President Roosevelt. The film displays some genuine warmth as well (the scene where Cohan visits his dying father will surely bring a tear to your eye), but its Cagney’s spirited song and dance numbers that make Yankee Doodle Dandy such a fun movie.
Over the course of his career, Cagney would often return to the tough-guy roles that made him a star, yet as he shows us in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he could do a whole lot more than just throw a punch