It is no surprise that Yankee Doodle Dandy was hugely popular upon it’s release in late May/early June 1942. Filming had begun before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States was still trying to stay out of the world war, but it’s not like filmmakers didn’t know war might be coming and that a patriotic picture might be a good bet. Still, the timing could not have been better for the newfound patriotic fervor of audiences, for star James Cagney’s career, and, ultimately, for the time left before subject George M. Cohen’s death.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of George M. Cohan, who was sort of the Lin-Manuel Miranda of his time. He was a vaudevillian from a traveling vaudeville family known as "The Four Cohans" who grew up to be one of Broadway’s most enduring and famous writer, actor, singer, and director. But just how accurate is Yankee Doodle Dandy?
Origination of the Film
In his autobiography, Cagney by Cagney, James Cagney says that Cohan wanted his life story filmed, and the idea was to have Fred Astaire play him. The two do bear a passing resemblance, but Astaire passed on the part, reportedly because Cohan’s stiff-legged dancing style was too different from his own.
According to Cagney’s autobiography, at the same time that Cohan was shopping his life story around, Cagney and his producer-brother, Bill, were looking for an ultra-patriotic movie for Jimmy Cagney. Cagney, a very vocal and visible liberal had been pegged for possible ties to communism, as had nearly all vocal and visible Hollywood liberals at that time. He wanted a project that would prove beyond doubt that he was an American patriot.
After Astaire turned the Cohan part down, Jack Warner showed interest in the part, and he mentioned to Cohan that Cagney could be suitable. There must have been some skepticism because Cagney was largely known for doing gritty gangster flicks, but the fact is Cagney, like Cohan, was a vaudevillian at heart. He could sing and dance and, eventually, he was cast.
Who Was George M. Cohan?
Most of the basic facts portrayed in Yankee Doodle Dandy are accurate. He and his family really did travel and perform as The Four Cohans [bonus fact: little sister Josie Cohan is played by Jeanne Cagney, Jimmy’s Cagney’s real-life little sister]. He really did play in “Peck’s Bad Boy” and he really did have a hot temper and a large ego as a boy and young man. It’s also true that he and his family insisted that he was born on the Fourth of July, but in reality his birth records show he was born on July 3rd.
Every song in Yankee Doodle Dandy is an original Cohan with one exception: “Off the Record” which comes near the end of the film. But while he did not write that song, the set shown for that production is based off of authentic photos from the set of the stage production.
Cohan wrote and produced many musicals that were every bit as flashy and patriotic as portrayed in the film, and is remembered as one of the most important people in Broadway history.
Accuracy of Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mary and Marriage
Of course, like most biopics, not everything in Yankee Doodle Dandy is exactly accurate. The departure from fact that is probably most talked about is the fact that Cohan was actually married twice, rather than just the once as portrayed in the film. Mary, his wife in the film played by Joan Leslie, is basically a fictional character who is a combination of both of Cohan’s wives. His second wife was named Agnes Mary, but she never went by Mary.
While—as far as I can tell—Cohan was much more vocal about his love of baseball than politics, he was probably not as liberal as portrayed in the film. The film’s narrative is structured on Cohan being summoned to the White House to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal because his songs did so much to boost morale during World War I and when he meets President Franklin Roosevelt, he chats with him amicably telling his life story. The film, then, is flashbacks based on his conversations with FDR. Cagney-as-Cohan also makes a comment about being a good Democrat, even as a youngster. In real life, an-increasingly conservative Cohan was no great lover of Roosevelt and his socially and economically liberal policies.
Cagney and Cohan
The similarities between Jimmy Cagney and George M. Cohan are striking. Both were Irish [Cagney was ¾ Irish and ¼ Norwegian] and Catholic. Both were inherent performers and song-and-dance men. Both fought for the rights of show business people.
Cagney was a very professional actor, and he took this role very seriously. For one, if you’ve watched this movie and thought, like I did, that there must have been two writers, you would be mostly right. Cagney read the script and realized that it wasn’t even a little bit funny, which didn’t make sense for a biopic of a light-hearted entertainer like Cohan. He had the script revised by his friends and well-respected script doctors Julius and Phil Epstein to add some comedy and snappy dialogue.
Cagney, unlike Astaire, did have a natural dancing style that was similar to Cohan’s, but he wanted to really get Cohan’s movements right on the nose. Therefore, he had Warner Brothers hire Johnny Boyle, who had choreographed multiple productions for Cohan, and was therefore very familiar with Cohan’s style. Anyone watching Yankee Doodle Dandy for the first time might be struck by the weird dancing style used by Cagney. It’s stiff-legged, but no one could call it clumsy or unskilled. The singing style, too, is unusual. I thought at first that Cagney’s talk-singing might be a way of masking the fact that he couldn’t sing, but it is in fact intentionally styled after Cohan’s singing.
In other words, Cagney worked his ass off to capture Cohan’s style and essence, and deserved every bit of that Academy Award he won.
WWII and Yankee Doodle Dandy
In a documentary, Joan Leslie tells the story of standing around a radio on set listening to the broadcast when Pearl Harbor was attacked [which doesn’t quite make sense given that it was a Sunday morning, but the story works regardless]. After the broadcast, she says that Cagney called for a prayer and then director Michael Curtiz said “Well, we’ve got a great story to tell here about America. Let’s get to work and do a good job on it, and make it be representative of our spirit today.” As Leslie tells the story, “...and we did and I do think that that feeling permeated the set almost every day.”
Whether that story is true or not, I think it demonstrates just precisely how serendipitous the timing was for Yankee Doodle Dandy. By the time the film was released in New York City on Memorial Day weekend, flag-waving, belting out patriotic songs, and teary-eyed love for America was exactly what the souls of Americans needed. The box office earnings certainly represented it.
George M. Cohan was very ill during filming, so his role as a consultant was limited. However, he did see the film before his death in September 1942, and gave his approval of both the film and of Cagney’s portrayal. In his autobiography, Cagney says, “I like to think that this only contact we had was professionally appropriate: one song-and-dance man saluting another, the greatest of our calling.”
James Cagney, Cagney by Cagney, 1976
Let Freedom Sing! The Story of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ 2003 [documentary]