I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy when I first watched it after putting it on the schedule. Gangster extraordinaire James Cagney in a big Hollywood musical? That has always seemed strange to me. Today, the film is maybe a grade level below “all-time beloved classic” but it has modestly stood the test of time. But as I’m wont to do with this site, I figured I would let its 75th anniversary this week allow me to check another unseen film off my list.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is told in flashback with its biopic protagonist George M. Cohan recounting his life and career to the President [presumably FDR] after being summoned for his latest scathing musical performance as that President. We see him as a boy, part of his family’s travelling vaudeville troupe, ultimately taking over the starring roles from his father [Walter Huston] and doing so without much humility. [Fun fact: young George Cohan is played by Douglas Croft, a child actor of little renown today who played the young version of the lead character in three films that were nominated for the Academy Award in 1943, along with The Pride of the Yankees and Kings Row.] After establishing himself as the family’s premiere star, we jump ahead to Cohan’s adult life, continued artistic success, and budding relationship with prospective actress Mary [Joan Leslie].
Once we get to George as an adult, the film really picks up in large part to James Cagney’s charismatic presence. I wouldn't call Cagney a dancer on the technical level of Astaire or Kelly, but he’s certainly a ball of energy and it is fun to watch him spaz and tap around a stage. As always, he is a magnetic cinematic figure, perhaps even more so as his body is let loose. In Cohan's first adult performance we see him play his mother’s father aided by heavy old age makeup. Backstage after the show, he is approached by Mary, an admirer looking for advice, but unaware that Cohan isn’t actually an old man. Cagney plays her comeuppance wonderfully, performing as an old man slowly transforming into his young, spry self. This scene unfolds as one of the most entertaining in the film solely because of Cagney’s sense of humor and showmanship.
Cagney may be immortalized as the tough-yet-caring gangster from films like Angels with Dirty Faces and White Heat, but his performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy was his biggest success, ultimately garnering the Academy Award for Best Actor. On the surface, George Cohan isn’t much like Rocky Sullivan or Cody Jarrett—he’s a patriotic showman most interested in entertaining the masses and his relationship with Mary. Being the profile in a prototypical biopic, Cohan gets the effect of rose colored glasses, as opposed to the gangsters bound by the Code’s need to punish criminals. That said, Cagney brings his unique energy and charisma to the role, making Cohan feel just as intense with just a bit of mischievousness.
As a backstage musical, the numbers are diegetic ones, existing in reality but either as an on-stage performance or as part of the artistic process. This limits some of the emotional impact that the musical numbers are typically designed to make, but their intended goal of rousing the viewer with their patriotic messages are on point. The title tune “Yankee Doodle Boy”—the story of an American jockey who goes to Great Britain to “ride the ponies”—has lived on as a patriotic anthem though the song isn’t exactly that in its narrative context. The “Grand Old Flag” sequence is the films’ showstopper, an impressive stage production which is cinematic without losing the theatrical roots. “Over There” is the film’s most rousing number, a beautiful tribute to the ideal soldier. The remainder of the film highlights George Cohan’s work with great reverence. Besides the songs that have continued in the cultural consciousness, there isn’t much anything that is incredibly memorable upon first impression, though it is fun to hear the classics in their full context.
In a time when American filmmakers were putting in their best efforts to capture the war experience both at home and on the battlefield, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a fine tribute to artists’ legacy in wartime. By the end of the film this point rises from the subtext to the text with the lasting image of Cohan marching down a street with a group of soldiers singing “Over There” shortly after being awarded a Presidential medal for his contributions to the war effort. Wrapped up in Memorial Day weekend it can’t help but work.
As we hum “Grand Old Flag” all week long, here is what you can expect for our coverage of Yankee Doodle Dandy:
- A look back at the 15th Academy Awards
- An examination on how Yankee Doodle Dandy bucks against obvious cynicism
- Related Review of Cagney star vehicle Angels with Dirty Faces
- And more!