Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical. When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life. Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis. Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?
The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms). This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful. These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.
Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans. He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change. Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel. The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.” It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.
Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects. In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream. Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife. That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress. Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.
Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance. Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.