“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan
I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.
We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.
At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.
Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.
Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.
America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.
The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.
But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.
He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.
He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.
Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.