James Cagney and Eddie Foy Jr. in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Yankee Doodle Dandy was James Cagney's favorite movie out of the more than sixty that he starred in during his long career. Despite the fact that he will always be remembered as a tough talking gangster, at heart he considered himself just a 'song and dance man'. Yankee Doodle Dandy is the only true musical in which he starred. And though his dancing is rather awkward at times and his singing voice practically non-existent, he puts such remarkable energy and enthusiasm into the role of George M. Cohan that he is completely convincing as the Broadway legend.
Made right at the start of U.S. involvement in WWII, Yankee Doodle Dandy is loaded with flag waving patriotism. The rousing songs include the classic title number, 'Give My Regards to Broadway', 'Mary', 'You're a Grand Old Flag', 'Harrigan', '45 minutes from Broadway', 'Over There' and many others. This two-hour movie is filled with music from start to finish. The story is told in flashback as President Roosevelt gives the Congressional Medal of the Arts to the aging Broadway star. It then goes back and tells the life story of Mr. Cohan, whose statue still stands in Times Square.
There are lighthearted moments, romance and drama amid the pageantry. But mostly it is a vehicle for Cagney to strut his stuff. The most famous number being his now classic performance of the title song. When the spotlight hits him and he starts singing the line, 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,' you will be proud to be an American. His dynamic performance never lets up or disappoints. He is especially good in the scene at his father's deathbed. He gives the families trademark exit line, only this time in tears, 'My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you'.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is nothing more than good old-fashioned entertainment as one legendary song and dance man pays tribute to another.
My father thanks you. My mother thanks you. My Sister thanks you. And I thank you.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is quite simply the best propaganda film made during World War II. It succeeds so well because it goes beyond being just a pro American movie. It contains a powerhouse performance in an otherwise okay film.
James Cagney is really not a very good singer. His dance routines in this film are often redundant. He substitutes an exaggerated walk for actual dancing in several scenes. However Cagney always has so much energy on screen that he manages to successfully pull of a role that should have gone to someone like Gene Kelly.
The film was a two hour cheer for patriotism when it first came out. Twice during the movie Cagney has an obnoxious close up when he says something to the effect of defeating the enemy. Watching it today it is a history lesson into the life of the most important American lyricist of the first quarter of the 20th Century.
The movie depicts Cohan's professional life very well. It merely touches on his personal life. At 18 Mary moved to New York. Did she do it because she and George were bumping uglies? Why did they never have kids? Was Mary really nothing more than a dutiful wife who loved this egomaniac without ever calling him on it?
Even with a few gray areas the film is always kept bright by Cagney's pulsating performance. My favorite scene is a very brief one near the end of the movie. Right after receiving his Medal of Honor - not “Arts" Patrick - Cagney dances briskly down a long staircase. There is no dialogue but this action is enough to express his joy.
Cagney single-handedly carries this movie on his short Irish shoulders.
While you are correct Eric that in the movie George is given the Congressional Medal of Honor, that's just one of the historical inaccuracies in this movie. In real life of course, only members of the military can receive the Medal of Honor. It was The Congressional Gold Medal that was actually awarded to George M. Cohan and he actually received it in 1936, before he made "I'd Rather Be Right" (1937) and of course, way before World War II began and not as he is seen being given it here.
Not that the point of this movie is accuracy, its only aim is to entertain and that it does and as both of you mentioned, this is entirely due to the charisma of James Cagney. At one point in the movie, a fellow performer pokes fun of how many time Cohan's name appears on the poster for a play. This movie is almost like that. It's all about Cagney. It might as well have been a one-man show because Cagney carries the film entirely on his short Irish shoulders. Although, George's father does get one of my favorite lines in the movie, "I can't scold the boy, he might think I'm jealous that he got more laughs than me."
What's most impressive about his performance is that, as you both mention, he isn't he best singer or dancer. The songs in particular, suffer because every song he sings ends up sounding the same. Only his "off the record" song as FDR sounds any different from the others. It's as if he had a very limited range and so they made all the arrangements for every song, exactly the same. And when you factor in how much he was playing against type here, it's even more impressive. I mean, this is like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino (or someone else working today who's played gangsters in the past) suddenly deciding to do a musical.
Can you even imagine someone pitching this movie today? "It's a musical/comedy starring James Gandolfini. He sings and dances (sorta), but don't worry, all the songs are hits. Well, they were hits 30 years ago anyway. Oh, it's also a flag-waving movie designed to whip the country into a patriotic frenzy so that the public will support the idea of going off to war!" My, how times have changed.
Oh, and speaking of historical accuracy, did anyone else find it tacky to make a musical featuring a singing and dancing President (as they do in a musical within this movie), when that President was crippled from Polio? Obviously, his physical condition was kept a closely guarded secret at the time, so perhaps they didn't know entirely the depth of his condition, but still.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1942)