“Ladies and gentlemen…you can only be as good as the other fella thinks you are or…I might add…as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done…and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought, I might say, it was a pretty good part. Thank you.”
- James Cagney upon accepting his one and only Best Actor Academy Award
Hollywood really did things up right with Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); an exuberant portrait of what is today rather infrequently referenced as American exceptionalism but really boils down to peerless professionalism in the entertainment industry; the grandiosity that was golden age Hollywood, aping an even more opulent and iconic period in America’s illustrious past. Then, artists plied their craft to offer audiences a daily diet of showmanship plus. Yankee Doodle Dandy is by far the most rewarding and undeniably heart-felt of the classy and clever star-studded biopics that were so prevalent throughout the 1940’s and early 50’s; its ebullience is contagious, tapping into national pride during a very dark chapter in U.S. history. In an era where America’s politicians feel the need to chronically marginalize and apologize for such awe-inspiring greatness, as though it were a sin or disgrace rather than a source of unadulterated pride, movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy are no longer made; as stars of James Cagney’s caliber have long since become ghost flowers fondly recalled from another vintage entirely – set aside, sorely missed, but destined never to be entirely forgotten.
Such was the iconography American movies once seared into our collective consciousness; the sheer charisma of its performers and the product peddled as art that, once seen, is impossible to dismiss. It is this blueprint of both the American movie and the American movie star – a rare creature sadly devalued today, yet known primarily for the work presented on screen, while relatively guarded from public view in their private affairs (both real and concocted as part of studio PR) – that has since wholly vanished from our present age and appreciation. We have become poorer still in their absence. But James Cagney and Yankee Doodle Dandy are perennial reminders of how beloved each remains in our hearts and minds; how much has been lost to us since their passing, and, how neither can ever truly be neglected; the legend and the legacy of all that thousand kilowatt stardust and magic brilliantly wrought and defiantly to endure.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is really the brainchild of George M. Cohan – an immortal figure in Vaudeville and on Broadway in his day but who, perhaps in looking beyond to the horizon, began to harbor a faint uncertainty as to how history would come to regard him; if, in fact, it chose to remember him at all. Cohan had been a jack of virtually all the creative arts and the undeniable master of a goodly sum. As a family of performers, the Cohans once had been Broadway royalty. But by 1942, George M.’s lengthy list of achievements; his proficiency at several musical instruments, his perfecting a unique style of dance, and, his ability to write popular plays, short stories and music aplenty (frequently resurrected in concert halls); these touchstones increasingly had been set aside in the public’s estimation with the rise in popularity of ‘movie culture’.
So Cohan shamelessly shopped around the idea for a movie biography based on his life. He even had a completed script of a stage show bearing his name tucked under his arm. At one point, Columbia studio president (and good friend), Harry Cohn thought the project splendidly suited for Fred Astaire. Astaire, however, remained unconvinced and eventually bowed out. All, however, was not lost. With a nose for success, Jack L. Warner recognized the potential in retelling Cohan’s life story as a musical and agreed to make a film – only, perhaps not exactly the one Cohan would have preferred. Cohan did impose several restrictions on the project before the ink had dried on his contract. Paramount was that his life story should be told with ingratiating reverence to his second wife – Agnes – whose middle name just happened to be Mary; a convenience exploited by screenwriter, Robert Buckner in concocting the movie’s ‘Mary Cohan’; a fictionalized amalgam of Cohan’s two wives. Also, Cohan requested approval in the casting of the picture. Finally, his endorsement was required on the final cut – virtually unheard of in Hollywood back then. Without batting an eye, Jack Warner willingly signed away these rights – perhaps assuming Cohan would simply fade into the backdrop once filming got underway.
But Cohan was immediately skeptical of Warner’s decision to cast James Cagney, even though at 5ft. 6 inches the actor bore a striking resemblance to Cohan – a man Cagney, in fact, revered and sought to emulate while still a hoofer in Vaudeville. Cohan reluctantly agreed to allow Cagney at least the opportunity to prove his mettle. Perhaps Cohan’s opinion of the star was colored by Cagney’s pedigree as a movie-land gangster. Then forty-two, Cagney was hardly a young man. Investing himself body and soul in the part, Cagney assimilated Cohan’s gestures, movements and mannerisms into his singing and dancing, but reverted back to his own inimitable charisma for the dramatic elements; sound logic that bode well for both the part and the film. Cagney had another, more prescient reason for proving Cohan wrong. In 1941, the actor had been indicted, along with other stars, as having a communist slant in his political views; an allegation Cagney vehemently denied. Despite his impassioned appeal to the Martin Dies Committee (a precursor to HUAC) and eventual exoneration from all charges, Cagney remained wary of what this contention had done to his public image; instructing his brother, William – who had been his agent for quite some time – to search for a real patriotic flag-waver that could firmly reestablish his sense of patriotism in the public’s mind. In this regard, Yankee Doodle Dandy fit Cagney’s ambitions like a glove; moreover, he seemed the quintessence of James M. Cohan in motion without becoming slavish to, or a mimic of, the man himself.
Screenwriter, Robert Buckner had penned a superior first draft, though more acutely in tune with the strengths of a melodrama than a musical. Undaunted, Jack Warner hired the Epstein brothers (Julius J. and Philip G.) to spruce up the dialogue and find humor within the story; also to seek out places where Cohan’s immortal contributions as a songwriter could be effectively integrated as part of the narrative. Cohan, who had never relinquished his rights to either the story or his back catalog of music, made no bones about exercising his creative control on every aspect of the film. Daily, blue pages of revised script were handed to the actors to memorize and insert into the shooting schedule; a constant evolution that kept everyone on their toes and occasionally flustered the usually unflappable Michael Curtiz – who became the de facto go-between Cohan, Cagney and the studio. Both Cagney and Cohan wanted things their own way. However, each man was gracious enough to recognize the other’s strengths on the project. Shooting was interrupted by a grave turn of events; President Roosevelt’s declaration of war immediately following news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Listening via radio, Curtiz gathered his cast and crew for a moment of silence into which Cagney interjected a prayer. From this moment on, Yankee Doodle Dandy acquired a prescience of truth to its retrospective tale; book-ended by rousing sequences, presumably, taking place inside the present day White House. Today, it is perhaps difficult to fully grasp the severity of world events surrounding the making and debut of Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the advent of WWII was only one of several seismic shifts in the public consciousness to rattle America’s isolationism to its core and plunge the nation into its collective darkness.
At the start of America’s involvement in the European conflict things were not going according to plan. Indeed, U.S. forces were taking a considerable beating half way around the world, while on the home front Hollywood – and fans everywhere – were still reeling over the loss of actress, Carol Lombard, whose plane had crashed while on national war bond tour. The public’s reaction to Yankee Doodle Dandy was immediate and, in retrospect, was to prove a most gratifying boost to the national morale; enriching war bond coffers by $5,000,000.00 during its theatrical release. Moreover, the movie sparked a common thread of flag-waving patriotism felt half way around the world; the audaciousness of that self-esteem casting a very definite shadow on the Axis powers pillaging and pummeling the European landscape.
And Cagney’s Cohan illustrated, yet again, that his little dynamo could conquer even the most hardened New York critics; Cagney’s sterling performance as the underdog who makes good winning virtually all the major awards. Only Cohan remained unconvinced. In fact, he refused to give his approval after privately screening the final cut, glibly whispering into Michael Curtiz’s ear, “Brilliant. Whose life is it anyway?” Perhaps, Cohan was missing the point of the exercise. For Yankee Doodle Dandy was never intended as a definitive testament to George M. Cohan; rather, a vivacious fiction encapsulating the legacy – nee, essence of the man. In hindsight, the film has proven a renewable and timeless epitaph. But Cohan’s outright rejection of the picture then left Jack Warner with a movie he could not release without incurring a lawsuit. So, Cohan proposed a truce. If his wife, Agnes enjoyed it he would acquiesce to its release. With more than a modicum of apprehension and sweaty palms, Jack Warner screened the movie again; this time for Mrs. Cohan. When Agnes emerged from the projection room dewy-eyed and pleasantly pleased, Warner could breathe a sigh of relief. He had won the battle. But so did Cohan. In failing health by the time Yankee Doodle Dandy had its Broadway debut, Cohan had his chauffeur repeatedly drive him past the Warner Theater, bewitched - and perhaps, a tad perplexed - observing the lengthy line ups of patrons clamoring to see ‘his’ movie. Acknowledging the strength of its sentiment, Cohan reportedly smiled. He had achieved his own objective – immortality - too.
Yankee Doodle Dandy opens with an exuberant George M. Cohan (Cagney) offering a disarmingly jovial impersonation of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his latest stage success, ‘I’d Rather Be Right’. Backstage he receives the summons of his life, to appear at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and regale the president with the particulars of his success. This query leads us into the film’s lengthy flashback to a much simpler time; July 4th, 1878 – Cohan’s actual birthday; born to proud parents Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp). After the birth of his sister, Josie (played by Cagney’s real life sister, Jeanne), the Cohans embark upon a Vaudeville career with George as Peck’s Bad Boy. At thirteen he’s a star. There’s no place to go but down. Hence, a fallow period follows; one unable to curb George’s passion for performing as he quickly acquires a reputation for being difficult.
While drowning his sorrows in a saloon, George overhears Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf) conversing with wealthy financial backer Schwab (the irrepressibly lovable S.Z. Sakall). Sam thinks George’s play ‘Little Johnny Jones’ is a honey of an idea. Convincing Schwab doesn’t prove too difficult either and with the show quickly establishing itself as a mainstay on Broadway Cohan is back on top. He meets Mary (Joan Leslie) backstage, the girl who one day will become his wife. George doesn’t waste much time courting Mary and she becomes his ever-devoted confidant and behind-the-scenes collaborator. George’s formulaic approach to show biz produces a perennial wellspring of successes. The family grows rich and prosperous. Josie marries and George and Mary become engaged. After staging a rousing salute to ‘The Grand Old Flag’ Nellie and Jerry decide to retire and enjoy their golden years on a farm.
George takes time out to make at ambitious stab at serious melodrama – ‘Popularity’ – a project that miserably fails. Yet its cataclysm is eclipsed by news that German U-boats have sunk the Lusitania. The U.S. goes to war. Alas at 39, George is considered too old to become a soldier. Committing himself to the war effort the only other way he knows how, by writing an inspirational song - ‘Over There’ - George tours the American soldier camps with Francis Langford – drawing strength from the fighting men who, in turn, embrace his music. As is so often the case in life, tragedy begins to take its toll. Josie dies in childbirth. Her death is followed by Nellie’s a short while later and finally Jerry – perhaps the most poetic and heart-wrenching of the lot. As, on his death bed, Jerry quietly reveals his immense sense of pride in George, George quietly evokes the familiar lines he has used numerous times to thank an opening night audience, “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you…and I thank you.”
Mary encourages George to retire on the farm, and although he willingly embraces the idea at first, he quickly tires of this bucolic respite away from the spotlight. Recognizing her husband’s place will forever be on the stage, Mary is instrumental in coaxing George to accept an offer from Sam to star in ‘I’d Rather Be Right’ – the penultimate highlight in George’s stage career. We return to the present; George awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his songs ‘Over There’ and ‘It’s a Grand Old Flag’. George taps his way down the grand White House staircase to a reprise of Yankee Doodle Dandy, emerging at street level where a passing parade of soldiers is heard singing ‘Over There’ as they march off to fight in WWII. George cannot contain his satisfaction, joining these gallant men – suddenly realizing his patriotic contributions to the world of entertainment will forever endure.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a peerless contribution to Hollywood’s wartime propaganda (perhaps, the greatest of the lot), a mellifluous compendium of Cohan’s immortal songs and dances and an enduring, as well as endearing groundswell of popular entertainment that elevates Cagney’s stature from filmdom’s favorite gangster-land thug to the top tier echelons of musical/comedy stars. The Buckner/Epstein’s screenplay carefully balances the lighter moments with well placed, and even more expertly played moments of drama that truly get to the heart of the story and make Yankee Doodle Dandy a movie musical quite unlike any other of its vintage or ilk. I have gushed enough about Cagney; but it also behooves me to mention the superb contributions of the rest of the cast; particularly Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp; actors of more than merit, each of whom offer something of themselves to their performance – their genuineness soaring high above what could so easily have devolved into rank sentimentalism for a bygone era. Instead, what we have is a moving tableau that all but resurrects this bygone generation; a glowingly astute and loving family portrait celebrating the highest morality and ideals, regrettably oft’ referred to today as ‘schmaltz’. Herein, I’ll simply paraphrase composer, Richard Rodgers who, when asked about ‘schmaltz’ admirably pointed out “What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for an awful long time!”
Yankee Doodle Dandy is not all ‘sweetness and light’ but what it continues to possess – despite changing times and audience’s tastes – is an infectious allure to satisfy with its mind-boggling professionalism. It retains that elusive screen magic and does more than merely placate or distract. It reaches deep into the definition of what it means to be an American and elevates the stature and importance of a great nation. Furthermore, this ‘reach’ is never gratuitous or overbearingly. In the end, we celebrate much more than a lingering ‘feel good’ for the story. We come away with a renewed regard for nationalistic pride. Although the line is never uttered in this film, when the houselights come up there is really only one great sentiment that immediately comes to mind – “God Bless America!”
74 years after its debut, there is still no classier way to celebrate America’s Independence Day than with a renewed screening of Yankee Doodle Dandy, and in hi-def, the presentation positively sparkles. The Warner Archive (WAC) has given us a reference quality disc in every regard. There is a glorious silver sheen to the hi-def image. It sparkles with an exceptionally refined gray scale. This disc is an exemplar of what vintage catalog on Blu-ray ought to be by now. Grain, that appeared somewhat inconsistent on the DVD, has been accurately reproduced on the Blu-ray; dissolves and fades meticulously cleansed of their age-related artifacts. Honest and true: Yankee Doodle Dandy is perfect on Blu-ray and what a joy to see it looking this supremely beautiful in hi-def! The audio is DTS mono as originally recorded and everything one could hope for from a vintage soundtrack. WAC has wisely ported over most of the shorts, documentaries, cartoons, isolated audio recordings, audio commentaries, outtakes and featurettes from its lavishly appointed 2-disc DVD release, though not all. Sorely missed, and curiously absent, is the hour long tribute to Cagney hosted by Michael J. Fox. The best of the remaining extras is the ‘making of’ documentary, featuring Joan Leslie and John Travolta; also, Travolta’s hosted reflections on meeting his idol, Cagney. Bottom line, and without question,Yankee Doodle Dandy on Blu-ray is an unabashedly thick slice of patriotic, flag-waving Americana that belongs on everyone’s top shelf. Buy with confidence. Treasure forever. And yes, “God bless America!”
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)