1001 Classic Movies: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), starring James Cagney, is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). In honor of the Presidential election on Nov. 8, this month's selections will focus on film portrayals of  U.S. commanders in chief. This week's movie is the musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), in which Broadway showman George M. Cohan (James Cagney) tells his life story to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jack Young).

Yankee Doodle Dandy follows Cohan from his birth on the Fourth of July to his early struggles in show business. Cohan and his partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) eventually finds great success with the smash hit Little Johnny Jones, and the two men go on to become one of Broadway's most successful teams churning out hit songs like "Mary's a Grand Old Name," You're a Grand Old Flag," and the World War I anthem, "Over There."

In 1942, Cohan was still one of the most famous people in America, which meant that several old Hollywood studios were lining up to make a movie about his life story. When biopics proposed by MGM and independent producer Samuel Goldwyn fizzled out, Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Cohan's life story for Cagney, who was one of their top stars. The movie was released around five months after the U.S. entry into World War II, and its flag-waving numbers matched the mood of the country perfectly, breaking box-office records and earning Cagney his only Academy Award.

Viewed today, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the most entertaining old Hollywood movies ever made, but the movie was originally designed as a morale booster for a country in shock and mourning. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor had occurred a mere five months before Yankee Doodle Dandy was released, and the movie's rousing musical numbers and can-do optimism were designed to rally a nation at war.  Roosevelt's presence in the film -- even if all you see is the back of his head -- served as an official seal of approval on Cohan's brand of flag-waving patriotism

Yankee Doodle Dandy Viewer's Guide: This is one of the most joyous films ever made with a tour de force performance by Cagney. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Cohan. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a generally accurate portrayal of Cohan's professional life, but the film differs quite significantly where his private life is concerned. Cohan was actually born on July 3, he was married twice, and neither of his wives were named Mary. 
2. Cagney. Yankee Doodle Dandy has a great director in Michael Curtiz and a great cast, but the success of Yankee Doodle Dandy rests squarely on Cagney's shoulders. His performance is at once technically masterful -- he is giving a carefully studied imitation of Cohan, complete with talk-singing the musical numbers and Cohan's peculiar style of straight-legged dancing -- and electrifying.
3. Cinematography. The great cinematographer James Wong Howe shot Yankee Doodle Dandy. It's worth watching a good transfer of this movie to see how he uses the stage lights in the movie's many theatrical sequences.
4 S.Z. Sakall. The cuddly character actor has a memorable cameo as a befuddled theater producer who thinks he is financing a musical called "Yankee Doodle Candy."

Joan Leslie, James Cagney, and Jeanne Cagney in costume for the 'You're a Grand Old Flag' number in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
Other critics: Yankee Doodle Dandy has a 92 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin writes that "Cagney deservedly won an Oscar for rare song-and-dance performance" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1942 heaped plaudits on the movie. The usually unimpressed Bosley Crowther of The New York Time penned a rave review writing that "a corking good entertainment and as affectionate, if not as accurate, a film biography as has ever—yes, ever—been made ... there is so much in this picture and so many persons that deserve their meed of praise that every one connected with it can stick a feather in his hat and take our word—it's dandy!" 

The bottom line: Yankee Doodle Dandy is a great family movie treat for Thanksgiving or any other day of the year. Watch it for Cagney's great performance and the rousing musical numbers..

Availability: Yankee Doodle Dandy is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.

Next week, I'll wrap up the theme of movies about American Presidents with  Knute Rockne All American (1940), which gave President Ronald Reagan his "Gipper" nickname.