|James Cagney||George M. Cohan|
|Joan Leslie||Mary Cohan|
|Walter Huston||Jerry Cohan|
|Richard Whorf||Sam Harris|
|Irene Manning||Fay Templeton|
|Rosemary De Camp||Nellie Cohan|
|Jeanne Cagney||Josie Cohan|
|Eddie Foy Jr.||Eddie Foy|
Run Time: 126 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
A musical portrait of composer/singer/dancer George M. Cohan. From his early days as a child-star in his family's vaudeville show up to the time of his comeback at which he received a medal from the president for his special contributions to the US, this is the life- story of George M. Cohan, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own musical shows for which he composed his famous songs.
By Brian Koller
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biography of legendary Broadway performer, composer, director and producer George M. Cohan. James Cagney, better known for playing gangsters, won his only Oscar for Best Actor portraying the legendary Cohan. Although many would consider the film hopelessly outdated and corny today, it was one of the biggest films of 1942. That was also the year of "Casablanca", and both films had the same director in Michael Curtiz.
Cohan was born in 1878 into a family of Vaudeville performers, and was already a stage veteran when he produced his first Broadway hit at age 25, Little Johnny Jones. The accent is on Cohan the composer, and his most famous songs (e.g. Grand Old Flag, Over There) become elaborate play-within-a-play productions. While blaring and often fervidly patriotic, the melodies are powerful and memorable. What is more remarkable is Cagney's performance as a dancer, and the hard work he put into imitating Cohan's style both shows and pays off.
Cohan's life story gets a Hollywood treatment, meaning that relationships and events are both simplified and exaggerated. The simplification is necessary given the ground (an entire lifetime) that must be covered. His long partnership with writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) becomes a few jokes and a handshake, and important career turns are reduced to a single scene. The exaggerations take away some of the credibility, however: Cohan at age 13 (Douglas Croft) is a brat to top all brats, while a deathbed scene is as maudlin as any Hollywood has created.
Still, one has to admire the cleverness of the screenplay (by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph), and few can deliver the witty lines with the timing that Cagney has. The sets and costumes are as good as expected, and the supporting cast is very good. Especially welcome is Walter Huston playing Cohan's father. He's remembered most for his role as the old prospector in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but his performance here reminds us of his range and talent. Cagney's sister Jeanne plays Cohan's sister Josie, and Eddie Foy Jr. has an amusing cameo playing his own father. Joan Leslie is smiling blandness as Cohan's wife Mary, but that can be blamed on the character, and her performance is surprisingly mature for her young age of 17.
Cohan's corny musicals were out of fashion by the late 1920s, but his career had a revival in 1937. He played President Franklin Roosevelt in I'd Rather Be Right, which lampooned Roosevelt's aggressive politics. It is ironic to see Cagney as Roosevelt dancing nimbly on stage, when the real Roosevelt had spent his twelve years as President unable to use his legs. Of course, the full extent of Roosevelt's crippling from polio was not disclosed to the public during his lifetime.
Cohan lived to see Cagney play him on the silver screen, but he died in November of 1942. Yankee Doodle Dandy grossed over five million dollars, quite a sum in those days, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. In addition to Cagney's Oscar, Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld won for Best Music, and Nathan Levinson for Best Sound. Curtiz was nominated for Best Director (he would win the next year for Casablanca). Huston was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Robert Buckner for Best Writing, and the film was nominated for Best Picture.