#5) Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
OR “The Hoofer with a Heart of Gold”
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph. Story by Buckner. [Possible contributions by the Epstein Brothers]
Class of 1993
The Original Theatrical Trailer. Don’t have 2 hours to spare? Here’s the whole film in 4 minutes!
The Plot: James Cagney is George M. Cohan, the actor/songwriter/producer whose legacy includes the songs “Over There”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Told in flashback while talking to Franklin D. Roosevelt (who is shot like George Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld”), an elderly Cohan recounts his life, from his “born in a trunk” beginnings on vaudeville, to his successes on Broadway.
Why It Matters: The NFR cites Cagney’s performance, as well as the film’s uber-patriotism.
But Does It Really?: I mean, that’s pretty much what this movie has going for it. It’s a very simple (and partially inaccurate) biopic, and its release not too long after we entered World War II pretty much ensures its strong flag-waving, but really this is a vehicle for Cagney. Compared to his work in many gangster films (more on those later), it’s a lot of fun watching him do a song-and-dance man turn. Part of the reason Cagney dominates is because everyone else is so poorly underwritten (at least Walter Huston gets a deathbed scene). And I fear that because Cohan is largely forgotten now most of this film’s spectacle will be lost on a modern audience. If you’re sticking with Cagney and its patriotism, then “Yankee Doodle Dandy” deserves a place in the registry for its historical contributions. Whether or not that significance carries over for a modern audience is still up for debate.
Wow, That’s Dated: There’s your standard ‘40s fare like jive talk, flags with 48 stars, and jabs at the Irish, but unfortunately this is the first of what will most likely be many films for which I have to give the BLACKFACE WARNING. It’s a quick scene early on during the family’s traveling montage, and it really doesn’t need to be there. It’s brief, but no less uncomfortable.
Take a Shot: The title gets a mention 6 minutes in, and then there’s the big title number 45 minutes in where you’ll have a ball. If you’re expanding the game to include the phrase “Yankee Doodle”, please pace yourself.
Seriously, Oscars?: The film won Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor, and took home the prizes for Sound Recording and Scoring of a Musical Picture. And that’s about as much as I’d give this movie. One of the rare times I think the Oscars got it right. And this was the year after they snubbed “Citizen Kane”.
- If you watch the clock on FDR’s desk at the beginning and the end of the film, Cohan talks to him for pretty much the full length of the movie. That means his conversation with the president more-or-less happened in real time. Meanwhile Franklin’s sitting there thinking “Can you wrap this up pal? There’s a war on, ya know…”
- Nepotism abound; Cagney’s brother William was an associate producer, and his real-life sister Jeanne plays Cohan’s sister!
- At one point it is mentioned that the Cohans can’t get work “this side of San Francisco”. Is there a lot of business on the other side? Wouldn’t that be the Pacific Ocean?
- If you think about it, Cohan was his generation’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. How do you kids like that?
- Cagney is an excellent dancer, but not that good a lip-syncher.
- This movie has one of my favorite old Hollywood tropes; big production numbers that are being presented on a theater stage despite the fact that they are waaaaaay too big to fit any standard stage.
- The scene where Cohan meets Eddie Foy is mostly lost because no one remembers Eddie Foy. But it helps to know that he is played here by his son, Eddie Foy Jr., who must have gotten a kick out of doing this.
- For those of you keeping score; Cagney was 42 when he filmed this, Joan Leslie was 16 (!), Walter Huston was 58, Rosemary DeCamp was 31 and Jeanne Cagney was 22. So, for most of the movie, no one in the main cast is playing their actual age. This also means Cagney was older than his mother!
- There are two scenes where the boom mike casts a huge shadow on the set. How did no one notice this either time?
- And finally, it should be worth noting that this movie has the unfortunate distinction of being the first film to be colorized by Ted Turner back in the ‘80s.
- At least two musicals; one on Broadway about Cohan, and one off-Broadway about Cagney.
- Donny Osmond’s attempt to revive “Little Johnny Jones”. Didn’t go over well.
- That point in the ‘40s where everything had the words “Yankee” and “Doodle” in the title.
- Cagney reprising his role of Cohan 13 years later for a cameo in “The Seven Little Foys”.
Listen to This: Two original recordings of Cohan songs; Billy Murray’s take on “You’re a Grand Old Rag” (Before it was changed to the less offensive “flag”) and Nora Bayes’ version of “Over There”.