Yankee Doodle Dandy Celebrates George M. Cohan

Yankee Doodle Dandy. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy is a musical that celebrates the life of “The Man Who Owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan.

While this is a fine musical, it’s a stretch to call it a musical biopic. There are a number of dramatic liberties taken in the stretch. For one, Cohan had two wives but this film make it appear that he just had the one love interest. Two, his father preceded his mother in death. The film makes it appear that his father, Jerry (Walter Huston), died after his mother, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp). Josie Cohan (Jeanne Cagney) died first in 1916. With Walter Huston being the bigger star, it’s understandable that filmmakers choose to have one more emotional scene before the film comes to an end. Regardless, the musical biopic genre owes a lot to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Similarly, Cohan was an early pioneer when it came to book musicals.

Right off the bat, there’s satirical commentary on critics from the uncredited Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip. The first critic comments that it’s a hit. To which the second responds: “I liked it, too. So, er, I guess I’ll pan it.” His publisher resents Cohan impersonating President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their comments come after watching George M. Cohan coming out of retirement to star in I’d Rather Be Right.

Following the I’d Rather Be Right performance, George M. Cohan (James Cagney) heads off to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt (Captain Jack Young/Hank Simms). It’s the Congressional Gold Medal presentation that frames the rest of the film. From then on out, it’s nothing but flashbacks to Cohan’s childhood, life with the Four Cohans, and life with Mary (Joan Leslie). There are numerous Broadway performances throughout the film headlined by songs such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.” Cohan wrote a wealth of material during his lifetime but the patriotic tunes are some of the standouts. After all, he’s said to have been born on the Fourth of July. In actuality, he was born on July 3, 1878.

Cohan’s legacy will forever live on because of Yankee Doodle Dandy. He is also the only actor currently with a statue in Times Square. The film is a great way to introduce new generations to his work. Thankfully, TCM airs it regularly throughout the year, especially during 31 Days of Oscar. This year, one can find the film airing on Independence Day. You might not be in the mood for a celebration but one can never go wrong with this film.

Cohan’s first wife was unsuccessful in a lawsuit against Warner Bros. for invasion of privacy because of the film. Similarly, Cohan didn’t want his domestic life in the film. You look at filmmakers taking dramatic liberties and this film is no exception. The character of “Mary” is largely fictional in the film. Cohan did not like this and voiced his objections. While his second wife has Mary for a middle name, introducing her too early could imply that she is his first wife. Of the film, Cohan reportedly said, “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”

If Cohan had his way, Fred Astaire would have been the star of this film. However, Astaire turned it down, mostly because Cohan’s dancing style differed from his own. If not for Astaire, James Cagney might never have won an Oscar for Leading Actor. Script liberties notwithstanding, Cagney is phenomenal in the film as he both sings and dances his way through the picture. It is unlikely Cagney would have taken the role had he not been named by John R. Leech as a member of the Communist Party. But even before the HUAC testimony, which Cagney disputed, the actor was unhappy with Cohan siding with producers during the 1919 Actor’s Equity Strike. In any event, Cagney gets an Oscar with one of the best performances of his entire career.

Cagney’s win aside, the film also took home Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Sound Recording. Other nominations were for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), Editing, and Original Story. It remains one of the best musicals in cinematic history. While it is not available to stream on HBO Max at the moment, the film is available from the Warner Archive Collection on Blu-ray.

Yankee Doodle Dandy might take liberties with Cohan’s life but Cagney is at his finest in this celebration of the musical multi-hyphenate entertainer.

DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITERS: Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
CAST: James Cagney, with Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, Frances Langford, George Barbier, S.Z. Sakall, Walter Catlett, Douglas Croft, Minor Watson, Eddie Foy Jr.

Warner Bros. released Yankee Doodle Dandy in theaters on May 29, 1942. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.