There is a lot going on with the American Film Institute’s (AFI) ninety-eighth greatest American film of all time, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). At least, this was my reaction to it. For example, it stars James Cagney as the legendary Vaudeville and Broadway man George M. Cohan. Cagney is perhaps best remembered as playing tough gangsters, such as Tom Powers in the infamous The Public Enemy (1931). Read my review of that film to learn more about it. It is unfair to brand Cagney in these kinds of roles because, as Yankee Doodle Dandy will spectacularly show you, he was also quite the song and dance performer. Further, this movie is about an equally gifted and talented entertainer, that being George M. Cohan. This is a name I have heard being somewhat of a scholar of American culture, but without any really depth of knowledge about him outside of a name and his work. Taken together, today’s film is quite the education.
The problem for me with Yankee Doodle Dandy, if you have not guessed it already, is that it is a musical. It is unavoidable given the subject matter. We start at the end of George’s career. After appearing on the stage, he receives a telegram from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Captain Jack Young) to come to the White House. George believes that he is in trouble. Yet, when he gets to the Oval Office and sits down before the commander-in-chief, he is asked to talk about his life. From here we get one long flashback as he relates how he is born and gets into showbusiness. It starts with his parents, Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp). They are Vaudeville performers themselves, and on the day that George is born, Jerry finishes a show before rushing home to Nellie. Not long thereafter comes Josie Cohan (Jeanne Cagney). Always the entertainer, Jerry makes an act out of the family, and they eventually tour the country as the Four Cohans. As a young George (Douglas Croft) gets older, he begins to fall in love with his stardom. Indeed, he ruins an opportunity that the then struggling family receives for steady work when he tells off the agent attempting to hire them. Jerry gives George a spanking for this outburst. George claims to be reformed, but a bit of arrogance owing to his incredible ability sticks with him. It becomes an issue again when a grown-up George insults yet another agent trying to bring the Cohans work. This time it is because he makes arrangements for Mary (Joan Leslie), a girl on whom he has a crush, to do a number that had not been a part of the arrangement for the evening. It causes the rest of his family to go on without him for a little while as he stays behind in New York to try to make a name for himself. It is while pitching some material to an uninterested pair of producers that George meets Sam Harris (Richard Whoof). He, too, has come to try to get his play to the stage. Though their initial meeting is not an happy one, they encounter each other once more and intuitively work together to get a different producer to give them a contract. It is the beginning of a prolific partnership that will last for the next several years. One of their bigger breaks comes when they manage to get one of Broadway’s leading ladies, Fay Templeton (Irene Manning), to star in one of their musicals. There is also the eponymous production that gives George the reputation for putting on patriotic numbers. With this newfound success, he is able to bring his family back to New York and to get married to Mary. Not even a flop serious play George pens, or the United States entering World War I, can derail his rise to the most recognizable name on Broadway. Indeed, the war brings him his biggest hit yet. If there is one thing you have probably heard from this film without realizing who is the author, it is the song “Over There.” George comes up with it after being rejected for military service for being too old. Instead, he comes up with the melody that becomes the rallying cry for American involvement in the conflict. After the war, he remains as popular as ever, making hit after smash hit. Some of these he stars in, others he merely produces along with Sam, but either way his name is everywhere. Like all good things, though, they eventually have to come to an end. Thus, upon Jerry’s death, George announces the end of his partnership with Sam and retires. He and Mary spend some time traveling before ending up on the farm he originally bought for his parents. Still, he cannot resist the opportunity to return to the stage when Sam calls upon him to save a new production on which he is working. This is when the flashback catches up with the beginning. We now learn the reason for why he had been summoned to the White House. The president presents him with a medal as an award for his service to the country. The patriotic George is deeply moved. With renewed vigor, he leaves the presidential residence and joins a military parade that is singing “Over There” as they are marching. This is where the movie concludes.
If my discussion of Yankee Doodle Dandy is shorter than usual, it is because it is a musical. The numbers, like most examples from this genre, do nothing to advance the story. This is especially true here as they are meant to simply be examples of George’s work. And if there is one thing this movie is, it is all about George. This leads me to a discussion of Mary. As a Catholic, I have to love her name. If there is one quality that the Mary in the film shares with the Mother of Our Lord, aside from the sobriquet, is selflessness. The Virgin Mary demonstrated this perfectly when she said yes to God’s will for her life. Like any other young person newly married, She likely had her own ideas on how her life was meant to proceed. Nonetheless, God came along with a different idea. Thank God she yielded otherwise you would not be reading this review. What strikes one about this moment is its suddenness. God can work like that sometimes, and one is best served by going with it as quickly as possible. The moment in the film I would compare this to is when George writes a song for Mary that he intends to have heard on Broadway. Yet, when George and Sam approach Fay, she finds the music and insists on performing it herself. Mary is a singer and dancer too, and it appears that she is looking forward to making it her own, especially since it is written specifically about her. When George comes home with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates after giving the song to Fay, Mary understands intuitively what has happened. Instead of complaining, she says how proud she is of George and fully supports him. If that is not an example of selflessness after the Virgin’s own heart, then I should probably turn in my Rosary beads.
With Yankee Doodle Dandy, I have made it through another musical. I am a poor judge of such productions because I can think of several painful things I would rather endure than sitting through any of them. However, even if you are a fan of this genre, there is the scene where the whole family goes on stage in blackface. Now, this was a common occurrence in the times being depicted in the film. It is still jarring to see for a modern audience.