YANKEE DOODLE DANDY —- Composer, singer, dancer and Broadway star George M. Cohan died of cancer in November, 1942, but he’d lived just long enough to see the film version of his life make it to the screen, starring James Cagney. Cohan’s verdict/salute: “What an act to follow.” Put another way, “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you.”
His rep built on tough-guy roles, Cagney had long proven his screen-eating chops in action and drama (and the occasional lark like The Strawberry Blonde), but the one-time hoofer hadn’t done any fancy stepping on screen since Footlight Parade back in 1933. His fabulous ability to transmit emotion through movement—elastic & bounding, jack-in-the-box & graceful while replicating Cohan’s own signature style— brought audiences to their feet. He did so just when they needed a shot in the arm, firing red, white & blue currents of national pride that ran straight and true to the country’s heart and soul.
Irresistible renditions of “Harrigan”, “Give My Regards To Broadway”, “You’re A Grand Old Flag”, “Over There” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”, the warmth and ebullience of Cagney and co-stars Joan Leslie and Walter Huston, and the directorial panache of Michael Curtiz made this the 2nd-most popular film of the year. The flag-waving lit a spark of hope in the darkness of 1942, its gross of $11,800,000 securing a rank just after the (American-made) ode to British patriotism, Mrs.Miniver. The world premiere, held in New York City on May 29,1942, was a war bond benefit. That one evening raised $4,750,000, equivalent to $75,000,000 in 2019.
Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph took script credit, but the fabulous Epstein Brothers (Julius J. & Philip G.) worked revisions uncredited. Naturally enough, a good deal was fictional, but the spirit and essence came across, which was the whole idea. Warner’s lavished $1,500,000 on the period costuming and dozens of sets slapped together to help the 126 minutes flow along the story path from Cohan’s birth (yes, on the 4th of July) in 1878 to a private chat with FDR after the US entered WW2. Talk about timing: the film started shooting the same week Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Joan Leslie, playing Cohan’s wife, aged in the film from 18 to 57—Miss Leslie was only 17. Don Siegel did the nifty montage sequences. Walter Huston, playing Cohan’s father, had worked and bonded with the older man on stage in the late 20s, so for him the role was an honorific. Cagney’s magnetic happy-bomb of energy, sincerity and charm easily won him an Oscar. Along with his shoo-in, the film took Academy Awards for Music Score and Sound, and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Huston), Story and Film Editing.
Cagney on Curtiz: “I used to say there was no such person as Curtiz, but only Curtiz the director. I understand they would actually take the camera away from him to keep him from going on 24 hours of straight shooting.” Mike Curtiz went from this assignment directly onto his next,a get-it-in-the-can item called Casablanca.
With Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp (playing Cohan’s mother–she was 11 years younger than Cagney!) Jeanne Cagney (his sister, playing Cohan’s sister) Eddie Foy Jr., Frances Langford, S.Z. Sakall and Walter Catlett.
You watch an entertainer biopic of today, and after enduring two hours of assorted frontal assaults slapping you in the face with indulgence and abuse, you want to slit your wrists. Two hours of Cagney as Cohan: you feel like running up the Stars and Stripes, giving the finger to the pseudo-Nazi bastards trying to hijack it and then making damn sure you get out to VOTE! I don’t know about you ‘fokes’ out there in MAGA-land, but my overage Dad didn’t ship out to Saipan, my Uncle Bill didn’t shred his nerves as a tail-gunner on a B-24 over Europe and my Mom didn’t Woman-up welding rivets on Liberty Ships because they were tired of Abbott & Costello: they did it to fight Fascists, not make it comfy so we could turn into them. I am that Yankee Doodle Boy. And I want my Flag back.