Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I LOVE classic old movies— and one of the most entertaining and patriotic of them all is Yankee Doodle Dandy, a perfect viewing choice for The Fourth of July, our nation’s Independence Day! This 1942 film follows the life and times of legendary Broadway musical producer, composer and singer/dancer George M. Cohan, who wrote such iconic American classics as “You’re A Grand Old Flag” “The Yankee Doodle Boy”,“Over There” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”, just to name a few!
This wonderful, nostalgic and sentimental film is chock-full of terrific production numbers, featuring a founding member of Hollywood royalty, actor James Cagney. Most movie buffs know him from his many gangster movies and distinctive voice— remember the classic phrase that impressionists always use to imitate him?: “You dirty rat, you killed my brother…” (although Cagney always stated that he never said that exact phrase in his movies).
But– Cagney was a vaudeville star long before he ever started making gangster movies, and in Yankee Doodle Dandy he does a fabulous job as the dynamic and sometimes hot-headed Cohan— who knew many ups and downs in his long career, but ultimately inspired a nation with his devout patriotism and stirring songs. Take a look at the exciting movie trailer:
A Little Movie History…
Hollywood movie lore has it that George M. Cohan himself was an advisor on the film and actually wanted the great Fred Astaire to play him the movie, but Astaire turned him down, because Cohan’s trademark stiff-legged dancing style was very different from the elegant and fluid style of Astaire. Also, Cohan’s singing was a unique combination of actual singing and rhythmic speech, while Astaire was a legitimate singer with a lovely tenor voice. In the end, Cagney turned out to be a much better choice, with his scrappy Irish-American energy (Cohan was also Irish-American) and a more authentic representation of Cohan’s signature singing style and dance moves.
The film enjoyed great success, and received eight Academy Award nominations and three wins: Cagney for Best Actor, as well as Best Scoring of A Musical Picture, and Best Sound Recording. The nominations included Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for venerable actor Walter Huston (who touchingly played Cohan’s father), Best Original Story and Best Film Editing. And, a bit of Oscar history was made with this film, because James Cagney was the first actor to ever win Best Actor for a musical performance in a film. And the icing on the cake?— in 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.
The Movie Plot Is Cohan’s Real Life Story…
While George M. Cohan ultimately produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own musical shows, his career, like Cagney’s, started back in vaudeville. Yankee Doodle Dandy is told as a flashback, first looking back at the period when Cohan and his sister joined the family’s successful musical act, The Four Cohans. As the story unfolds and they become more and more successful, Cohan becomes too cocky and difficult to work with, so he is blacklisted from vaudeville and tries to make his way as a songwriter. He falls on hard times until his star begins to rise again, both professionally, with a new writing partner, Samuel H. Harris (who ultimately became an incredibly successful producer and theater owner in his own right) and personally, when he marries the love of his life, singer and dancer Agnes Mary Nolan, for whom he wrote what would become a popular hit song of the time, “Mary”. Here it is sung sweetly by actress Joan Leslie, who plays Mary in the movie:
The story continues as Cohan ultimately becomes the leading Broadway producer of the early 20th Century, with the production of 40 Broadway shows and hundreds of songs that became known in every household of the United States, as well as abroad. For his patriotism and the great impact he had on keeping up the spirits of our troops and those at home during World War I and beyond, Cohan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to mark his enduring and unique life-time achievement. Cohan was the first person in any artistic field selected for this honor, which previously had gone only to military and political leaders, philanthropists, scientists, inventors, and explorers.
Let’s get a taste of just how inspiring his music truly is…
with the rousing World War I classic song, “Over There”, first performed by singing star Frances Langford (who actually sang in the Bob Hope USO Tour during World War II) and then Cagney. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Hope )
This excerpt then ends with the grand finale of the movie, after Cohan is given the Congressional Gold Medal and joins a military parade singing his song:
You can’t help having a smile on your face and a spring in your step after watching and hearing that! So– do yourself a favor this Fourth of July— give yourself a shot in the arm and watch Yankee Doodle Dandy! The song and dance numbers are vastly entertaining, (you’ll be tapping your toes and singing along with the more famous tunes) and the great story of the American dream realized by Cohan will bring a tear to your eye, and renew your pride in being American all over again.