Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.
So ended the popular vaudeville act of The Four Cohans, who entertained audiences across the country with their singing, dancing, and clowning around in the late 1800s. So, too, did those words burn into my impressionable adolescent brain and remain with me to this day as perhaps the most memorable line of that traditional 4th of July movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s not Independence Day yet, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is now only a traditional offering on Turner Classic Movies, but I’d like to put this movie out there for consideration by a new generation of film buffs, particularly those who might like to get a handle on films of the 40s, a rich and often misunderstood era.
James Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of showbiz phenomenon George M. Cohan. Did he deserve it? Compared with the other nominees (Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper), I’d say that he probably did. Cornball and boisterous he was indeed, but that is exactly how Cohan was always described. Cagney was also charged with that special something he always got when he had the rare opportunity to perform in his favorite kind of film—a musical. Here was the intensity he brought to his gangsters—Tom Powers, Cody Garrett, Martin Snyder—in service of a tour de force performance of pure joy. His singing (not so hot, but expressive), his dancing (eccentric and strange to modern eyes, but masterfully entertaining and done in Cohan’s style), and, of course, his acting, which could turn from bravado to playful to soulful in just the right measure, all came together like a force of nature to tell perhaps the ultimate showbiz story.
The film opens in 1940, recounting the historic awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Cohan for writing the patriotic song “Over There,” an unofficial fight song for military men who fought in World War I and then in World War II. Cohan, the ultimate flag waver, is intimidated as he follows the Negro footman (the frequently working but often uncredited Clinton Rosemund) up a winding staircase to meet President Roosevelt (voice of Art Gilmore). In broad tones, with his back to the camera, Roosevelt reminisces about The Four Cohans, and Cohan launches into a full-blown flashback, with voiceovers from time to time to connect the scenes.
We go all the way back to George’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston), on stage and waiting to hear word about his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who is in labor. When the baby who would grow up to be George M. arrives, Jerry rushes through a 4th of July parade to Nellie’s bedside. Jerry suggests they name him George Washington, but must settle for George Michael. An unironic shot of baby George shows him with an American flag in his tiny fist.
We move swiftly through the birth of George’s sister Josie, who, grown-up, is played by Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne Cagney; stints on the vaudeville stage; and on to a production of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” with young George (Henry Blair) as star. George’s ego gets the better of him backstage when the Cohans get word that an important scout for a top vaudeville circuit wants to speak with them. He offers them a contract, but George fouls up the deal. He receives a spanking (“here’s a part without any talent”) after Nellie warns Jerry not to hit him in the mouth (“he has to sing”) or the hands (“he has to play the violin”).
The Cohans appear in a regional play, with George in white beard and wig playing his mother’s father. An 18-year-old girl named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to ask the advice of the wizened professional. She thinks she has talent and demonstrates her dancing abilities to George, who playfully gives her contradictory advice about her dancing style and then assures a beautiful chorine who sticks her head into his dressing room that their date for the evening is on. Mary, confused, asks if she’s his granddaughter. George replies, “Well, I do have to make up older than I really am,” and starts peeling off his whiskers and erasing his greasepaint wrinkles. When he pulls off his wig, Mary screams. He drops the wig to the floor, stomps on it, and says, “Got it.” Mary becomes part of the Cohan troupe.
George has begun writing plays. Our introduction to Cohan’s long-time partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) is a humorous meeting in the offices of theatrical agents Dietz & Goff (George Tobias and Chester Chute). Harris is trying to sell them a melodrama with Indians and flames and stampeding horses. George is pitching “Fifty Miles from Boston,” with Mary along to sing “Harrigan.” Dietz & Goff don’t like either of them. Both budding playwrights go separately to a tavern to drown their sorrows. Harris tries another pitch to German theatre angel Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). Schwab says he wants pretty dancing girls. George, overhearing their conversation, pretends that Harris is his partner and tells him Dietz & Goff may be interested in his musical. Schwab, disconcerted that Harris has been sitting on a musical, asks, “Why is Dietz’s wife’s money better than my wife’s money?” With a covert introduction and a handshake, Cohan & Harris is born, with one hit after another backed by the creative team. This scene is pure hokum and very far from the truth about the formation of the team, but it is extremely well-written and performed with the razor-sharp comic timing Cagney perfected with Pat O’Brien in Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933).
Cohan moves on to court Broadway star Fay Templeton (the marvelous Irene Manning) to headline his new musical. Templeton’s agent is urging her to hitch her wagon to the hottest thing on Broadway, but Templeton finds Cohan too vulgar for her refined image. When Cohan comes to call on her, she openly scorns him, but is won over by a song he wrote while she was on stage, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” which becomes the name of the show. She debuts the song “Mary, It’s a Grand Old Name,” in the show, while the real Mary, now Cohan’s wife and for whom the song supposedly was written, watches adoringly from her theatre box.
In 1904, Cohan opens the musical “Little Johnny Jones.” I think it’s interesting what a critic of the time says of this musical:
At the Providence Opera House last evening George M. Cohan, one of “the Four,” with a good-sized company, began a week’s engagement in his latest musical offense, “Little Johnny Jones.” The production still has “four Cohans,” although Josephine has deserted the fold. Father and mother are still with the show and so is Ethel Levey, who is Mrs. George M. in private life. The combination shows its familiar styles of varied talents neither better or worse than when last seen in this city and the entertainment is about of the usual Cohan standard, although there are features in this offering that have never been seen on any stage before. The extremely large audience present left no doubt as to its hearty approval of the whole affair. The applause was frequent and there were curtain calls and a speech by the “author actor.” All of which was in sad contrast to the comparatively slim and indifferent greeting extended to Miss Eleanor Robson, week before last, as well as to many of the previous attractions of marked artistic merit.
Now take a look at the Warner Bros version of this musical offense.
Certainly, we can see the cornball to which the reviewer objected, but this is a magnificent entertainment made even moreso by Cagney’s cocksure charisma.
The dramatic moments in the film are generally fine, though Leslie and Cagney generate the fire of a wet match. Even a wholesome musical ought to make marriage look like a pleasure, not something you retire to. Some moments, however, are quite poignant. For example, Josie and George talk at the family farm, and Josie tells him she is getting married and retiring. This scene actually took place between Jeanne and James, who were a vaudeville team, and thus, there is a personal note that I find moving. In another scene, George, walking alongside some soldiers getting ready to ship out during World War II, is chided for not singing their marching song: “Don’t you remember it?” “Seems to me I do,” he answers, and joins in singing “Over There.” Most moving of all is when George rushes to his father’s death bed. His father is delirious, talking about the early days of the act, and George plays along. When Jerry finally expires, George tries to say the act’s closing line, “My mother thanks you…” but breaks down into tears. He’s the only one of the Four Cohans left.
The flag waving goes into overdrive for the final musical number that ends the film, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from “George Washington, Jr.,” ensuring the kind of show-stopping pleasure Cohan always loved to give the crowds. I’m a pretty well-developed cynic when it comes to patriotism, but the dedicated craft of all of those involved in creating Yankee Doodle Dandy never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m sure that in an America embroiled in war, this film, like so many others made at this time, helped ease the pain of parted loved ones, wartime rationing, and social uncertainty. James Cagney holds nothing back in portraying an American patriot who wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Give it a try. You just might feel a little bit better about America afterward.