During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
For both of us, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, the 1942 biographical musical, was a surprise. As Americans, we were obviously familiar with the songs in the movie, but we had never gotten the additional context of George M. Cohan and his life. Though not necessarily true-to-life, James Cagney played the role of the “song and dance” man to perfection. Neither Diane nor I knew what to expect before watching the film, but we both thoroughly enjoyed it.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a biographical story about Irish-American George M. Cohan (played by James Cagney). Cohan was an entertainer, dancer, singer, producer, and writer. Of all his hits, the two I am most familiar with are “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, two songs I have heard all my life though I knew nothing of their composer.
Even the movie remarks upon the familiarity of Cohan’s music. Later in the film, teenagers arrive needing water for their car. George is asleep in a hammock reading a magazine and they ask him if he was ever in showbusiness. He says he was, but they don’t know any of the songs he mentions were his. Instead, they only know that new hit single “Jeepers Creepers”. Of course “Jeepers Creepers” is a jazz standard now and a “hit” horror movie franchise, but Cohan’s music has lasted the test of time too or else people like us wouldn’t know them.
As Cohan, James Cagney is sublime in the role. We previously saw him on this list in “Public Enemy”, but playing a singer and dancer in George M. Cohan is far removed from his turn as a criminal. It’s amazing seeing his range and after watching “Yankee Doodle Dandy” I am finally understanding why he was a respected and well-known actor in his time.
Similar to most of the films on this list thus far, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” covers George M. Cohan’s entire life, absent his final years and death. The story is bookended by his meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Cohan’s twilight years.
It is also a musical and, in the same vein as other movies on this list depicting Broadway, we had no idea what any of the plays performed within the movie are about. It is amazing how much is lost over time. I am sure the musical Little Johnny Jones was better known in the ‘40s, but the only thing from it for which we were familiar was the song “Give My Regards to Broadway”. The depiction in the movie of Little Johnny Jones, Cohan’s first full-length musical, was confusing and completely alien to us otherwise.
The best praise I can give for a movie like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is that I would watch it again. It was fun, funny, and an all-around great performance. There was an instance of blackface, but it was within the context of Vaudeville and excusable enough for the time. And, again, I cannot speak enough of Cagney’s performance. He made me laugh, nearly made me cry, and his stiff-legged dancing mixed with his sing-speak songs kept me engaged.