“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is rah-rah, rousingly American and great box office, no matter how you slice it. It’s a tribute to a grand American gentleman of the theatre – George M. Cohan – whose life and songs are glorified by Warner Bros; and it’s a tribute, perhaps even more so, to all show business. When President Roosevelt is shown telling Cohan (Jimmy Cagney) that ‘you are the first of your profession to win a Congressional Medal of Honor,’ and the song-and-dance man, Cohan, is shown humbly absorbing the significance of this honor–that’s all, brother!
Much will be written about Warner Bros.’ “Yankee Doodle.” It’s a dandy topic for review, reprise and reiterated kudos. It holds so much, condensing several generations of the Four Cohans into two hours and six minutes of celluloid, that not all of it can be compressed into a single summation. Thus, its cumulative press and other comment put no ceiling on its public grip.
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Focused for showmanly merchandising from a Memorial Day world’s premiere on Broadway through specialized engagements around July 4–synonymous with Cohan’s natal day and flagwaving–the Cohan saga is a timely, dramatic and romantic story, which, by underplaying and indirectional emphasis, all the more points up the American way of life.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is something to cheer about from any perspective. The least of it should be the mundane box office equation.
But the film goes beyond the length and breadth of the intake at the wickets. It’s a success saga as pungent as an Horatio Alger, Jr. tale. It’s as entertaining as any top filmusical ever made. It’s as salutory to its central character as the oath of allegiance to the American flag. It’s as American as the Liberty Bell.
That it’s showmanly is best answered by the above. James Cagney does a Cohan of which the original George M. might well be proud. In fact, intra-trade info already has reported how Cohan wanted to know where Cagney learned how to hoof, not knowing that the film star’s own professional background is in the song-and-dance idiom.
That Robert Buckner, and his co-scripter, Edmund Joseph, jazzed up a little of the latter-day chronology is beside the point–that, too, is so much additional showmanship. What matters if one or another show preceeded this or that of Cohan’s many successes.
The basic story of a loving family–‘my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you’–is a tribute to the domestic felicity of any home.
That Cohan was cocky and conceited as the kid star of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” in which he clicked at 13; that he remained close to Jerry Cohan, Nellie Cohan and sister Josie (so well played by the star’s real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney); that his string of successes never upset this lovely and loving picture, are all part of a human, appealing story of one of the great theatrical families of all times.
Nor was their career, collectively and individually, tranquil. There is plenty of uncertainty, frustration, disappointment–all the dramatic ingredients that make for the proper admixture of human appeal.
Joan Leslie as the romantic vis-a-vis, if perhaps not strictly of biography born, is certainly a fetching and reasonable facsimile thereof. Maybe Richard Whorf, as Sam H. Harris, isn’t McCoy history, either, but it’s skillfully enough blended and compromised. Ditto George Barbier’s Abe Erlanger; Irene Manning’s excellent Fay Templeton; and of course Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan, father of the brood, who at times almost takes it away from the star.
But it’s Cagney’s film from the gong. Even his adolescent counterpart, Douglas Croft, as the slightly impossible Peck’s Bad Boy, is in the groove for histrionic impress; and that too goes for Patsy Lee Parsons, playing Josie Cohan at 12, a fetching indeed Shirley Temple-type adolescent from whom much should be heard.
Joan Leslie is winsome to the hilt as Cohan’s romantic interest; and Irene Manning makes her Fay Templeton plenty socko. Frances Langford in the Army canteen scene with “Over There” (which Nora Bayes actually introduced) handles her chore well; and Jeanne Cagney, as sister Josie, is in the present-day family tradition. There are fine contributions throughout. Rosemary Decamp is the winning Nellie Cohan (mother); Eddie Foy, Jr., personates his father in a sidewalk scene with Cagney that’s a turn-back-the-pages-of-time excerpt of startling realism. Minor Watson is Albee; S. Z. Sakall, as a mildly lecherous a.k. angel, and George Tobias, as a rival manager, make their bits stand out above par. Mme. Bartholdi (Odette Myrtil) harks back to the immortal theatrical boarding house at Broadway and 45th, Bartholdi’s Inn, back of “Variety’s” old office site; and Capt. Jack Young personates President Roosevelt with startling vocal simulation.
It’s little wonder that F.D.R. approved the idea of having himself commercially personated. It’s a piece of celluloid propaganda without peer. The manner in which he summons Cohan to Washington, then starring in “I’d Rather be Right,” the Kaufman & Hart hit musical on Broadway, and the manner in which Cohan (Cagney) tells his life story to the President, is a showmanly coup of daring and enterprise that will surprise people in and out of Hollywood. It proves to what lengths the Government can and will cooperate if the artistic skill and interpretation are ultra. The Buckner-Joseph script thus makes the President a straight man for the central character, who, in flashback form, recounts his career from his July 4th birthday, through “Over There” and up to the present. The Congressional Medal of Honor, of course, was a belated tribute from a grateful nation for Cohan’s immortal war song of 1917-18.
Thus is unfolded a sequence of plays-within-a-play, as excerpts from Cohan hits background the saga of his life and struggles. Thus are introduced Cohan’s smashes, “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” “So Long, Mary,” “Harrigan,” “I Was Born in Virginia,” “45 Minutes from Broadway” and, of course, “Over There.”
Backgrounding this is all the color and the tradition of the theatre; from Tony Pastor to E. F. Albee; from Klaw & Erlanger to the Theatric Guild; from Tin Pan Alley to the Hit Parade; from yesteryear mellowness to present-day jive talk. (A group of youngsters see Cohan reading “Variety,” get a load of the headline, “Stix Nix Hix Pix,” and do a rhythmic scat ad lib on the phraseology, in the belief it’s a new kind of jive.)
For Cagney it’s a personal triumph, easily his top cinematic performance. He hoofs like one demented; he troupes like a lammister from the Lambs; he does Cohan like a relative. If he forgets the side-of-the-mouth droop, after the initial impress, it’s little noticed and perhaps better liked. Thus, in celluloid, Cagney has immortalized Cohan for all time. There can be no more fitting climax to any career.
1942: Best Actor (James Cagney), Scoring of a Musical Picture, Sound Recording.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Walter Huston), Original Story, Editing