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Film Friday: "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942)

Since today is James Cagney's 116th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I want to tell you about what was, according to the man himself, his favorite of all the films he made.

Original release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) opens in the early days of World War II, when George M. Cohan (James Cagney) is called to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House, after impersonating him in the Rodgers and Hart musical I'd Rather Be You. In response to Roosevelt's questions, Cohan begins narrating the story of his life, beginning with his birth on July 4, 1878 and then recalling his vaudeville days with his father Jerry (Walter Huston), mother Mary (Rosemary DeCamp) and sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney). The Four Cohans perform successfully across the country, but George gets too cocky as he grows up and is blacklisted by theatrical producers for being troublesome.

In the early 1900s, while the family is in New York, George leaves the act and tries to sell some songs he has written, but no one seems to be interested. Forming a partnership with another struggling writter, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), George finally manages to interest a moneyed producer named Schwab (S. Z. Sakall) in one of his musicals, Little Johnny Jones. The show is a hit and they soon begin producing a number of plays that feature George's popular formula of success stories laced with patriotism. In the meantime, George marries Mary (Joan Leslie), an aspiring singer he met his dressing room one night, Josie gets engaged and the older Cohans retire to a quiet farm. When the United States enter World War I, George is rejected for military service for being too old, but he takes the opportunity to write the inspirational song "Over There." Though George retires a few years after the war, he returns to the stage several times, cultimating in the role of the U.S. President. When he leaves the White House after meeting Roosevelt, he sees a military parade where the soldiers march while singing "Over There" and he proudly joins them.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

A musical motion picture about the extraordinary life of George M. Cohan, known in the years before World War I as "the man who owned Broadway," was first proposed in the 1930s by MGM, with a young Mickey Rooney attached to play the cocky song-and-dance man. (Rooney later played Cohan in a 1957 television special directed by Sidney Lumet entitled Mr. Broadway.) However, that deal collapsed after MGM chief Louis B. Mayer refused to allow Cohan the final cut on the film. Sometime later, independent producer Samuel Goldwyn showed an interest in the project and approached Fred Astaire for a starring role, but he declined the offer, believing he was not right for the part. Paramount Pictures also proposed their own biopic, but Cohan was unimpressed with their ideas, so he turned them down.

Meanwhile, producer William Cagney was looking for a picture to star his brother James that had "genuine American flavor." At the time, James Cagney's reputation was tainted by accusations of him being a communist sympathizer and because of his so-called radical activites in the 1930s when he openly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Since Cohan was seen as "the embodiment of American brashness, self-confidence and naïvity," his life story presented itself as the perfect antidote to Cagney's overliberal repute. Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner and producer Hal B. Wallis had long admired Cohan and the idea of Cagney's playing the role in a full-scale musical excited both of them. Consequently, they hired Robert Buckner, responsible for the successful Knute Rockne, All American (1940), to write a script in close cooperation with Cohan himself, who made sure it emphasized his songs and professional career rather than his personal life.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan
When Cagney read Buckner's screenplay, he was surprised to find that "there wasn't a single laugh in it, not the suggestion of a snicker," so he personally asked Julius and Philip Epstein to "liven it up and inject humor." The talented Epstein brothers started out as radio writers in their native New York before moving to Hollywood in 1935 to pen screenplays for Warner Bros., including their Academy Award-winning script for Casablanca (1942). They were frequently employed as "troubleshooters," taking otherwise dull scripts and invigorating them with a little more color and humor, like they had just done with Cagney's The Stawberry Blonde (1941). 

Being a song-and-dance man himself, Cagney did not need much psychological or professional preparation for the role, but he still wanted to be as close to Cohan as he possibly could. He talked with a few people who knew the entertainer, including Spencer Tracy, who had appeared in three of Cohan's plays between 1926 and 1928, and insisted that Warner bros. hire coreographer Johnny Boyle, who had staged dances for Cohan on Broadway and was therefore well acquainted with his personal dancing style. Boyle taught Cagney the unique stiff-legged technique Cohan was notable for, his run up the side of the proscenium arch and the way he tended to strut in rhythmic fashion everytime he walked on stage. All of these elements were incorporated in the "Yankee Doodle Boy" sequence seen midway through the film. Cagney and Boyle worked well together, but apparently the rehearsals were so strenuous that "Johnny hurt one foot badly enough to be virtually incapacitated for dancing the rest of his life."

Jeanne and James Cagney
To helm Yankee Doodle Dandy, Warner Bros. chose Michael Curtiz, who had previously directed with Cagney in the comedy Jimmy the Gent (1934), the gangster classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and the war film Captains of the Clouds (1942). Born in Hungary, Curtiz began his career as an actor and director as Mihály Kertész at the National Hungarian Theatre in 1912. After World War I, Curtiz moved to Vienna and found work at Sascha Films, where he directed at least 21 pictures, including the Biblical epics Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and Die Sklavenkönigin (1924). The latter, released in the United States as The Moon of Israel, brought Curtiz to the attention of Jack Warner, who soon invited him to Hollywood under exclusive contract to Warner Bros. 

Curtiz arrived in the United States reportedly on July 4, 1926, George M. Cohan's 48th birthday, and quickly became one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood, working in a variety of genres ranging from mysteries such as The Kennel Murder Case (1933), to romantic comedies like Four's a Crowd (1938), to swashbuckling adventures such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Known for his mandering of the English language, Curtiz once referred to Yankee Doodle Dandy as "the pinochle of my career." That same year, he also directed Casablanca, which earned him the Oscar for Best Director and is considered by many film experts and fans alike to be his career chef d'oeuvre.

Huston and Cagney
Although Cagney disliked Curtiz as a man, he admired him greatly as a director. Curtiz also thought very highly of Cagney as an actor and gave him free rein in his scenes, allowing him to improvise as the cameras were rolling. The scene when Cagney suddenly breaks into a tap dance as he comes down the stairs at the White House, for instance, was completely ad-libbed by the actor a few minutes before he went on. "I didn't check with the director or anything; I just did it," he later recalled. Curtiz showed his admiration for Cagney during Walter Huston's emotional death scene. The hard-boiled director was so moved by the way the weeping Cagney lowered his head on Huston's chest that he reportedly ruined a take with his loud sobs. When they finished the sequence, Curtiz, with tears streaming down his face, turned to Cagney and said, "Cheeses Chrisdt, Jeemy! Beautiful, beautiful!" According to Cagney, "that may have been the ultimate compliment."

During the making of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney was always cordial and helpful towards cast and crew members alike. He was especially kind to the young Joan Leslie, who was entrusted with the task of playing Cohan's wife, Mary. Since the film began production without a complete script, Cagney would constantly add his personal touches to it, drawing from his own background as a song-and-dance man. Leslie recalls that his improvisatory attitude was particularly helpful in the "Harrigan" sequence, as it made her feel more confident about her abilities as a performer.

Leslie and Cagney in the "Harrigan" number
It gave me such confidence. He made me feel as though I could do whatever he said, which was an extreme compliment. He was asking a great deal of me, but he believed I could do it. He put it all together in about fifteen minutes before we shot it [...] I felt as though I had rehearsed the routine a hundred times, because he made me feel so secure. I don't remember more than one take on anything with him. We just did it.
(Joan Leslie)

One actor Cagney was not particularly fond of was the Hungarian-born S. Z. Sakall, who played Schwab, a girl-crazy potential backer for a Cohan play. In shooting his introductory scene, when he is supposed to listen with fascination as Cohan explains the virtues of Little Johnny Jones, Sakall kept interpolating little ad-libs of his own in his well-known "cutesy-pie" foreign accent. This thoroughly angered Cagney, who felt Sakall was disturbing the advancement of the plot and "doing it for comic effect. For his comic effect." Curtiz initially refused to ask his fellow countryman to stop muttering and repeating everything Cagney was saying because Sakall was "such a a big star in Budapest." The correction was eventually made, however, and Sakall was given a line to express his enthusiasm. Still, some of his mumbling repetition of Cagney's lines was included in the film's final cut, which further contributed to Cagney's disliking of Sakall.

The film's New York premiere
When Yankee Doodle Dandy was finished, a special showing was held for George Cohan, who was confined to his New York apartment at the time, battling the cancer that would take his life a few months later, on November 6, 1942. Cagney and his brother Bill were concerned about what Cohan would think of the film, since it was only based on his life and certain liberties had to be taken in the telling of his story. Fortunately, Cohan loved the picture and gave it his blessing. "I like to think that this only contact we had was professionally appropriate: one song-and-dance man saluting another, the greatest of our calling," Cagney later wrote. 

The premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy was held in New York City on May 29, 1942 as a war bond benefit for the Treasury Department, raising over $5,000,000 for the war effort. The film was the biggest moneymaker in Warner Bros.' history up to that time and received highly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that Yankee Doodle Dandy was "as warm and delightful a musical picture as has hit the screen in years, a corking good entertainment and as affectionate, if not as accurate, a film biography as has ever — yes, ever — been made." He also praised Cagney's portrayal of Cohan, describing it as "an unbelievably faithful characterization and a piece of playing that glows with energy." Abel Green of Variety also heralded the picture, saying that "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."

At the 15th Academy Awards held at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, California in March 1943, Yankee Doodle Dandy won three Oscars Best Actor (Cagney), Best Sound Recording and Best Musical Score and received five additional nominations Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Huston), Best Story and Best Film Editing. When Gary Cooper, who has won Best Actor the previous year (Cooper was also a nominee that year in the same category, so why they chose him to present the award is beyond me), opened the envelope and shouted "James Cagney, for Yankee Doodle Dandy," the entire Cocoanut Grove broke into applause. Cagney's acceptance speech was short and sincere: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very happy. Because of the highly personal quality of our business, I've always had the feeling, ever since coming into it, that you can only be as good as the other fellow thinks you are. It's nice to know that you people thought I did a good job. And don't forget that it was a good part, too. Thank you very much."

James Cagney and Gary Cooper at the 15th Academy Awards

In just about every interview, in most conversations, one question emerges unfailingly: what is my favorite picture? Many people assume that one of those knock-down-drag-'em-downs would be my choice. A discerning critic like Peter Bogdanovich can't understand why I chose Yankee Doodle Dandy over White Heat and The Public Enemy. The answer is simple, and it derives from George M. Cohan's comment about himself: once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance. In that brief statement, you have my life story; those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.
(James Cagney)

Cagney by John McCabe (1997) | Cagney by Cagney by James Cagney (2005) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. So glad Cagney got to return to his hoofing roots and do this movie. He is enjoying himself and it shows! Great post about a great movie and top-notch actor.


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