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FIVE STAR FILMS #75: Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz – 1942)

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Warner Bros’ extremely patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy began filming in December 1941, in the same week as the Pearl Harbor attack. By the time it premiered in late May 1942, the United States was well into World War II. The film would be nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Curtiz). It would go on to win three: Best Music (Scoring), Best Sound (Recording) and Best Actor (James Cagney, as George M. Cohan).

Much of the greatness of Yankee Doodle Dandy comes down to Cagney’s outstanding performance.  In fact, if I could give my five reasons why this film deserves Five Star Film status as ‘Cagney, Cagney, Cagney, Cagney and Cagney’, I would. But I’ve looked at the bigger picture, and there certainly are some other elements contributing to the film’s strength. I’ll look into three of these, along with two Cagney-related ones.

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1. GEORGE M. COHAN’S INTERESTING LIFE STORY 

Yankee Doodle Dandy’s real-life subject George M Cohan was born to Irish parents in Rhode Island, in 1878. His birth date was July 3rd, but his claim of being born on July 4th enhanced his reputation as a proud, patriotic American. Cohan was born into a showbiz family, performing with his parents and sister from when he was a small child. By the early 1900’s, he was the most successful composer/lyricist/actor/producer on Broadway.

Though estimates vary, Cohan was said to have to written and published somewhere in the ballpark of 500 songs during his career, including the famous Give My Regards to Broadway. He had some lean times in the early days, and eventually went on to be the first person from the arts to receive America’s Congressional Gold Medal (erroneously referred to in Yankee Doodle Dandy as the Congressional Medal of Honor). All of this made Cohan a worthy and interested subject for a biographical film – and in true biopic tradition, a number of facts were altered for the film. Cases in point: the fact that Cohan had two wives instead of one (and neither had the same name as his film wife’s character), the fact that he had four children (who all go unmentioned in the film), and the order in which his family members died. This fact-fudging, however, doesn’t take away from the power of the film. Yankee Doodle Dandy was a critical and commercial success. It was also, at the time, the highest grossing film in Warner Bros’ history. Not a bad musical effort for a studio who had long before moved their principal resources from musicals to gangster films.

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2. MULTI-TALENTED DIRECTOR CURTIZ 

Michael Curtiz was an particularly accomplished and multi-talented director. Immediately before Yankee Doodle Dandy, he directed Casablanca (also 1942) for Warner Bros, for which he was awarded a Best Director Academy Award (his first such Oscar win after five nominations in nine years). [For more on Casablanca see this previous Five Star Film entry]. Though Casablanca was made before Yankee Doodle Dandy, the former was released approximately nine months after the latter, making the films eligible in different Academy Award years – meaning that Curtiz would not be competing against himself at the same ceremony for these two films (as he had done at the 1939 Academy Awards: for 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters).

Curtiz was never pigeon-holed into directing a certain type of film. Over a nearly fifty year film directing career, his eclectic credits list included such titles as the war film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), the romance/action/adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the film noir crime/drama Mildred Pierce (1945), the musical comedy/romance White Christmas (1954), the Elvis Presley musical vehicle Kink Creole (1958) and the historical biopic Francis of Assisi (1961).

Back now to Yankee Doodle Dandy

One of the lovely touches in this film is that the patriotism for which it’s famed is not the mean-spirited, jingoistic type. It’s more about a genuine national pride and a love of one’s country, rather than stating that any other country is ‘bad’ or ‘the enemy’. Some critics of the film find this patriotic bent soppy and quaintly naïve, but it can also be very stirring. And you don’t have to be an American to find the film moving.

Curtiz is famed as being the first to direct a film actor (Captain Jack Young) playing a living American president (in this case, F.D. Roosevelt). Curtiz had Young shot from behind (and sometimes in slight profile), while sitting at a desk. This helped take attention away from the fact that the real F.D.R. was actually wheel-chair bound (and he was never shown to the American pubic in such a way).

[Side-note: it’s been oft-commented that this ‘behind the desk’ shooting technique employed in Yankee Doodle Dandy may have been the inspiration for Mr Steinbrenner from Seinfeld (1989-1998). I wonder if it was?]

Another (this time unfortunate) first for Yankee Doodle Dandy is that it was the first classic black-and-white film that Ted Turner had colourised and re-released as such. The year was 1986, nearly twenty-five years after the death of Curtiz.  My objections (and those of countless others) to colourisation are many – and one of these reasons is that this is not how the director (and cinematographer et al) intended the film to be seen. Black-and-white film has a myriad of gorgeous grey/silver/etc tones that lose their beauty when colourised. So much of the delicious light and shadow in black-and-white film goes missing when subjected to over-saturated colourisation.

[SIDE NOTE: Just a couple of years later (in 1988), Turner announced plans to colourise Citizen Kane. The public outcry was so great that the project ended up being aborted].

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3. CAGNEY’S OVERALL PERFORMANCE 

I could gush all day about Cagney’s magnificent performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He’s just electric! His portrayal of Cohan is so dynamic, it’s almost like he’s going at double-speed – and he keeps up the energy in just about every scene in this two hour plus film. The vigour Cagney brings to the role is just extraordinary. The cliché ‘you can’t take your eyes off him’ is so true in this case. Cagney owns every scene. His presence is so commanding – and his vigour is contagious. Watching him, you just want to jump up and dance.

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4. CAGNEY’S DANCING 

Speaking of dance, special mention must be made of Cagney’s dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney began his career in vaudeville, working on Broadway for ten years.  He sang and danced all that time, but in 1942 the film-going public knew him as a dramatic actor, principally in gangster roles, such as The Frisco Kid (1935), the aforementioned Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

Cagney had only sung/danced on film once, in 1933’s Footlight Parade. He was the first Best Actor in the Academy’s history to win for a musical performance.

Cagney was a true triple threat (singer/dancer/actor). His dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy is unlike anything previously seen on film. If you haven’t seen the film yourself, I urge you to buy the DVD/Blu or catch it on a TV re-run as soon as you can – but in the meantime, check out Cagney’s moves in this famous section from the song The Yankee Doodle Boy (watch from 1:20 to 2:45):

Agile and limber Cagney is just extraordinary here: The way he struts. The straight-legged stomping. The forward-leaning kicks. The slick way he moves. How he manages to be simultaneously lock-limbed and rubber-like. The way he runs up the proscenium arch. It’s all so wonderful.

Another Cagney dancing highlight in the film is in the Give My Regards to Broadway sequence. Cagney is superb, tap-dancing on an almost empty stage (save for some barrels and crates), lit by a spotlight. He is so smooth, he just about glides across the stage.

Also deserving of recognition are John Boyle, who worked on Cagney’s choreography (Boyle’s official credit was ‘Dances Routined by’), and of course to the real George M. Cohan, whose real-life dance work inspired some of the choreography for the character of Cohan.

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5. STRONG SUPPORTING CAST

Though Cagney is the undisputed star of in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he is blessed with a terrific supporting cast. Particularly strong is Walter Huston, as Cohan’s father. [Huston can also be seen in this previous Five Star Film entry for The Maltese Falcon, directed by his son John Huston].

Other notable cast members include:

– Joan Leslie, who played Cohan’s (fictional) wife Mary, and was only seventeen when the film was shot. Her character had to age from teens to sixties.

– Rosemary DeCamp, who played Cohan’s mother, and was actually eleven years younger than Cagney.

– Jeanne Cagney, Cagney’s real-life sister, who played his on-screen sister Josie.

– A large number of talented singing and dancing chorus members, who supported Cagney in the film’s fantastic, lush production numbers.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy is a remarkable Five Star Film, and one that certainly deserves multiple viewings.

Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

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