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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Yankee Doodle Dandy: Two-Disc Special Edition
Yankee Doodle Dandy: Two-Disc Special Edition
Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 30, 2003
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted September 29, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a slice of Hollywood magic that is just as easy to adore as it is to trash. To many, the film is a riveting and beloved reminder of the grand and glorious heights to which Hollywood is able to aspire. Many others find the film to be a fairly dated relic with stilted sensibilities and melodramatic, falsely sentimental overtones that awkwardly clash with more "sophisticated" contemporary attitudes.

The film tells the story of legendary musical talent George M. Cohan, an Irish-American singer, dancer, actor, playwright and songwriter. One evening he is summoned to the White House for a private audience with President Roosevelt, in which he begins to recall his life story (the bulk of the movie is told in a series of flashbacks). We see Cohan's earliest beginnings, being born of the Fourth of July, performing on-stage with his family as part of "The Four Cohans" vaudeville act, his coming-of-age and eventual control of the group, his branching out into the creation and production of his own musicals with partner Sam Harris, the dissolution of "The Four Cohans", his slow slide into obscurity, and his glorious comeback.

And... that's basically it. Yankee Doodle Dandy provides no reaching character arc or development throughout its two hour running time. Replete with dozens of well-staged musical numbers, the movie seems at times to be more spectacle than story. And the film – much like the famous showman whose tale it recounts – often seems like a manipulative flag-waver, evoking heartfelt sentiment and simple-minded dramatics instead of depth and narrative complexity.

And it's an absolute beauty of a movie. Yankee Doodle Dandy only seems mawkish and old-fashioned when viewed from a distance, which is how many younger viewers might recognize the film. Almost anyone is familiar with the songs ("Give My Regards To Broadway", "Over There", "You're A Grand Old Flag", and of course the title song of the film), which have become integral threads of the popular American fabric, but sitting down to watch the film in earnest I couldn't help but realize how surprisingly candid the entire affair turned out to be. The movie celebrates family, first and foremost, the ability to love and cherish those closest to us despite the insanities that they put us through. George M. Cohan's inexhaustible drive, determination, and grating self-promotion makes one regard the character as little more than a egocentric showman, but the minute he achieves success the first thing Cohan does is send out telegrams to the rest of The Four Cohans, insisting that they drop everything and join him. The eventual breakup of the group obviously and significantly saddens him. Witness the scene where his sister informs him that she is marrying their tour manager and leaving the group to raise a family. Cohan reacts with sadness, and then tells her he will write the greatest wedding march for her ever devised. Is this cloying and melodramatic? Maybe. But it works!

Yankee Doodle Dandy sports a pedigree that makes film geeks everywhere drool with cinematic joy. The movie was directed by the great Michael Curtiz, the man responsible for the direction of too many bonafide Hollywood classics, including (but not limited to)  Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. A literal workhorse, Curtiz often cranked out multiple movies a year without losing step. In 1942 alone, Yankee Doodle Dandy had to compete with two other Curtiz films: Casablanca and Captains of the Clouds!

There are so many other great touches to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Curtiz's writing team from Casablanca , Julius and Philip Epstein, also came aboard to take a crack at the script, adding touches of humor and satire to the existing screenplay. The film features some phenomenal camerawork, finely staged musical numbers, and all of those memorable songs with which we find ourselves familiar even if we don't know from where they originate. But the main reason for Yankee Doodle Dandy's success is James Cagney. He is the centerpiece of this film, and I doubt a driving, more charismatic, and more energetic presence could have been found. As mentioned in many reviews of the movie, Cagney wasn't much of either a singer or a dancer, but it was his sheer strength of an actor and the stark believability of his performance that convinces audiences to not only accept his presence in the film, but also to marvel at it. Cagney won an Academy Award for his performance as George M. Cohan, and it was well-deserved. Cagney is the root of this movie, the focus around which this American tale revolves, and throughout the film, in a seemingly effortlessly manner, he endears himself to the audience as a strong, passionate character whose love of entertaining matches his love of country and family.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is true Golden Age Hollywood magic. If it does seem dated, sentimental, and simplistic, it is only because cynicism has sapped contemporary audiences of its ability to enjoy grand scale entertainment of a joyously heart-swelling nature.

The DVD

Video:

When looking at a sixty year old film, a lot of leeway can be given in terms of grading the video and audio presentation. Thankfully, too many concessions do not have to be given to Yankee Doodle Dandy: I am pleasantly surprised at the fine video quality evident on this DVD. The film is presented in its original full-frame theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and is in its original black-and-white presentation (Yankee Doodle Dandy was the first film ever butchered by Ted Turner's beloved colorization process, an atrocity that ranks up there with New Coke and having Rob Lowe sing with Snow White.) While the DVD doesn't have quite as fine a restoration and presentation as other 1940s-era Warners releases (such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane), the movie still looks fairly impressive on its own. Most flaws were print-related: some minor defects, speckling and wear are evident throughout the film. However, sharpness levels and image detail were spot-on during the entire presentation. Contrasts levels are balanced evenly, giving the film a smooth, textured feel. Grain structure is evident, retaining the movie's original film-like appearance. I never noticed any pixellation artifacts or compression noise -- this is a sharp, clean transfer.

Audio:

The audio is delivered in monaural Dolby Digital 1.0, and is perfectly suited to presenting Yankee Doodle Dandy in all of its original glory. Dialog, musical numbers, orchestral score and ambient noise are all delivered in the film's original mono presentation, and come off very well if inherently "boxy" due to the limitations of the original source material. Distortion, clipping, hiss, and scratches in the soundtrack are nowhere to be found. Like the video, the audio on this DVD is very clean.

Extras:

Saddle up, buckaroos. There's a lot of ground to cover in this fantastic DVD set!

Disc One:

Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides a feature-length Audio Commentary. Colin Jacobson of DVD Movie Guide describes a Rudy Behlmer commentary track as "money in the bank", and I couldn't put it better myself. If you've heard any of Behlmer's commentaries before, then you would be full-aware of how amazing his contributions are, and in that vein his comments on Yankee Doodle Dandy do not disappoint. Behlmer provides a wealth of fascinating behind-the-scenes facts, entertaining anecdotes, production notes, and cast and crew information. He hits the ground running from the time the Warner Shield appears, and rarely (although occasionally) lags throughout the feature's running-time, providing his information in a lively and entertaining style. If you love this film, you owe it to yourself to listen to Behlmer's commentary.

As part of the "Warner Legends Collection", this two-disc special edition comes loaded to the hilt with a slew of great extras. Like the other DVDs in this collection, Yankee Doodle Dandy features the Warner Night At The Movies introductory material, the inclusion of which allows you the viewer to enjoy what it must have been like to experience an evening's worth of entertainment at the movies. Film historian and critic Leonard Martin provides a three-minute Introduction to place all of the extras within the context of the time-period. These extras include the Casablanca Theatrical Trailer, a nine-minute Newsreel, the twenty-two minute short film Beyond the Line of Duty, and the seven-minute cartoon short Bugs Bunny Gets The Boid. If you utilize the "Play All" function, Yankee Doodle Dandy will begin immediately after Bugs Bunny Gets The Boid. This is singularly the coolest and most enjoyable DVD feature I've seen all year.

The Cagney Trailer Gallery showcases several theatrical trailers for films featuring Mr. Cagney. Included in this collection are The Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and White Heat. The total running time of the trailers is just over nineteen-minutes, and it's a fun and worthwhile addition to this disc, even more so for Cagney fans.

Rounding out the supplements on Disc One are a list of Awards the film accumulated (including three Academy Awards) and a text rundown of the Cast & Crew.

Disc Two:

The bulk of the Special Features are on the second disc in this collection. First out of the gate is James Cagney: Top of the World. This forty-six minute documentary recounts the life and career of one of America 's most celebrated actors. Hosted by Michael J. Fox, this 1992 documentary is slightly on the cheesy side but it nonetheless provides a reasonably entertaining look at Cagney's life, including extensive use of archival audio interviews, photographs, and film footage.

Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy is a forty-five minute feature that goes into the production and legacy of an American classic. Featured in this documentary are film historians Bob Thomas, Rudy Behlmer, and Robert Osborne, producer A.C. Lyles, authors John McCabe and Patrick McGilligan, and actors Joan Leslie, John Travolta, and Joel Grey. The documentary delves into the life and career of George Cohan, as well as his relationship and career with his close-knit family, and segues into James Cagney's involvement with the project, a discussion of the golden age of Warner's cinematic output, the influence of the so-called "Irish Mafia", and the casting, production, and reaction to the film. The documentary skips around a bit before it finds its focus, but it remains an informative and interesting feature.

John Travolta Remembers James Cagney runs just under five minutes, and it allows the Hollywood superstar behind Perfect and Two of a Kind to reflect upon his meeting with Cagney and his love of the man's work. While this is an entertaining enough addition, it really seems like a missing segment from the "Let Freedom Sing!" documentary.

Looney Toons contains two short animated features: Yankee Doodle Daffy (6:45 ) and Yankee Doodle Bugs ( 6:52). I can never get enough of Looney Toon shorts, and as both of these classic shorts are equally apropos and hilarious, their inclusion here is the type of joy I cannot begin to describe.

You, John Jones (1943) is a short film featuring James Cagney, Ann Sothern, and Margaret O'Brien. The film, which runs just over ten minutes, is a war-themed short that most likely played before feature films of the era. It is an interesting and moderately enjoyable addition to this set. The Audio Vault contains Outtakes and Rehearsals, which features alternate and practice takes for "You Remind Me of My Mother", "You're A Grand Old Flag", "Give My Regards to Broadway", "Four Cohans Medley", and "Harrigan", and the complete 10/19/42 Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Show, presenting musical highlights from the film. The Waving the Flag Galleries contains numerous photographic stills featuring memorabilia related to the film, including George M. Cohan Sheet Music, Dressed Set Stills, Scene Stills, and Publicity & Posters.

Finally, there is a pretty easy-to-find Easter Egg. If you select the cap on James Cagney's head in the Special Features menu on Disc Two, you are treated to Joel Grey's recollections of playing George Cohan on Broadway.

Final Thoughts

What an absolute treat from start to finish. A ll Warners had to do was simply provide Yankee Doodle Dandy with the best audio and video presentation possible, and they did that with abundance. The movie has never looked or sounded better, displaying this in American classic in a sparkling new transfer that does justice to this film's numerous charms. If you've never seen Yankee Doodle Dandy before, grab this disc immediately! If only for the quality of the film alone, this DVD would be worth buying.

But Warners has done more than presenting "just the film" -- the extras on this DVD are fantastic. I am totally in love with the entire "Warner Night At The Movies" concept. With a newsreel, trailers, and a cartoon from the era, the DVD lovingly reproduces a part of cinematic history and enjoyment that no longer exists. We also have a fantastic commentary track that entertains and informs from start to finish, trailers, over an hour-and-a-half of documentary features, two additional Looney Toon cartoons, another short film featuring Cagney, and a wealth of photographs and archival audio material. This set is pretty exhaustive, but Yankee Doodle Dandy fans, Cagney fans, and old-time Hollywood fans will be in Film Nirvana. This is one of the best DVDs of the year, and it should float near the top of your "Must Purchase" list as soon as possible.

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