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Perhaps the most obvious can't-lose movie idea of the Golden Era, Yankee Doodle Dandy sets up the marvelous James Cagney to play theater and music showman extraordinaire George M. Cohan. It's a perfect match. Even people that can't stand musicals love to watch Cagney dance, as his hoofing style is inseparable from his personality. Gangster fans can see Cagney's signature gestures and body language in his unique style. For the first five years of his career Cagney tried to play something more than smart aleck tough guys, but not many movies give him a chance to sing and dance. Although his popularity never dropped, as the war neared he kept on playing the same kind of nervy troublemakers-turned heroes only in uniform. He hadn't really been seen dancing much since 1933.
George M. Cohan excelled in writing patriotic songs, most of which are far better than The Star-Spangled Banner. That the height of his show-biz popularity was around the time of WW1 encouraged this even more, but he'd always found that American audiences loved a good flag-waving show as much as they loved military parades. Made at the beginning of WW2, Yankee Doodle Dandy combines patriotism, Cohan's Irish background and a strong dose of sentimentality to get its point across.
It's back in the 1800s when Vaudeville performers Jerry and Nellie Cohan (Walter Huston & Rosemary DeCamp) are blessed with a son George right on the fourth of July (a harmless one day cheat). With his sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney) George joins the act, which becomes The Four Cohans. George is an egotistical jerk as a teenager but has big plans and writes his own shows, starting with Little Johnny Jones. He picks up a loyal partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), marries his girlfriend Mary (Joan Leslie) and leaps from success to success. Critics complain that his shows depend too much on patriotic themes, but audiences love them; he has four or five shows playing on Broadway at the same time. When he comes out of retirement to do a Broadway play making fun of Franklin D. Roosevelt, George is summoned to the White House. Has he offended the Commander-in-Chief?
Musical biographies must usually concoct dramatic complications for composers and songwriters, whose personal lives tend to be either uneventful, or unacceptable to the Production Code. We get one passage where young George (Douglas Croft) is a spoiled brat, but from then on the Cohans are such a loving and harmonious bunch that they become an idealized identification-family. The Irish blarney is restricted mostly to their stage acts -- Jerry in his old-world costume, George's heavily ethnic song Harrigan. When off stage or holding court at the dining table in theatrical rooming houses, the Cohans come off as normal folk trying to get by. Still, George is a prince of players: overhearing that his bad behavior has cost the family good jobs (they'd never tell him), George leaves the troupe to go out on his own, pretending that he's sold a show. Wouldn't you know it, some time later Jerry and Nellie are in a rainy tank town when they get a telegram telling them to hightail it back to New York -- George has scored a producer and wants them for a show.
Cagney commands the big numbers like a true stage star -- his magnetism leaps off the screen. Cagney's entire persona is energizing; he's three-dimensional without 3-D. Even a natural ham like Walter Huston knows he's outclassed. Cagney nails low comedy con games and tear-jerking final farewells. His nervy George finds a producer by hijacking another playwright-producer's pitch in a bar, finding a partner and a backer at the same time.
Second-billed Joan Leslie had been playing bits and smaller roles for six years until her big breaks in High Sierra and Sergeant York. Her Mary is the dutiful wife who can magically see through George's domestic subterfuges, and always forgives him. When he's forced to give her song to a big star, Mary understands. The real George M. Cohan had a wife previous to Mary, but since he stayed with #2 for over thirty years, Yankee Doodle Dandy gets a pass for fidelity to the truth. Ms. Leslie plays and dances the part of Mary with a beaming smile that should have turned her into a major star. In the next year's The Sky's the Limit, she proved herself to be one of Fred Astaire's best song & dance musical comedy partners.
Smoothly directed by Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is probably the biggest wartime morale booster of them all. Ironically, Cohan's wrapping-myself-in-the-flag showmanship carries an emotional punch that brought tears to the eyes of 1942 audiences already jittery about the state of the world -- it was the right time to remind people that the land they live in has an enormous potential for good. Even more ironic, as we learn from interview subjects Bob Thomas and Rudy Behlmer, is that Cagney embraced the movie partly to clear his name of any notion that his liberal political activities made him anti-American. Washington resistance to Roosevelt's socialist policies was so strong just before Pearl Harbor that being actively anti-Nazi made one politically suspect. After Yankee Doodle Dandy Cagney was politically untouchable.
The screenplay uses a framing device in which the aged George M. Cohan goes to the White House to explain his life (the movie we see) to F.D.R. in person. Thus George is acknowledged as a Great American, because his patriotic songs have inspired Americans to love their country. The real Cohan died later in 1942 but saw his final ambition realized. He sold his life story to the movies and the great James Cagney (who he described as "a tough act to follow") would insure that he became a legend. The George M. Cohan statue in Times Square doesn't hurt, either.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Yankee Doodle Dandy is a smart choice for an HD release, as I can see a new generation warming to its vision of patriotism -- or at least being encouraged to by the outgoing generation that remembers its parents regarding this movie as bursting with 100% gold-plate Americanism. A the Warners shield fades up we know we're in good hands, as the WB fanfare blasts on with the added depth and heft of HD sound. The picture is very clear throughout and without flaws, which for a film this popular can only mean that the elements were carefully taken care of, and/or a lot of digital TLC was applied. Although much of the film is not a showcase for the cameraman, James Wong Howe excels in the stage scenes, where costumes glitter like chrome. Cagney dances and gesticulates in the upward shadows of warm, glowing stage footlights.
A nice note to report: Yankee Doodle Dandy was the first film to be colorized by Ted Turner, in 1986. At this writing colorization appears to be a dead art, lying in its grave with a stake stuck through its heart. At least until imaging technology takes another leap forward.
For extras WB has recycled the contents of an earlier Warner Night at the Movies release, hosted by Leonard Maltin. The commentary is by Rudy Behlmer, who also appears in the making-of docu with Bob Thomas; the two of them must know more about this era of Hollywood than anybody. The docu fractures most of its testimony into tiny bites, but we do get some welcome observations from star Joan Leslie. Two cartoons are present, this time in HD: Bunny Gets the Boid is the one with the baby buzzard, and in Yankee Doodle Daffy actor Daffy Duck pesters movie producer Porky Pig. Trailers are present for this title and Casablanca. A series of newsreels has an emotional clip showing the West Point class of '41 graduating, all of them to be forwarded directly into active service: first Lieutenants in combat had a terrible survival record. Audio-only extras include a radio show and a mix of music recordings, both outtakes and rehearsal tracks.
Rather disturbing is a 1943 propaganda short called You, John Jones, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and written by Carey Wilson. Clearly produced to get Americans emotionally invested in the fight, it has Cagney as a war worker on his way to do air raid duty, and hears his daughter (Margaret O'Brien) practicing the Gettysburg Address. Mother Ann Sothern looks on, her heart in her throat -- her daughter is too young to know what she's reciting yet moppet O'Brien reads the words as if possessed by Lincoln's ghost. While on duty Cagney is 'visited' by a narrator who imparts visions of what's happening in other countries, each illustrated by showing little O'Brien hungry, scared, blown up by bombs, murdered or worse by evil enemies -- you get the idea. He then runs home to find everyone safe. The short subject is rather restrained in that there is no direct appeal to buy war bonds, but the horror angle is pretty raw. Of course, there's also no mention that Cagney is seen to abandon his air raid post... which to me sounds like a dereliction of duty! 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray rates:
1. The same goes for an Oscar-nominated WW2 short subject about munitions-plant responsibility called Conquer by the Clock. In it, a lazy assembly line worker checking bullets sneaks off to take a cigarette break in the ladies' room. Her absences permits some duds get through the screening process. The film takes us to the South Pacific, where an unlucky G.I. finds himself D.O.A. when he fires his rifle and nothing happens. Naturally, that negligent working girl is now a damnable traitor to the free world. James Agee's hilarious review asked, "What if her trip to the ladies' room had been sincere?"
The legendary Slavko Vorkapich showed this film to us in his seminars at UCLA; he was its co-director and some scenes use his montage techniques. Conquer by the Clock is an RKO short subject -- has Warners already put it out as an extra on one disc or another, and I've forgotten? Note, 10.19.14: Nope, not from Warners, but Conquer is included in a disc set from VCI, link courtesy of correspondent Ian Whittle: Great Generals Collection.
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T'was Ever Thus.