It may sound like a stretch for a film to proclaim that George M. Cohan was the “most original thing to hit Broadway,” but this 1942 musical directed by Michael Curtiz certainly backed up that distinction with rousing success. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is essentially a biopic of George M. Cohan, the legendary singer, dancer, actor, composer, and playwright who made his mark on Broadway in the beginning of the 20th Century. James Cagney stars as Cohan in a role that earned him the Best Actor Oscar in 1943. This award was rightly earned, as Cagney fills the story with his energetic song and dance routines, characteristic clever remarks, and high-caliber enthusiasm. The film essentially showcases Cagney in a way that he had rarely been seen before onscreen, since he had previously been known as a quintessential “tough guy” of cinema with many roles as mobsters, criminals, and other characters that one would never see singing and dancing. However, Cagney was, in fact, returning to his vaudeville roots by portraying Cohan, and he put his whole heart and body into the portrayal.
The contemporary situation of America at war in 1942 provided the basic framing device for the film. George is opening a new show where he dresses up as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and is called for a meeting with the president himself in Washington, DC. Although he is at first anxious about the meeting, it turns out to be a friendly visit, and George winds up telling the president his whole life story. The film then goes back through flashbacks to detail George’s birth, rise to fame, and life as a performer and composer. He was born into a vaudeville family, comprised of his parents, himself, and his sister, that eventually became well-known and popular as The Four Cohans. Although his family was talented, George became cocky and full of his own self-importance as he grew up. This often set him at odds with managers and agents who did not want to deal with such an upstart boy or even young man. Eventually, these problems make it hard for The Four Cohans to find work as a family, and George pursues his dreams of writing for Broadway while the rest of his family continues to travel doing vaudeville. George manages to find success by teaming with Sam Harris and writing one of his biggest songs: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” After this, his career skyrocketed and he continued performing and writing popular songs, musicals, and plays. Along the way there were personal triumphs and setbacks that accompanied his career, but through it all, he became an American institution.
The reason for George meeting with the president turns out to be so that the president can award him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his contribution to the American Spirit with his songs “Over There” and “Grand Old Flag.” He was the first of his profession to receive this honor for how he gave his life to his country and for preserving the spirit of the American people. This idea remains the central theme of the entire film. George’s patriotism is continuously reinforced at all points in his life. He was born on the Fourth of July and almost the first thing he had in his fist was an American flag. His “George Washington, Jr.” show, in particular, was a showcase of American patriotism that highlighted the most basic aspects of what Americans identified with.
George M. Cohan may have been “the whole darn country squeezed into one pair of pants,” but this film also appeals to anyone who appreciates movie musicals or true patriotic style. Cagney dazzles onscreen in a way that can only really be compared to his enthusiasm in “Footlight Parade,” another great film to check out if you don’t want to see Cagney with a gun in his hands. The supporting cast is also skilled and you really get the feel that they portray a close-knit and warm family. Even after all these years, it is truly inspirational to see how true-blue patriotism was presented to World War II audiences who needed that inspiration just as much as present-day audiences do.