Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stubs – Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Worf. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Produced by: Hal B. Wallis, Jack Warner. Screenplay by: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph. Songs by George M. Cohan. Run Time: 126 Black & White U.S. Musical Biography   
By June, 1942, America was in the thick of World War II. The whole nation was involved in supporting the war effort, commonly called the Home Front. There were drives to collect needed supplies and there were rationings of other necessities, gas and meat readily come to mind.

But while people at home suffered to help those at the front, this was also a great time for patriotism and into theaters came one of the most patriotic of all films, Yankee Doodle Dandy, a Hollywood-ized version of the life of George M. Cohan. Cohan started out on the vaudeville stage in a family act and the decade before World War I was so popular a performer he was called “the man who owned Broadway.”

George M. Cohan, "the man who owned Broadway."
He appeared in over three dozen Broadway musicals, many of which he also wrote and produced and published over 300 songs in his lifetime. Several of them are standards such as “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Harrigan”, “Mary’s A Grand Old Name”, but many had a patriotic slant, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Over There” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.

The film sort of follows his life, using a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt (Captain Jack Young and voiced by Art Gilmore) and Cohan’s (James Cagney) appearance in the Broadway musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937) as bookends. In the musical, Cohan, who has come out of retirement, portrays a singing and dancing FDR. In their meeting, the President asks about Cohan’s patriotism and we’re off.

Cohan sits down with the head man, FDR (Captain Jack Young).
In the movie, Cohan’s born on the 4th of July, when it was really the third (close enough for government work). By the age of eight he was appearing on stage with his father, Jerry (Walter Huston), and mother, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp).

A short time later, his sister Josie (Jeanine Cagney) is born and the family is touring the country and territories as "The Four Cohans." The family gets a big break when they are hired to star in a play, Peck's Bad Boy. At thirteen, George (Douglas Croft) is the star of the play, in the part of Bill Peck. He lets success get to his head, and it is already clear that he thinks a lot of himself. His attitude will cost his family work. But fame comes with a price. In the play, Bill claims he can beat up any kid in town, which the local boys want to see him prove. They manage to cut young George down to size, at least for the moment.

The Four Cohans (Josie, Jerry, Nellie and George).

Several years later, George, now a young man, meets an aspiring singer/dancer named Mary (Joan Leslie). He is playing the part of an old man and she comes backstage to ask his sage advice about breaking into show business. She watches in horror as George strips off his makeup to reveal a much younger man.

Cohan shows Mary some new moves.
George tries to get Mary on stage by liquoring up a dog act and gives her an original George M. Cohan song to sing, rather than the standard the theater manager (Walter Catlett) thinks she’ll be performing. Rather than offering the Cohans a long run, he fires them. Blacklisted by theater producers for being troublesome, George and his family lose out on work. Realizing he’s weighing the rest of the family down, George pretends he’s sold a play and releases the others to accept bookings without him.

With Mary at his side, George tries to sell his plays. There is a great scene where Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) follows George in to see Dietz (George Tobias) and Goff (Chester Clute). Dietz throws Harris out, telling him that it’s not worth spending his wife’s money producing.

H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan.
Later in a bar, George sees Harris trying to sell Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) a play with horses and a fire. George senses something and goes up to Harris like they’re old friends and partners and informs him that Dietz and Goff loved Little Johnny Jones. Schwab wants to hear about it and before they’re done, Cohan and Harris have sold the play and have formed a partnership that will last for years.

Cohan and Harris sell Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) on Little Johnny Jones.
George’s musicals feature a formula of success stories laced with patriotism. He brings back his family to perform with him and George branches out in producing other plays, road companies and even a minstrel show.

Cohan's musicals tended to have a subtle patriotic theme.
Can you spot the flag?
The parents buy a farm and settle down, while Josie gives up show biz to get married. The Four Cohans are no more. George spreads his wings and writes a serious play, Popularity, which he doesn’t star in. Popularity isn’t and the play is one of George’s first failures (or at least is portrayed as such in the movie).

Down on the farm.
But bigger things are happening on the world stage, the Lusitania is sunk by the Germans in 1915 and the U.S. is now involved in World War I. George tries to enlist, but at thirty-one is considered too old to serve. Not allowed to fight for his country, Cohan writes the inspirational “Over There”, which he performs for the troops at the front lines and which the audience is invited to sing along to during the film.

Cohan (Cagney) writing "Over There."
After the War, Cohan continued with his career, but soon Josie and Nellie die, followed by Jerry. Feeling his age, George dissolves his partnership with Harris and embarks on a worldwide tour with Mary. They travel to Europe and Asia, but everywhere George is still attracted to the smell of grease paint. Performing is not out of his blood completely.

After their trip, they end up on the Cohan farm, where George pretends to enjoy his life out of the limelight. But a group of teenagers, who’s jalopy needs water, stop at the farm. They see George reading Variety and think that the headline "Stix Nix Hix Pix" is a form of jive talk, rather than Variety slang. This makes George realize how much he misses performing and gladly decides to help Sam, who has hit a bad spell, by accepting the offer to star in his latest production I'd Rather be Right. The musical featured the book by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart and music by Richard Rogers.

The president, who has listened quietly to George's story, now presents him with the Congressional Medal of Honor for patriotism and for his songs "Over There" and "It's a Grand Old Flag." (While Cohan did receive such a medal, it was years earlier than the film depicts.) George is told by FDR that he’s the first actor to receive such an honor. After tap dancing down the stairs from the President’s office, he joins a parade of soldiers singing "Over There," and George proudly joins them.

Cohan joins in singing "Over There" in a parade at the end of the movie.
While not everything about the movie is one hundred percent accurate, that wasn’t important at the time. What comes off the screen is a love of country and a feeling of specialness about an America that was once again fighting for the world overseas. If you watched the movie and didn’t feel good about yourself and your country, you were probably a Nazi.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was all about celebrating America.
And there is a lot to like about the movie. The songs, though old, are some of the best songs written in their day. I remember as a kid, a boy, last name Sullivan, telling me his parents had taught him how to spell his surname to a tune, which I later learned was Harrigan. A girl in one of my classes sang “It’s a Grand Old Flag” in the school talent show, so I grew up, unknowingly, around these songs. And who hasn’t heard “Over There” or “Yankee Doodle Boy” at some point in their lives? (Don’t leave me hanging on this one.)

Every review I’ve ever seen of this film will talk about Cagney’s amazing performance as a song and dance man, something we’re not supposed to know he can do. Cagney, best known for his portrayal of tough guys, had already shown he could hoof it in Footlight Parade (1933). The way Cagney sings (which is sort of half-singing half-talking) and the way he dances are supposedly very reminiscent of the way Cohan himself sang and danced. As are the production numbers themselves, some of which border on being as over the top as the preludes in Parade. But isn’t that what a musical is supposed to be, bigger than life?

James Cagney as Johnny Jones in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
While Cohan was too sick, with cancer, to help much with the movie, he did approve of Cagney’s portrayal before he died. And who wouldn’t approve of Cagney’s performance, which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Walter Huston, perhaps best remembered by some for his role as Howard in the Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), is as big a surprise for me. I had no idea, before I saw this film, that he danced anything more than a jig. But Huston, the father of director John Huston, also got his start in vaudeville before making it in the movies. He would earn a nomination for his performance as a Supporting Actor.

And there is real pathos. At the close of their stage performances, George would thank the audience for their applause with the line, “My mother thanks you; my father thanks you; my sister thanks you; and I thank you." He repeats the line once at his father’s deathbed and again when FDR gives him the Congressional Medal. Watching the former with dry eyes is near impossible.

"My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you."
This film is another example of what a great director Michael Curtiz really was. There didn’t seem to be a genre he couldn’t direct. Working extensively with Errol Flynn, Curtiz directed swashbucklers: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940); and westerns Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940) and Virginia City (1940). Working with James Cagney he made the comedy/drama Jimmy The Gent (1934); gangster Angels With Dirty Faces (1938); and a musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Curtiz also directed Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) and We’re No Angels (1955); Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945); and Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958). There is not enough room to list all the films he directed in a career that ran from 1912 to 1961.

Director Michael Curtiz.
There are liberties taken with the film, as there are today with anything that says it’s based on a true story. Some of the events of Cohan’s life and career are moved around. The biggest example being that Cohan was actually married twice. First to Ethel Levey, who performed with the Four Cohans after Josie left to get married. Then in 1908, Cohan married an Agnes Mary Nolan, who had been a dancer in his early shows. Like the film marriage to Mary, this one would last for the rest of his life. But they had kids, which aren’t referred to at all in the movie: Mary, Helen and George, Jr. (They would have just gotten in the way of the story and you know it.)

Now, there are some elements in the film that a modern politically correct audience member would find distasteful and perhaps even, dare I say it, racist. Not only does George own a minstrel show, which features white performers in black face, but there is a number of the Four Cohans singing a number in that makeup. Sometimes this part has been edited out, but this is not the America of today, but of the 1940s and we’ve come a long way since then as far as race relations go. But minstrel shows were then a part of the vaudeville scene, so it’s inclusion is historically accurate and doesn’t, or shouldn’t, take away from the enjoyment of the film.

Probably not Warner Bros. proudest moment on film.
If I could, I’d watch this film every Fourth of July. It’s sort of like It’s A Wonderful Life, in that it isn’t the same holiday without seeing it. This is a love letter to America, something you don’t see any more from Hollywood. Sometimes it’s nice to remember what a special country you live in. And that’s what this film did to its audience in 1942.

The DVD for Yankee Doodle Dandy is available from the WB Shop:

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Blu Ray is available through the Warner Archive:

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