Film Score: Heinz Roemheld Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Richard Whorf
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a testament to James Cagney’s greatness as a song and dance man, it is even more of a testament to arguably the greatest director of the golden age, Michael Curtiz. As the breadth of his Academy Award nominations demonstrate, he could direct almost any kind of picture and make it great. From film noir and swashbucklers, to war films and musicals, Curtiz could do it all. What’s fascinating about Curtiz’s style in this picture is that the framing of many of the musical numbers seems utterly prosaic, though he does make the attempt to film occasionally from the side or from above. But then, when the scenes outside of the theater happen, he manages to transform them into something utterly cinematic, with unique angles and terrific setups. It’s significant that Cagney, who had his choice of directors, personally chose Curtiz, who was not only the best director at Warner Brothers but one of the best in Hollywood at the time. Though the picture itself was nominated for an Oscar, as well as Curtiz for his direction, the only winners were James Cagney for best actor, best sound recording, and best musical score, shared jointly by Heinz Roemheld and Ray Heindorf.
The film begins with Cagney as George M. Cohan, in his latest Broadway show where he impersonates FDR. A request from the president to come to the White House, however, makes him nervous that he’s gone too far. But Roosevelt welcomes him and expresses his enthusiasm for Cohen’s work, and the two of them reminisce about his career, beginning with a July 4th celebration in Rhode Island an his birth in 1878. He was in show business right from the start, going out on the road with his parents and becoming part of The 4 Cohans as a child. When the youngster has his first hit his father, Walter Huston, and mother, Rosemary DeCamp, try to instill some humility into him, and unfortunately it doesn’t take and loses them an opportunity. So, it was back on the road and on into adulthood. He meets Joan Leslie at a show when she comes back stage to audition for him. Later, she helps Cagney try to get his music and plays produced, but they find it tough going. It’s not until a chance encounter with producer S.Z. Skall and would-be playwright Richard Whorf at a bar that Cagney finagles his way into getting a show produced and comes up with the smash hit, Little Johnny Jones in 1904.
For the next decade and a half Cohan had almost nothing but success. Still, there were problems in certain theaters with shows losing money. Then in 1917 he made an attempt at a straight drama that flopped. But with the entrance of the U.S. into World War One he wrote his biggest hit to date, Over There, and was back on top again writing sentimental and patriotic shows that continued to be popular into the 1940s. It was Cohan himself who was behind the making of the picture. He produced a play about his life called The Yankee Doodle Boy and the success of that piece prompted him to ask his friend Samuel Goldwyn to produce the picture at MGM, but when Fred Astaire backed out so did Goldwyn. Finally Cohan was able to secure a deal with Jack Warner and the film went forward with James Cagney in the lead. Cohan, of course, wanted control over various aspects of the film, especially when it came to the portrayal of his family and his wife. Robert Buckner had done the first draft of the screenplay as a straight drama. Then the script was passed to the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who no doubt added much of the humor in the form of one-liners that Cagney delivered during the film.
While Cagney’s dancing style seems completely unique to him, and it is, in looking at the first of Cohan’s only two sound films from Hollywood, there are a lot of similarities in the way that the two danced. The way that Cagney delivered his songs in the film, mostly talking, was also a trait of Cohan’s. In the end it’s difficult to think of another actor who could have emulated the great composer better. Both Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, and the wonderful Jeanne Cagney as his sister, were cast on the insistence of Cagney himself, who had earned those rights with the help of his brother William, one of the producers on the film. It’s a very respectful film, to be sure which is something that Cohan himself made sure of, unlike a lot of biopics that were filmed at the time. Behind the camera was one of the legends in Hollywood, James Wong Howe, who gave Curtiz the tremendous movement and perfect lighting that achieved all that Curtiz required. The film, of course, was the perfect kind of entertainment for Americans as they entered World War Two and became part of the war effort despite its egotistic beginnings. As a result, Yankee Doodle Dandy remains an indelible part of the American experience.