Let’s Talk About… ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1942)

Film #56 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

 Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.


Directed by Michael Curtiz

Starring James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston


Hollywood produced a great number of films during the Second World War that were patriotic in nature. Most of these were made after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, at which point the United States officially entered the war effort. The main goal of these pictures was to increase the sentiment of nationalism which would support the Allied effort as a whole. As families dealt with sending their loved ones off to war with the uncertainty of their eventual return, they could at least be comforted to know that the entire nation was rallying around American troops, especially some of their most cherished actors and actresses from the big screen. Of course, it was also the intention to continue entertaining moviegoers, even when dealing with subjects like sacrifice, mortality, and general hard times. It so happened that the format of a movie musical was perfectly suited to deliver positive messages all the while facing challenging realities.

Musicals were more than just a compilation of song and dance routines. They almost always had a strong main plot as well as several subplots that helped the overall story along. The earlier Hollywood musicals, starting with The Broadway Melody in 1929, were light-hearted in nature and were designed to provide inexpensive laughs and happiness to a population suffering from the pitfalls of the Great Depression. In order to maintain affordable prices for penny-pinching, at times penniless, moviegoers, studios made films within a matter of weeks and without an excessive amount of fanfare. (Even famous studios had to watch their spending during this time plus they realised the risk of alienating audiences if they focused on people living too lavishly. Audiences needed to connect to what they were seeing on-screen and have it make sense in their private lives.)  During the Depression, the goal was to allow people to temporarily forget their woes at the same time as instilling a subliminal message that Hollywood was there for them. As economics conditions improved in the late 1930’s, musicals became more extravagant in terms of costume and set design, furthering the notion of them providing an escape from repression and frugality. The musical heyday continued as the early 1940’s rolled around, with films continuing to touch upon important social and current events. Despite the U.S.’s non-active involvement in World War II, the war was discussed in some films as a way to boost moral support for America’s allies and to make people aware of what was going on elsewhere in society.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, considered to be one of the greatest of wartime musicals, came about in just the right place and at just the right time. Ideas for turning the story of George M. Cohan’s life into a film had been discussed for some time but solidified after James Cagney was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Commission in 1940. The HUAC had reason to believe that Cagney had been involved in the Communist Party despite him having always publicly identified as a Liberal Democrat. Thankfully for Cagney, he was cleared of the accusations and was free to continue talks to play Cohan. He got a boost from his younger brother, William, who ended up being an associate producer on the film. In fact, the film is somewhat of a Cagney family affair since James and William’s only sister Jeanne also played in the film as Cohan’s sister. Pre-production was slightly tense as Cohan did not approve of Cagney playing him, preferring the more graceful Fred Astaire, while Cagney did not approve of Cohan’s past conservative political behaviour. The two men eventually came to an understanding with Cohan being very pleased with Cagney’s performance and Cagney getting the highest of honours, an Academy Award for Best Actor. Production commenced ironically enough the day after Pearl Harbour, which propelled a would-be biopic into a full-fledged project of patriotism, complete with Cohan’s morale-boosting songs.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

The film starts off in what would be considered present day in 1941. George M. Cohan (Cagney), a successful Broadway performer, is contacted by the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Interestingly enough, Cohan had just come out of retirement to play Roosevelt in a show called “I’d Rather Be Right Than Be President”. As he and the President converse, a flashback shows Cohan’s Irish-immigrant parents (Huston & Rosemary DeCamp) on the day of George’s birth in July 1878. *Cohan’s official date of birth if 3 July 1878 although the film tells it as 4 July.

The Cohan parents are Vaudevillian performers and they raise young George on the road as well as an eventual younger sister. Although the family is naturally talented and put on a good show, they live an up and down lifestyle due to the fluctuation of spending trends in small town markets. Reaching big time markets is hard for the Cohans and they continuously have difficulties in paying their rents in boarding houses and even eating correctly. George, known since childhood to have a big ego and even bigger ideas, tries to sell some of his songs and make some connections but finds it almost impossible. He eventually joins forces with another man named Sam Harris and together they create a string of successful hit shows. Cohan’s dream comes true when he and his family perform together on Broadway, continuing to do so for a number of years until his parents wish to retire. He starts penning patriotic songs even before the outbreak of World War I, earning the nickname “Yankee Doodle Boy”.

Always hailed as a revered son, George is dedicated to his family – including wife, Mary (Leslie) – and loves his country. He has a good relationship with everyone and ends his 15-years partnership with Harris on excellent terms. It is revealed that he never even had a written contract with Harris, furthering the notion that he was an exemplary human being and American citizen. Coming back to the meeting with President Roosevelt, George is presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him the first person in his profession to receive such a distinction. Cohan’s songs were patriotic and lifted the American spirit.

The real George Michael Cohan, who resembles Bing Crosby in this specific photo.


Though it is advertised as a biopic, the reality is that Yankee Doodle Dandy is based only on certain elements of Cohan’s life and career. Essentially, his family’s talent and his body of work are respected whereas many liberties were taken with personal details. In fact, Cohan himself admitted to not recognising the main character due to the cinematic George M. Cohan deviating far from the course of actuality. The alteration of true events is an all too common trend in Hollywood but I will admit to being more than slightly disappointed in finding out that the writers purposefully left out any mention of his four children or the fact that he had been twice married. To add insult to injury, “Mary” was not Cohan’s wife’s name at all and the character shown on-screen is a combination of his two wives. It would have been impossible to share these details about Cohan because they would have tarnished his “Great Man” image, an impression that was as important to preserve as patriotism. Not only was America the greatest nation in the world, the population was made-up of wholesome and hard-working folk who never lost their faith, even in the darkest of times.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this film and feel like it is largely thanks to Cagney’s fantastic acting and dancing. Having previously only seen Cagney dance in The West Point Story, I had little idea that he was such a talented and animated hoofer. His small, husky stature made it so that he moved well and ever so quickly. Cagney and Mickey Rooney had very similar body types and were both brilliant on the dance floor, which makes it all the more fitting that Rooney would come to play Cohan on a 1957 television special. The story itself is lovely despite being filled with gaps and various errors though it is very icky sweet. There does not seem to be one person in the film with any ill intentions or sour moods, which is very unlike the world in which we live. In other words, everyone is prone to having a bad day. This is probably one of the most potently propaganda-laden films that I have ever seen though in retrospect, it was probably soothed many fears and touch many hearts at the outbreak of a devastating world crisis. Enjoy this film for the many good things it has to offer, especially on national holidays. 🙂

My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.


The Cagney family on the set of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’

1943 Academy Awards: Greer Garson holding her Best Actress Oscar for ‘Mrs. Miniver’ and James Cagney holding his Best Actor Oscar for ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.