Born on July 3rd 1878 (not 4th, as he and the movie claim) into a family of traveling entertainers, actor, producer, and songwriter, George M. Cohan was a showman to the core. Known in the decade before World War I as “the man who owned Broadway”, he is considered the father of American musical comedy. Unquestionably patriotic, Cohan had given the country what many consider the greatest fighting song of WWI, “Over There.”
Understanding that his biography was tailor-made for Hollywood, Cohan shopped his own story to the studios, retaining unheard-of approval over script, star and the film itself. Though Cohan had originally envisioned Fred Astaire in the title role, Astaire turned it down, feeling the role wasn’t right for him. Cohan was persuaded by studio head Jack Warner to approve James Cagney; a fellow Irish-American, and similar in stature to Cohan, Cagney had been a song-and-dance man early in his career. Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy more than seventy years after its theatrical release, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the title role.
The film opens toward the end of Cohan’s life. The United States has just entered World War II, and Cohan has come out of retirement to star on Broadway in the Kaufman & Hart musical, I’d Rather Be Right, in which he plays a sardonic version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After a performance, he is summoned to the White House, where the President (Capt. Jack Young, with voice dubbed by Art Gilmore) greets him genially, and asks him about his life in show business. From there, the film goes into a flashback where Cohan recounts his life story.
Born to vaudevillian parents Jerry Cohan (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp), George is soon joined by his younger sister, Josie (played as an adult by Cagney’s sister, Jeanne). The two youngsters join their parents on stage as soon as they can dance, forming a successful act called “The Four Cohans.” George’s massive talent is obvious, but is growing ego causes issues for the family, as some producer’s tire of dealing with him. Nonetheless, George’s endless confidence would help to sustain him during a long period of rejection in New York when he looks for a backer for the shows he’s written. To make the film come together perfectly, by then, George has met Mary (Joan Leslie), the woman who will eventually become his wife. (In truth, Mary is a composite character mixing characteristics of Cohan’s two wives; she’s named Mary so that Cohan’s song “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” could be scripted as having been written for her.)
Cohan’s big break comes when he meets struggling playwright Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), and together they convince a producer (S.Z. Sakall) to finance “Little Johnny Jones,” a musical about an American jockey in England. The show, which introduced two of Cohan’s most famous songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” is a big success, launching a string of hits that would never be equaled in Broadway history. Buoyed by his success, George’s family rejoins him in several reviews. The middle section of Yankee Doodle Dandy is highlighted by full-scale production numbers that recreate some of the greatest moments Cohan brought to The Great White Way.
When Cohan is told he is simply too old to enlist for World War I, he decides to rally American spirits by writing the patriotic “Over There,” and perform for the troops. He continues to write and perform until his father passes away. Though he enjoys spending time with his wife Mary, the show business bug never completely leaves him; so when old partner Sam Harris asks him to star in I’d Rather Be Right, George can’t refuse.
Energetic and athletic, James Cagney brings George M. Cohan to life in his Oscar winning performance. The scene of him tap dancing on the stairs of the White House is iconic and unforgettable. A vaudeville performer himself, Cagney brought a sense of realism to the role, and drew praise from George M. Cohan himself, who died just five months after the film’s premiere. The supporting cast is top notch. The always reliable Walter Huston garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of George’s father;. Joan Leslie, who was less than two months shy of her 17th birthday when filming began, plays George’s wife Mary with a naïve charm; his mother Nellie by Rosemary DeCamp; and his sister, Josie, by Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney. Eddie Foy, Jr. plays his own father, fellow song-and-dance man Eddie Foy; and Irene Manning as the spoiled singing star Fay Templeton. Cagney is surrounded by a veteran group of supporting players who all knew how to do their jobs and do them well. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy belongs in every film fan’s library.
Presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Warner Archive’s 1080p presentation is stunning. The image is sharp throughout, showing no evidence of dirt, debris, or other print damage. Blacks are inky, and whites are perfect. Contrast is surprisingly strong, and film grain remains intact. All of this combines to provide a film-like presentation of a true classic.
The DTS HD-MA 2.0 audio faithfully reproduces the original mono soundtrack perfectly. It’s rare to heap such praise on a mono presentation, but this couldn’t have been done better. The musical numbers sound better than ever before, and every piece of dialogue is as clear as a bell; it’s simply flawless.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The extras have been ported over from Warner’s 2003 DVD of Yankee Doodle Dandy:
- Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer: Behlmer knows his stuff to the point of a near encyclopedic knowledge of the film. He provides the smallest details, even down to the dates that specific scenes were shot. If you want to get into the real nuts-and-bolts of what happened during the filming of Yankee Doodle Dandy, this audio commentary is a must.
- Warner Night at the Movies 1942 (SD)
- Introduction by Leonard Maltin (3:21) The critic and film historian provides an introduction to the short subjects from 1942 listed below.
- Casablanca Trailer (2:16) Written by Julius and Irving Epstein, who did uncredited rewrites on Yankee Doodle Dandy.
- Newsreel (9:16) A West Point graduation; the U.S. air corps in China; volunteers for naval service in Houston; Mexico declares war; British tanks head to the U.S.S.R.; the air corps in Australia; FDR reviews the troops.
- Patriotic Short Subject Beyond the Line of Duty (22:01) Narrated by a young Ronald Reagan, this short tells the story of an average cowboy who joins the Army air corps and becomes a war hero.
- Merrie Melodies Cartoon Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (HD, 7:25)
- Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy (SD, 44:31) This 2003 production by Turner Entertainment provides an overview of Cohan’s career and the production of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Participants, include commentator Rudy Behlmer, and Joan Leslie, who shares memories of working on the film.
- John Travolta Remembers James Cagney (SD, 5:09) Travolta discusses meeting Cagney in 1980, and how they subsequently remained friends until he died.
- You, John Jones (Wartime Short starring Cagney) (SD, 10:26) Cagney plays John Jones, a volunteer air raid warden who imagines what it must be like to live in countries on whose soil the war is being fought.
- Looney Tunes Short Yankee Doodle Daffy (HD, 6:44) Despite the name, this cartoon doesn’t have much to do with Yankee Doodle Dandy.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3:56).
- Audio Vault
- You Remind Me of My Mother (Outtake) (1:29)
- You’re a Grand Old Flag (Cagney Rehearsal) (1:41)
- Give My Regards to Broadway (Cagney Rehearsal) (1:07)
- Four Cohans Medley (Vocal with Piano) (0:42)
- Harrigan (Vocal with Piano) (1:29)
- Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Show (10/19/1942) (29:31): A radio presentation of highlights from Yankee Doodle Dandy featuring James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Jeanne Cagney.
- Song Selection: The menu for Yankee Doodle Dandy provides a listing of twenty songs performed during the film, and the viewer can select the song of their choice.