“Star Of The Month (July 2021)” Featuring James Cagney in… Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Well, it’s July 4, and we’ve come around to the film that is the reason I decided to feature James Cagney as the Star Of The Month for July! That, of course, would be the classic 1942 musical biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, co-starring Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Richard Whorf!

Coming Up Shorts! with… Beyond The Line Of Duty (1942)

(available as an extra on the Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 22 minutes, 1 second)

This short is a dramatization of the life and training of war hero Hewett T. Wheless. Ronald Reagan narrates, while Wheless acts as himself. It’s an interesting short, no doubt intended as a morale booster back during the war. Wheless certainly doesn’t strike me as being much of an actor, but he does well enough for what this short was intended to do. Probably not one that I will feel the urge to revisit much.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Bugs Bunny Gets The Boid (1942)

(available as an extra on the Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 7 minutes, 25 seconds)

When Mama Buzzard sends her kids after some food for dinner, Beaky winds up chasing down Bugs Bunny. An old classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that I’ve seen many a time. The gags are always funny, with Bugs taking advantage of Beaky’s intelligence (or lack thereof). It’s easy to tell who will win out in this cartoon, but I find enough humor in it that I always love to come back to this one!

Coming Up Shorts! with… You, John Jones (1943)

(available as an extra on the Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 10 minutes, 26 seconds)

John Jones (James Cagney) reflects on how lucky he and his family are to live in America. It’s another propaganda short, with Margaret O’Brien playing his daughter and reciting the Gettysburg Address, which makes him think. Obviously, it’s very pro-U.S., from a time when the country was not being bombed (but were certainly taking the precautions on the chance that it could be). Not the best short, but the talent involved makes it better than it should be, and gets its message across.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943)

(available as an extra on the Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 6 minutes, 44 seconds)

Daffy is an agent for Sleepy Lagoon, and tries to get the attention of talent scout Porky. A fun cartoon I’ve seen many times. Most of what makes this one a blast is Daffy’s antics as he tries to demonstrate what his “client” can do (while Porky tries to make a run for it). It’s still very early Daffy, when he could be a bit screwy (just a little), and that works just fine for me!

And Now For The Main Feature…

Actor George M. Cohan (James Cagney) is summoned to the White House to meet with the President (Captain Jack Young). At first, he is worried it is about his portrayal of the President in the show he is appearing in on Broadway, but the President quickly assures him that there is no problem there. Then, essentially prompted by the President, George launches into the story of his life, starting with his birth on July 4 many years before to his parents, stage performers Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp). A few years later, they were joined by his younger sister, Josie. The four of them worked on stage together, doing different acts as they traveled throughout the U.S. George developed a bit of arrogance and self-importance with regard to his own abilities, although that was tempered a little as he grew older. Eventually, they do a show in Buffalo, where he meets the stage-struck Mary (Joan Leslie). George is impressed with her talent (and her), and she joins them on stage with her own act. George writes a song for her, but when she tries to perform it, the theatre manager cuts it short and throws her out. When George tries to argue, he is effectively blacklisted from the stage (which also throws his family out of work, as they refuse to go on without him). George and Mary try to take his music and shows he’s written to various producers, but they are constantly turned down. He pushes his family to take some of the jobs they’ve been offered, by pretending to have sold one of his plays. While he’s been working the rounds, another hopeful, Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf), has been trying to get his own play produced, without any luck either. One day, George overhears him trying to sell his manuscript to producer Schwab (S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), who was turning it down. Since it sounds like his own show might be up Mr. Schwab’s alley, George decides on the spur of the moment to make Sam his partner on the show, and the two of them convince Mr. Schwab to do it. The show, Little Johnny Jones, becomes a big hit, and George brings back his family to join him. George and Sam produce a number of plays that become hits. After a while, George’s parents decide to retire on a farm while his sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney) retires to get married. George tries to do something different to appease the critics, but fails to do so. He decides to keep his reputation by trying to tell the public his new play is lousy, but war is declared against Germany after the Lusitania is sunk. George tries to join the army, but he is told he is too old and needed at home. Inspired, he writes the song “Over There,” which becomes the Army’s anthem as they go over to fight in Europe. After the war is over, George continues on for a while, producing more big hits. After the rest of his family passes away, he decides to end his partnership with Sam and retire. However, after a while, he gets restless, and decides to get into another show for his friend Sam.

The real George M. Cohan had been shopping around for one of the studios to do his life story on the big screen for a little while. Originally, there was to be a deal with MGM for a movie that would have focused on the Four Cohans, but it fell apart when Cohan was refused the approval on the film’s final cut. He tried producer Samuel Goldwyn, who wanted Fred Astaire for the role. When Fred turned it down, Warner Brothers took up the option for the story, and cast James Cagney. That worked out well for everyone, as the film turned out to be a box office success, and Cagney’s one and only Best Actor Oscar win.

Originally, James Cagney was opposed to doing a biopic on George M. Cohan, as he had ill will towards Cohan after Cohan had sided with the producers back in the Actors’ Equity Strike back in 1919. However, Cagney himself had recently been accused of being a communist sympathizer as a result of his own union involvement. So, Cagney determined to prove his own patriotism, and Yankee Doodle Dandy was just the film to do it. Indeed, his performance is what makes this movie. A song-and-dance man himself, Cagney had gotten typecast in gangster roles after The Public Enemy in 1931. For this movie, he made a very conscious effort to dance very much like the real George M. Cohan. To do so, he worked with Johnny Boyle, who was a choreographer for George M. Cohan, and faced injury as he tried to imitate Cohan’s style. It all worked out for him, though, and nearly a decade later, Cagney reprised his role as George M. Cohan for the 1955 movie The Seven Little Foys, and did a dance routine with that film’s star, Bob Hope.

As I’ve already admitted, this was the first James Cagney film I saw, and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed seeing many a time over the years. Now, obviously, this is a very Hollywood-ized version of the life of George M. Cohan, since, for example, he was actually married twice, and neither of his wives’ names was Mary (his second wife’s middle name was Mary, but she usually went by her first name). Still, it’s a film that has helped keep George M. Cohan from falling completely into obscurity as time has gone on (like one would expect to happen with most actors mainly known for their stage work). Like many others, though, I love watching Cagney sing and dance to songs like “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” Honestly, if I have any complaints about this movie, it’s that James Cagney doesn’t do enough dancing! But seriously, whether it’s July 4 or any other time of the year, this film is a well-regarded classic by many for a reason, and I would certainly continue to add how much I think it deserves to be seen! So, give it a chance if you haven’t seen it (or, if you have, you know it’s time to give it another whirl)!!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive Collection.

Film Length: 2 hours, 6 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #2 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2021

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Each Dawn I Die (1939)James CagneyWhite Heat (1949)

Sergeant York (1941) – Joan Leslie – The Sky’s The Limit (1943)

Walter Huston – The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

Sergeant York (1941) – George Tobias – Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)

All-American Co-Ed (1941) – Frances Langford – Melody Time (1948)

S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall – Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)

Eddie Foy, Jr. – The Pajama Game (1957)

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