James Cagney is best known today for his tough guy roles in films like “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “White Heat” (1949), but classic film fans know that there was really a lot more to Cagney than blood and bullets. He was a song and dance man, as well, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) is as much a testament to Cagney’s incredible talent as it is a tribute to its subject, George M. Cohan, the performer and creator behind such classic numbers as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Directed by Michael Curtiz, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” earned Cagney the only Oscar win of his career, and today it is justly beloved by Cagney fans as one of the star’s best performances.
Cagney plays music man George Cohan, who grows up in a family of Vaudeville performers and eventually becomes one of the greatest entertainers in American history. He first appears on the stage as one of The Four Cohans with his father, Jerry (Walter Huston), his mother, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), and his sister, Josie (Jeanne Cagney). Later he meets and marries Mary (Joan Leslie), who supports him as he struggles for theatrical success. A partnership with Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) gives Cohan his first big break, and from there he rises to fame and fortune.
Cohan himself was still alive when the movie was being made, so it’s not surprising that the movie glosses over certain subjects, including many aspects of his personal life. In real life Cohan was married twice and had four children, although neither the first wife nor the kids make it into the movie. Since this is a tribute picture and not an exposé, the plot hinges mostly on Cohan’s rise to fame and the ways in which his family members contributed to his success. It also works hard to feature all of Cohan’s best songs, which keeps the actors and the action going with plenty of lively production numbers.
At the center of the whole show we have James Cagney, whose charisma and musical talent reach their fullest effect in this incredible virtuoso performance. Cagney’s style as a dancer is kinetic; he is, quite literally, dynamite on stage, markedly different from the airy elegance of Fred Astaire or the smooth seduction of Gene Kelly. He’s also cocky, funny, and tremendously likeable as our ambitious hero, especially in moments like the backstage scene where he first meets Mary. The supporting actors who make up the rest of the cast all play well; Walter Huston is particularly good as Jerry, and Cagney’s sister, Jeanne, is of course perfectly cast as Cohan’s sister, Josie. Douglas Croft, who plays Cohan as a kid, is also very entertaining, especially when young George’s first starring role gives him delusions about his own importance. Be sure to catch Eddie Foy, Jr. in a brief appearance as his famous Vaudevillian father.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” earned eight Oscar nominations and won three, including Cagney’s award for Best Actor. Surprisingly, Cagney garnered only two other Oscar nominations over the course of his career, the first for “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) and the last for “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955). Be sure to see him in “Footlight Parade” (1933) if you enjoy his musical turns. See more of Walter Huston in “Dodsworth” (1936), “And Then There Were None” (1945), and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). You’ll find the talented Joan Leslie in “High Sierra” (1941) and “Sergeant York” (1941). Director Michael Curtiz helmed more than 100 films during his career, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “Mildred Pierce” (1945), but he is best remembered today for “Casablanca” (1942).
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