This is a film about the life of real life Broadway actor, singer, dancer, composer and playwright George M. Cohan. The film starts with Cohan as an older man, playing the President in his newest play, “I’d Rather Be Right.” Just after his performance, Cohan is asked to visit the President; what an honor! During his visit, Cohan proceeds to tell the story of his life, and the film follows into flashback until we’re back at the present.
George M. Cohan was born on the fourth of July, extremely fitting for his later patriotic works. He was born into a family of stage performers, who quickly get their two children, George and his sister into the act. As George grows to a young teen, he starts to get cocky, forgetting where his character ends and George begins. With the line, “I can still lick any kid in town,” the kids of that town take it as a challenge and beat up young George, teaching him quite a lesson. As a young man, he becomes reckless and feels like he owns the theater. He sends his girlfriend, Mary (Joan Leslie), out to perform a number he’s written without any permission from the theater owners. Consequently, he and his family are fired and stumble on hard times because of George’s stubbornness. Realizing he’s holding his family back, George takes off so they can have better luck and tries to get his own work produced. Once his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” becomes a hit, he’s got Broadway at his fingertips and brings the family together again. Then it’s a great ride through George’s career on Broadway.
James Cagney plays an astounding George M. Cohan. His song and dance numbers are filled with so much energy you feel like part of a live audience rather than a bum on your couch. In fact, while filming a dance number Cagney broke a rib, but continued without aid until filming was over. He keeps the heart of George flowing in every scene and even improvises a little tap dance down a flight of stairs. It’s not just the singing and dancing where Cagney shines. Offstage, where we see the life of George he’s got even more heart than on the stage and his every movement reminds us what a great man he was. Thus, Cagney easily takes Best Actor.
I’ve said before how these sort of musicals from the 30’s and 40’s bore me, but Yankee Doodle Dandy is a step higher than the rest. I found the musical numbers truly enjoyable, and there’s no way to make a film about George M. Cohan without including some of his best work. Besides, James Cagney is wonderful to watch and never lets the songs get stale.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is recommended for patriotic people who love musicals. Maybe if you just really love musicals or really into patriotism this would work as well. I realize there a lot of people who wouldn’t care for this today. Complaints to expect: “too much singing and dancing” “i don’t like black and white” “not enough action.” Well fine, be sticks in the mud. This may not be it, but I know there’s a movie for you in 1942.
“”For some reason they teamed me with a donkey, I was a good democrat even then.”