Born on the Fourth of July
James Cagney. George M. Cohan. Great Music.
Typical Hollywood "biography"
The Bottom Line:
Hollywood bends the facts in this brilliant biography, but the songs and performances shine in a tight, well written gem.
You're a grand old rag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
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I was looking for something special to write about for the fourth of July. What could be more special, more patriotic or more just plain brilliant than Yankee Doodle Dandy? This is a B&W Hollywood-style biography of legendary Broadway performer, composer, director and producer George M. Cohan as played by the legendary star, James Cagney, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role.
Cohan was born on July 3, 1878, although both he and his parents, a New England couple renowned for their honesty, always claimed he was born on the Fourth of July and given the record keeping of his day, who can say they were wrong? In any case, perhaps because of his birth date, he was to become one of the most patriotic Americans who ever lived and he wrote anthems America carried through two world wars.
George M. Cohan was an amazing man. He spent 56 of his 64 years on the stage. He wrote 40 plays, collaborated with others on another 40 plays, and co-produced another 150 plays. He made over 1000 appearances as an actor. He wrote over 500 songs and many were major hits. He was responsible for writing some of the most patriotic music ever published with songs like, Grand Old Flag and Yankee Doodle Dandy. In 1942 Congress authorized FDR to award Cohan a medal honoring him for writing Over There; a song credited with helping enlistment during WW I. Unfortunately, in this movie, Hollywood rewrote this medal into the Congressional Medal of Honor, which it wasn't.
Cohan was born into a Vaudeville family, and started appearing on stage when he was just an infant. By the age of 9, he officially joined the act. By 16 he was selling his songs. By 20, he was running the stage act and writing all their material. At the ripe old age of 25, he wrote, produced and starred in his first Broadway production, Little Johnny Jones. It became a huge hit, with songs like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Give My Regards To Broadway.
The movie gives Cohan's life the typical Hollywood rewrite, missing out embarrassing details like unsuccessful plays and marriages, changing timeframes, and inflating medals. Nevertheless, much of this extraordinary man sneaks through. The screenplay is remarkable well written, tight, realistic, and very moving. It was nominated for Best Writing and Best picture Oscars.
The movie concentrates on Cohan the songwriter and follows his career. The musical numbers are presented as scenes from his stage shows, a marvelous device that allows full production numbers without breaking its realism as a play. The music is tremendous and it won the Best Music Oscar hands down. For his creativity, Michael Curtiz was nominated for Best Director, but he had to wait until the next year to get it, when he won for Casablanca.
James Cagney, who was best known for playing gangsters, is superb in this film. He studied hard at perfecting Cohan's voice and dance style, and delivers an incredible performance as a song and dance man. Of course, he was always a wonderful actor, and can deliver a witty one liner as well as any man who as ever lived. Cagney went on record as saying this was his favorite movie, and it is easy to see why. There is an amazing scene near the end of the movie in which Cagney dances down a staircase, which was all captured in a single uncut take, which is a truly incredible feat of both film making and dancing. There are widespread rumors that Cagney ad-libbed this scene.
Also notable is Walter Huston playing Cohan's father. Cagney's real-life sister Jeanne plays Cohan's sister Josie, and Eddie Foy Jr. has a cameo playing his own father. Joan Leslie plays Cohan's wife Mary, and her performance is surprisingly mature considering she was only a 17-year-old at the time of filming.
Still despite everything, the thing you are going to carry away with you from this movie is the music, much of which was written by Cohan himself. It is memorable, it is rousing and it is patriotic. Cohan's music and musicals were extremely patriotic to begin with, and this move was made in 1942, just after the USA had entered WW II. As you can imagine, this movie carries flag waving to previously unheralded bounds, and to some it may appear corny and jingoistic. Nevertheless, it was what America needed at the time, and was the second highest grossing movie of the year.
George M. Cohan lived long enough to see Cagney's portrayal of him. In 1942, he was recovering from an operation, and he asked his nurse to accompany him on a taxi ride from Union Square up to Times Square, where he stopping briefly at the Hollywood Theater, to watch some scenes from Yankee Doodle Dandy. This was his last visit to Broadway. George M. Cohan died on November 5, 1942, coincidentally on the day the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day in memory of a famous patriot. Not significant, perhaps, but yet another amazing event in a life that had so many.
Cohan lived for 64 years, and this movie was made 64 years ago, but is still both entertaining and significant today. In this time when our troops are fighting wars on two fronts, when the USA's image is taking a beating both at home and abroad, and when its own government seem to have lost sight of the ideals on which the country was founded, maybe we need a bit more flag waving. Five Stars.
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This move is appropriate for children of all ages. It should be compulsory watching for all US citizens and citizen wannabes.
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This movie is available in a wide range of DVDs. Since it is 64 years old and in Black & White, it is important to get a good quality print.
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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
Also Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (uncredited)
James Cagney - George M. Cohan
Joan Leslie - Mary Cohan
Walter Huston - Jerry Cohan
Richard Whorf - Sam Harris
Irene Manning - Fay Templeton
George Tobias - Dietz
Rosemary DeCamp - Nellie Cohan
Jeanne Cagney - Josie Cohan
Douglas Croft - George M. Cohan, at 13
Eddie Foy Jr. - Eddie Foy
... and a host of others
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