“The first thing I ever had in my hand was an American flag”
Shortly after the events at Pearl Harbor thrust America into World War II, a film was released that both paid respect to one of the true patriots of our country and gave the new contingent of men sailing off to fight a bit of the ol’ red, white, and blue. Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy utilizes George M. Cohan’s final performance on the stage as a bookend to the story of his long and fruitful career. Played by James Cagney in an Oscar-winning turn, this larger-than-life showman is rejuvenated after a period of retirement, portraying Franklin Roosevelt in “I’d Rather Be Right” with notices as good as any earlier in his career that even the President himself requests a personal appearance. Fearful it may be for a chastising, the man who gave the country anthems like “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” now poking fun where it shouldn’t be poked, he ambles up the White House stairs to find Roosevelt far from mad and simply intrigued to hear his tale of success.
Born on the Fourth of July as the parade carried on in the streets, young George was forever intertwined with the USA. The firstborn of a family of entertainers—including Jerry (Walter Huston), Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), and little sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney) that’s soon dubbed the Cohan Four—he wore his Irish-American heritage on his sleeve, singing and dancing as a leprechaun and starring in stage productions before he was four feet tall. His youth and stature was no deterrent from cultivating a big chip on his shoulder, however, his loudmouth confidence rousing in its action and off-putting in its hubris. The parents blamed themselves, never having smacked the boy, too worried they’d injure his hands or face when both were needed to pack houses and overflow the box office. But that ego, determination, and contagiously snide humor lacking all tact were the exact things that made him a star.
It was a tough go at the start when starring with his family became harder as each year passed, his volatility and belief in being better suited to make decisions than the producers causing many show houses to refuse booking them, not wanting the trouble George M. brought. So, he began to write his own material, hailed it as the best music written, and did all he could to show the world. After meeting a young girl from Buffalo named Mary (Joan Leslie), the two went out to find a Broadway producer willing to give them a shot while his family continued without him, renewed offers for a trio existing that did not as a quartet. With rejection after rejection for his Irish-centric musicals, it isn’t until he’s dismissed by Dietz (George Tobias) and Goff (Chester Clute), a team Cohan tells will regret not taking the chance on him, that he lucks his way into a contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
Serendipitously running into a playwright he saw turned away by Dietz and Goff too, (Richard Whorf’s Sam Harris), Cohan decides to invite himself into an informal business meeting with another producer. With Harris about to get rejected again—floundering without the words to sell his work stronger—George swoops in with tall-tales of promises made and contracts to be signed. Infusing talk of his music into the play he has never read, by a writer he has never met, the two find a groove together and work magic, getting a contract off a pitch and impromptu revision of “Yankee Doodle”. It’s the start of a fifteen-year partnership filled with success, the team becoming their own Dietz and Goff, opening up to three shows at a time in different theatres. The Cohan Four is reunited and audiences across the country come in droves to see George’s newest each year, a wonderfully constructed tracking shot, sweeping through a miniature marquee-filled Broadway recalling Beetlejuice’s model scenes, showing time pass by neon light.
And while this true story of one of our country’s greatest composers and lyricists is intriguing as just that—who doesn’t enjoy rags-to-riches type tales steeped in immovable familial love and filled with irrefutable success by a character who is actually deserving—it entertains as a showcase for its star too. Cagney is absolutely fantastic, his tap skills and voice getting a work out, his brilliant comedic timing infusing a vaudevillian feel to each scene. No sequence ever ends without a joke, no matter how subtle, keeping the audience enthralled despite the length and scope of what’s shown. Certain details are glossed over, (see the future of mother and sister), and some characters disappear, (Buffalo Mary comes and goes, but never is replaced as Cohan’s one true love), but through it all is a consistent aggressively compassionate tone on behalf of its subject. Barbs are thrown with a genial smile as sarcasm and mocking become a fast way to make friends—just ask Eddie Foy Jr. after portraying his own father in a laugh-out-loud exchange with Cagney.
The song and dance numbers also play a huge role and are depicted with an amazing sense of detail. Watching the performance of “Yankee Doodle Boy” is like being there in the audience, awed by the sets, choreography, and art direction with jockeys on sawhorses and sailing boats in the distance rocketing flares. We watch George M. Cohan come to life, his musicals popping with the likes of Fay Templeton (Irene Manning) singing “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and transport us to ‘legitimate theater’s’ 1920s heyday. The conflict is minimal since Cohan finds success early—a bump in the road called “Popularity” an exception—causing the movie to be more an uplifting piece of propaganda for the current war at hand, harkening back to a time of laughter and joy. As Cohan says, every time you think the audience is ready for sophistication, an event occurs that begs for flag waving. He was the best man for the job and hearing a parade at Yankee Doodle Dandy’s conclusion, much like the one from his birth, rumbling down the streets singing “Over There” is the greatest validation this national treasure could have received.
 James Cagney (left) and Eddie Foy, Jr., in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
 “Yankee Doodle Dandy” James Cagney, S.Z. Sakall, and Richard Whorf 1942