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“My God, What An Act To Follow!”
LOCKED IN A STRANGE, TESTY COLLABORATION lit by the fires of a burning world, George M. Cohan and James Cagney produced a masterpiece of popular history in which everything is true except the facts
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grand jury in 1940 released testimony identifying James Cagney as among a group of “communist members, sympathizers or heavy contributors.”
The charge was not new. Cagney had experienced “professional difficulties” in 1934 when he was linked to a cotton strike in San Joaquin, but he had remained outspokenly liberal and pro-union. Now Cagney and his producer-manager brother William, about to form their own production company with James as the major asset, took the charge very seriously. William asked for an audience with the Red-baiting congressman Martin Dies, who subsequently certified James as a patriotic American. But William was still worried. He suggested to Jack L. Warner, the production head of Warner Bros. Studios, that “we should make a movie with Jim playing the damnedest patriotic man in the country”: George M. Cohan.
Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because George M. Cohan had not written a hit musical play on Broadway since 1928.
Nor had he made the transition to writing musicals for the movies, and although he was still one of the most famous entertainers in the country, he was dismayed by the musical styles and social themes that were seeping into the theater to which he had devoted his working life. In 1939 a musical revue of Cohan’s career had been staged at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with his approval. The play, Yankee Doodle Boy , by Walter Kerr and Leo Brady, used the thennovel concept of dramatizing the composer’s life through his songs, and Cohan probably had this production in mind when he began approaching Hollywood about a movie biography. In April 1941 he signed a contract with Warner Bros. for a movie using his music, with a script to be approved by him —and specifying that the role of George M. Cohan must be played by James Cagney.
Cohan never met with Cagney at any point during the project, but this was the start of an unusual collaboration between the two, based on the desire of both men to present a show full of the old-fashioned song and dance and comedy they loved. In the process they “stole the show” from Warner Bros. and its executive producer, Hal Wallis, a nearly unprecedented bit of larceny at tightly wound Warner’s. The movie became the biggest hit the studio had ever had.
Nor has it faded away. In nearly continual showings since the 1950s on broadcast, cable, and vidéocassette, Dandy has continued to reach audiences. What accounts for its long life? The first audiences that saw it, in the summer of 1942, were preoccupied with war news (most of it bad), personal sacrifice, and national unity. Much of those audiences had memories of Cohan and the theatrical world of the early century. Today’s audiences have no such references, but they still find something of charm or value in the film. The value may have come from the contributions of the consummate artists of the Warner Bros, production departments: the set and costume designers, choreographers, musical directors, and orchestra. This was a prestige production for Warner’s and the first team was brought in: the director Michael Curtiz and the cinematographer James Wong Howe, with Walter Huston playing a supporting role and the character actors “Cuddles” Sakall and George Tobias stealing scenes.
But most of the movie’s enduring charm has to be attributed to the two song-and-dance men. Cagney had been eager to break out of his hoodlum type-casting. Despite his ten years’ experience on the New York stage, much of it in vaudeville and musicals, he had made only two musical films, and neither was among his best work. As he said, “I didn’t have to pretend to be a song and dance man, I was one.” Cohan had made only one major studio film himself, and it was long forgotten. During the first three decades of the twentieth century he had been “the man who owns Broadway,” the author-song writer-singer-dancer-actor-producer who helped launch the American musical on its way to popular and artistic glory. Despite the evidence of the box office, he still believed that his type of plays and songs had an audience, and virtually none of his work had yet been preserved on film. The care and effort of both men would be rewarded more amply than perhaps even they dared hope. Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar and established forever the breadth of his range as a performer. Cohan, whose plays have almost disappeared from circulation, is best remembered today for the songs in the movie and as the character played by Cagney, the cocky guy with the stiff-legged strut who dances right up the side of the stage.
The movie belongs to the genre known as the “biopic,” a flavorful mating of history and drama, which, like all biography, tells us in some way what one person’s whole life was about or meant. To arrive at such a highly condensed conclusion, even the best movie biographies must distill their meaning out of a mere handful of incidents and relationships. Add in the requirements of a song-and-dance picture, which Dandy also is, and you’re left with a very tiny space in which to reveal the personality of the title character. After all, when Don Ameche plays Alexander Graham Bell, he only has to act as if he’s inventing the telephone, and that takes just a few minutes of screen time. When Cagney plays Cohan, he really has to sing and dance, in long, elaborately choreographed and scored musical numbers.