Which film best captures the spirit of Fourth of July?

Our guess is Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1942 movie biography starring James Cagney of that flag waving showman, George M. Cohan.

The in-your-face patriotism displayed in the picture is not in fashion now, therefore the movie comes across today as a refreshing anomaly. But there was a deeper connection between its subject and its star.

Hi, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here this Independence Day holiday to analyse that Yankee Doodle Dandy chestnut, trying to connect the dots between Cohan and Cagney, one of our greatest stars.

There is no question among show biz historians that Cohan was an extraordinarily influential multi-talent, a pioneer of “the great White Way” pre-World War I. (A statue of him still graces Times Square since he is considered “the father” of American musical comedy.)

Born in 1878 to Irish parents in Providence, Rhode Island, Cohan’s career began in 1908. He quickly displayed his considerable abilities as an actor, singer and dancer and then as a playwright, composer and lyricist. He wrote hundreds of songs during his long career (he died in 1942) including such standards as Over There, Give My Regards To Broadway, You’re a Grand Old Flag and The Yankee Doodle Boy.

Cohan was 21 years older than Cagney, another Irishman, this one from New York’s Lower East Side. The style and accomplishments of the musical stage pioneer directly influenced how Cagney viewed his own career.

Repeatedly asked about his personal favorite movie role, Cagney responded this way:

The answer is simple, and it derives from George M. Cohan’s comment about himself: once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance man.

In that brief statement, you have my life story; those few words tell us as much about me professionally as there is to tell.  I didn’t have to pretend to be a song-and-dance man.  I was one, Jimmy wrote in his 1976 autobiography, Cagney By Cagney.

The musical biography of  Cohan was directed by Michael Curtiz, and costarred, among others, Walter Huston, Rosemary De Camp and Cagney’s sister, Jeanne. Cagney’s leading lady was Joan Leslie.

The film was a huge hit, nominated in five Academy Award categories and won for Cagney 1943’s best actor Oscar. (He appeared as Cohan again in Bob Hope’s 1955 comedy The Seven Little Foys. Cohan was also played on television by Mickey Rooney, and on the Broadway stage by Joel Grey in the 1968 musical George M.)

A second factor in Cagney’s personal preference for his Cohan role was this: in attaching himself to Yankee Doodle Dandy with its overt no-holds-barred patriotic theme, the actor successfully undercut suspicions about his own “patriotism.”

At the time, he was concerned that his reputation in Hollywood had been scarred by my so-called radical activities in the thirties when I was a strong Roosevelt liberal. Anyone of that backround was usually colored pinko at the very least.

Well, there you have it.  Yankee Doodle Dandy — red-white-and-blue Cagney’s personal best movie.


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