Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Airing at 12:15PM EST
As far as musicals go, Yankee Doodle Dandy is, without a doubt, one of the very best. In my mind, it’s one of the top five musicals of all time, right behind Singin’ in the Rain. Patriotic to the extreme and VERY loosely based on the life of Broadway actor and composer George M. Cohan, this film lives and dies on the back of its hardworking star, James Cagney, and he rises to the occasion, delivering a tour de force performance that few in Hollywood expected he could produce at the time.
Cagney is now remembered mainly for his work as a gangster/tough guy in films such as 1931’s The Public Enemy (in which he famously shoved a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and 1949’s White Heat (where he played perhaps the most psychotic gangster ever shown in film, Cody Jarrett). But Cagney’s roots lay in dance (particularly tap) and vaudeville, and he relished the role of Cohan, which allowed him to combine his latent song-and-dance-man talents.
Cagney is effervescent in the role. The sheer joy of his exuberant dancing and pleasing vocals shine through his every move, and when called upon to show Cohan’s more serious side, the true depth of this performance really shows. He captures Cohan’s strangely appealing mix of cocky egotism and genuine likability. The songs are wonderful patriotic ditties, designed to uplift a country that had just entered World War II when the film was released, and it more than succeeds at that task. Watching Cagney sing Cohan’s signature tune, “Over There,” with a band of soldiers being deployed to serve in the war brings a tear to even the most jaded eye (yes, even my own). It’s no wonder this film would present Cagney with his only Academy Award.
The supporting cast includes several fine actors, particularly Walter Huston (father of John, grandfather of Anjelica) as Cohan’s father, Joan Leslie as Cohan’s wife, Mary, and Cagney’s own sister, Jeanne, who plays his on-screen sibling. The film also features one of my favorite character actors, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, in a minor role.
You definitely don’t want to miss this one. But if you do, it’s available on a 2-disc special edition DVD that features some great extras. Skip the colorized version if you happen across it; this one is best in its original black and white glory.
Wins: Best Actor (Cagney), Best Score, Best Sound
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Huston), Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture