What makes America great? It is the fact that many nations merged in one New World to make a city on a hill. Over two hundred years ago, our Founding Fathers created a new nation based on liberty and equality. Our motto, E pluribus unum, expresses the fact that one new people was created out of a multitude of peoples. Each brought its strengths, ideals, and virtues to the United States of America. Because of this, America has some unique talents and virtues. We created the motion picture industry and made it great. Other nations have imitated us, but no foreign film industry has ever really competed with Hollywood. We survived many hardships, and so did our film industry. In the toughest of all times, Hollywood took the key to true success in that business. With wisdom, honesty, and integrity, the Motion Picture Production Code, which was adopted in 1934, was a guarantee for the continuance of America’s fine ideals in the film industry. America is based on equality, respect, and trust. Under the Code, the Golden Era was created, during which these American virtues flourished, since the Code truly inspires equality. All films are equal when they are sealed by the Production Code Administration, and all viewers all equal because everyone can see every film. The Code also encouraged filmmakers to aspire to greater levels of American patriotism in their films.
In 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy was released. With James Cagney as George M. Cohan, it was a huge success. It featured dancing, singing, and a marvelous story. No one cared that it changed many details of Cohan’s life; it captured the spirit of a grand old showman. The pictures spans over sixty years, and the effect is amazing. It begins in 1942 after the opening of I’d Rather Be Right with an aged Cohan as the lead, impersonating President F. D. Roosevelt. When he is called to the White House by the President himself that evening, George is worried. Once he gets there, though, he begins to tell F. D. R. the story of his life. There is a flashback to the day of his birth, the fourth of July in 1878. As he travels through his life’s story, the audience is able to see it in vivid, lively detail. George, his mother, his father, and his sister go from the Four Cohans, a theatrical family playing all over America, to the biggest success on Broadway. The story is filled with amazing dancing from James Cagney, wonderful songs, grand numbers, heartfelt sentiment, and touching romance between him and his sweet little wife, Mary. One minute, you are laughing at the comical antics on the stage or a clever line quipped by the leading man. The next, you are sniffling at the tenderness or tragedy of a serious moment. Finally, you are marveling at the amazing talent which was possessed by the famous Vaudevillian who became hopelessly stereotyped as a gangster. I won’t tell you the whole story; I want you to see it for yourself. You can rent or buy this film at Amazon and Youtube, where it is in its glorious, original black and white form. I will just tell you what I love about this film.
For any fan of James Cagney, it is always a treat to see him doing what he loved best, singing and dancing. He considered himself to be a song and dance man rather than an actor. Although he was a hoofer on the New York stage in his early career, he didn’t get to dance when he first came out to Hollywood in 1930. It wasn’t until his fourteenth film, Footlight Parade of 1933, that audiences learned just how talented he was. Yankee Doodle Dandy gave Jimmy Cagney plenty of opportunities to kick up his heels and leap around the stage. He displays a different dancing style in this film than in his usual dancing, since he copied the stiff-legged style of his character’s real subject, George Cohan. Most of the time he speaks musically rather than sings, but when he does actually sing, you will hear that he has a nice voice. He used this sprechstimme to be more like Mr. Cohan. If you have seen Footlight Parade, you know that he usually sang more musically, since he did in “Shanghai Lil” in that picture. Of course, I needn’t tell you that he acts well in this picture, since anyone who has ever seen a Cagney film knows that he could act. It is refreshing to see a picture where he doesn’t sock anyone in the jaw. He was an admirable fighter, and no one can deny the fact that he was one of the best tough guys, but he had a very endearing quality which takes the forefront in this picture. Even in his toughest roles, there is something likeable and even sweet about him. I think his genuine niceness shines through even the nastiest characters he played. No matter how much you should despise some characters, you simply cannot because they are played by James Cagney. Thus, it was not difficult for him to play a character whom the audience should like.
Originally, neither George Cohan nor James Cagney wanted him to play this role. Mr. Cohan wanted to be portrayed by Fred Astaire, who bore a resemblance to him. However, Mr. Astaire knew that his own smooth style was quite different from Cohan’s style. When he originally learned about the project, James Cagney did not want to play the role of Cohan, whom he had disliked since he sided with the producers during the Actors’ Equity Strike in 1919. However, in 1940, Mr. Cagney had been accused of communism on the front page of the New York Times. I don’t believe that he was really a Communist, since he was very friendly with men like Joseph Breen, who despised Communism. I don’t think the latter would have had anything to do with a Communist. Although the report was declared false, William Cagney, James’s younger brother who was often the associate producer of his films, knew that he needed to make a very patriotic film to clear his image. He worked hard to get his brother the role. When George Cohan, who was an advisor to the film, learned that James Cagney had been a song and dance man in the theater, he gave his approval. Mr. Cagney was naturally a better fit for the role than Fred Astaire, since he had a lot in common with Mr. Cohan. They were similarly built American Irishman who knew how to sing and dance on a stage. Watch this clip of the real George Cohan in 1932 to see how much James Cagney is like him in Yankee Doodle Dandy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1iWNdS1Kfg.
Yankee Doodle Dandy received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Walter Huston), Best Director, Best Film Editing (George Amy), Best Picture, and Best Writing (Original Story). It won for Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture), Best Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson), and Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney). This was his only Academy Award. He was also nominated in 1938 for Angels with Dirty Faces and in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me. I am glad he won for this picture. Everyone remembers him for gangster roles and for being a tough guy or criminal, but I am glad that he was officially recognized as an excellent actor for a film in which he played a good, honest man. Also, this gave him a chance to show his talents as a singer and a dancer. This Academy Award was a confirmation of many things. It confirmed that James Cagney was more than a gangster. It confirmed that Americans loved patriotism and musicals. More than that, it confirmed that James Cagney was not a Communist and ensured that he would not be blacklisted. He had been officially vindicated. Although some artists were unfairly or hastily accused, I respect the old film industry, which valued Americanism over popularity. No matter how valuable an actor was, if he was found to be un-American, he was blacklisted, and his career was over. In 1942, Lew Ayres was almost blacklisted for being a conscientious objector. Both Ayres and Cagney were vindicated, but the situations with them show that even the greedy moguls were not willing to gain an unpatriotic image in front of the whole country. They might lose money by their actions, but they always would throw out a misbehaving actor before he could besmirch the whole industry. How refreshing this is in comparison to today’s Hollywood, which is a political club instead of an entertainment industry! We should bring back the blacklist system for stars whose conduct is unpatriotic and un-American.
Yankee Doodle Dandy was very timely. It was released right when America was entering World War II. Crisis always makes people feel patriotic, and America needed patriotism more than ever then. In the middle of the film, George Cohan wants to serve in the first World War, but at 39 he is too old. Instead, he boosts morale with a wartime song, “Over There.” He also gives our country “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” At the end of the picture, World War II has begun, and Cohan knows that his songs are needed more than ever before. The proud, patriotic feelings which this film inspires is what made it a financial and artistic success which has lasted for the ages. It was the biggest financial success up to that point for the Warner Bros. studio. True, they had made an easy fortune on the cheap picture The Public Enemy, which had generated big profits and stardom for James Cagney. They had also done well on their big pre-Code musicals. However, nothing could compare to the wholesome, patriotic, general appeal of Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was light-hearted and encouraging enough to lift shaky spirits which trembled at the thought of another war, yet it was serious enough to be relevant and appropriate to the difficult times which everyone knew were coming.
As I watched this film, a feeling of pride, loyalty, and joy passed over me. It made me feel terribly proud to be an American. I am often quite disgusted with the current state of our nation, but seeing a picture like this gives me back my hope and love for our country. Like the Code, America’s ideal cannot be defeated or destroyed. It is still the most wonderful ideal of government in the world. During the “Grand Old Flag number,” I felt almost moved to tears. The beautiful songs, the period costumes showing America’s history, the stirring voices, and the hundreds of American flags waving on the stage created a dramatic effect which could only be American. I hope that any American who watches this film will feel as inspired and proud as I did.
Hollywood does not make patriotic pictures like this anymore. Of course, we take it for granted that the film industry has changed. However, watching this picture makes one realize just how far we have fallen from really American movies like this. Patriotism is an emotion which must be inspired in people, and no medium can create emotions better than Hollywood. Warner Bros. was better at ballyhoo than any other studio, and they used their best techniques to fill this film with stirring Americanism. People loved it, and it returned huge profits. Modern filmmakers never even bother to make patriotic, truly American pictures anymore. Today, our country needs them more than ever. Patriotism has all but disappeared, since modern Americans seem to have forgotten what it means to be an American. The differences between Republicans and Democrats have become so large that America is practically in another civil war. Hollywood needs to support our nation’s ideals by producing pictures which applaud and glorify the American dreams and ideals on which the USA was founded. Pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy distract us from our insignificant political differences of opinions and help us to focus on the important elements of being an American. Under the new Code, the New Production Code Administration would encourage filmmakers to make pictures like this, which elevate Americans to higher and nobler levels of citizenship. We certainly would discourage any films which undermine America and the spirit of democracy.
Tomorrow is July 4, American Independence Day. Don’t let yourself get so caught up in parties, barbecues, concerts, and picnics that you forget the true meaning of this holiday. Take two hours to watch a grand old movie which celebrates a man who served his country and was never too proud to wave a flag. “Should old acquaintance be forgot, keep your eye on that grand old flag!” God bless America, and happy Independence Day!
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George M. Cohan: The Irish-American song and dance man born on the fourth of July who brings his patriotic music to the world through his musical comedies; played by James Cagney.
Mary: George’s devoted sweetheart who wants to be a singer but gladly gives up the stage to marry him; played by Joan Leslie.
Jerry Cohan: George’s father, the lead member of the Four Cohans; played by Walter Huston.
Nellie Cohan: George’s mother, the second member of the Four Cohans; played by Rosemarie DeCamp.
Josie Cohan: George’s younger sister, the final member of the Four Cohans; played by Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s real younger sister.