Yankee Doodle Dandy
Veteran actor James Cagney won his only Oscar for his portrayal of real life composer/performer George M. Cohan in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy. The movie received a total of eight nominations and two other Academy Awards.
Cagney stepped away from his tough guy roles to tap dance across the stage in what is said to be his favorite film role. Like Cohan, Cagney had a background as a song and dance man in vaudeville. That helped Cagney cinch the part as the prolific American musical entertainer once dubbed “the man who owns Broadway”.
In the biopic as in real life, Cohan begins his career on stage as a child, performing alongside his parents (played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp who was 11 years younger than her screen son) and sister Josie (played by Cagney’s real sister Jeanne). Billed as The Four Cohans, the family has a popular vaudeville act. And at a very tender age, George becomes an integral part of their performance.
But like many child actors today, the applause goes to his head and George soon earns a reputation for being difficult. Although he is blacklisted for a while, the young showman’s talent eventually overcomes the negative press. Teaming up with Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), another aspiring Broadway writer, he begins composing numerous Broadway shows.
Born on the 4th of July, George is particularly patriotic and pens several tunes that become anthems for U.S. soldiers heading overseas. Among the crowd favorites are “The Yankee Doodle Boy”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There”. As he success grows, he marries Mary (Joan Leslie), a young singer and is invited to the Oval Office for a personal meeting with Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt who Cohan comes out of retirement to portray on stage.
In the production, many details of the entertainer’s life have been fictionalized. Yet autobiographical accuracy doesn’t seem too important in this rousing, flag-waving film that went into production only a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Covering the history of the Broadway musical and the impact of Cohan on American theater, the film became Warner Bros. Pictures biggest box office hit up to that time and gave audiences such great tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway.”