"My God, What an Act to Follow!"(the Making of the James Cagney Film 'Yankee Doodle Dandy')(Cover Story)

By Andersen, Fred | American Heritage, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview
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"My God, What an Act to Follow!"(the Making of the James Cagney Film 'Yankee Doodle Dandy')(Cover Story)

Andersen, Fred, American Heritage

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grandy 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 then-novel 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 videocassette, 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-songwriter-singer-dancer-actor-producer who helped launch the American musical on its way to popular and artistic glory.

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