At a time wherein stories of wartime heroics were continually churned out to inspire patriotism in moviegoers, Yankee Doodle Dandy arrived as an unlikely alternative to inspire WWII audiences. The highly fictionalized life story of famed theatrical entertainer George M. Cohan, Michael Curtiz’s film gives James Cagney the perfect role in which to return to his song-and-dance roots after playing mostly gangsters for a decade. Curtiz staged some elaborate musical numbers for Cagney, who gave what was perhaps his definitive performance, but the film is ultimately bogged down by its biopic structure.
George M. Cohan is born on the fourth of July—a fact that appears as a lyric in the title song—to a family of vaudevillians. From a young age, he performs alongside his father (Walter Huston), mother (Rosemary DeCamp), and sister (Cagney’s own sister Jeanne Cagney), touring the country to perform everything from full dramatic plays to short musical numbers, including one regrettable moment of blackface. He soon strikes out with songs of his own, partnering with a writer (Richard Whorf) and marrying another performer (Joan Leslie). They struggle together, but eventually Cohan becomes the biggest act on Broadway, performing iconic songs like “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and, of course, “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” all of which inspire Americans to get through WWI—in turn, inspiring the moviegoing public of 1942 to get through WWII.
Like his character, Cagney also began performing in vaudeville, but rarely returned to his song-and-dance roots after stumbling into gangster movies soon after his arrival in Hollywood. The role of Cohan provided him one of few opportunities to showcase those skills, and his performance as a fellow Irish American entertainer feels practically autobiographical. When the actor performs Cohan’s numbers in character, Cagney’s own love of and dedication to the craft comes through. He won Best Actor from the Academy Awards for his work, deservedly so.
Unfortunately, the hastily rewritten script does not hold up to Cagney’s same standards. Bookended by some hackneyed scenes of an older Cohan conversing with President Roosevelt, Yankee Doodle Dandy is over two hours long, dragging with unnecessary scenes like a cuttable montage of Cohan on various vacations across the globe. The film peaks midway through with its titular number; the last song is underwhelming, though a final improvised dance step from Cagney is delightful.
The film is best when Curtiz and the screenwriters simply allow us to watch Cagney, at the top of his game, perform some of Cohan’s elaborate numbers; it should have launched the actor into a whole career of musicals, but he only ever made two more. At least we have Yankee Doodle Dandy, the closest Hollywood ever came to capturing the true nature of Cagney as a performer.