powered by AFI
George M. Cohan wrote and produced more than thirty-five plays, many of them with his partner Sam H. Harris, and composed more than 500 songs. Modern critics have attributed his importance to the fact that his theatrical career survived and helped define the transition from vaudeville to the American musical play. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1936 and died on November 5, 1942. Apart from leading an unsuccessful fight against the Actors Equity Association during their strike in 1919, his life was so oriented toward the theater that associate producer William Cagney, star James Cagney's brother, and writer Robert Buckner complained in memos reproduced in a modern source, "He had no outside interests. His only objective was success, and he achieved it with monotonous annual regularity...." When Cohan objected to the way certain parts of his life were portrayed in the screenplay, Buckner, William Cagney and executive producer Hal B. Wallis explained in a letter dated August 29, 1941 that many biographical films produced by Warner Bros. took some liberty with the facts, thereby gaining dramatic interest. "Under your construction...the story is concerned largely with your chronology of productions, interspersed with personal scenes....We believe that the deep-dyed Americanism of your life is a much greater theme than the success story."
According to memos included in the Warner Bros. Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, Cohan was opposed to any portrayal of his private domestic life. He specifically objected to the character of "Mary," the screenwriters' largely invented romantic interest. In answer to his objections, Cagney, Buckner and executive producer Hal B. Wallis explained in the same letter "...The love story can be changed as you wish, to bring the girl in more casually and to delay the courtship and marriage very much as you have indicated...." In real life, Cohan married twice, the first time to actress Ethel Levey and the second time to Agnes Mary Nolan, a chorus girl who had been a member of his company for three years. Cohan wanted the character of "Mary" introduced late in the film so that his first wife would have no grounds for believing that the character was based on her. According to a August 2, 1944 Variety article, Levey later unsuccessfully sued Warner Bros. for violation of her "rights of privacy" in making the film. New York Federal Judge William Bondy stated that "the introduction of fictional characters and a large fictional treatment of Cohan's life May hurt Miss Levey's feelings but they do not violate her rights of privacy."
In a October 9, 1943 letter to Joseph Karp of the Warner Bros. legal department that is included in the Warner Bros. Collection, Buckner objected to giving Julius and Philip Epstein screen credit for their contribution to the film, protesting that ninety percent of the construction and seventy percent of the dialogue had been written by him. The Epsteins eventually relinquished onscreen credit on the condition that their friend Edmund Joseph remain in the credits. According to news items in Hollywood Reporter, the studio was interested in assigning a role to Philip Reed, and cinematographer Sol Polito substituted for James Wong Howe while the latter was ill. Memos in the Warner Bros. Collection add the following information about the production: Hal Wallis wanted to cast Irene Manning in the role of "Mary," and Donald Crisp was considered for the role of "The President." Makeup artist Perc Westmore planned to use masks to age the characters throughout the film. This idea was vetoed by Wallis. According to a news item in Los Angeles Times on December 28, 1941, Cagney's dance instructor, Johnny Boyle, was a former member of the Cohan and Harris Minstrels.
Press notes included in the file on the film at the AMPAS Library add the following information about the production: Cagney was Cohan's own choice to play him on screen. When "Over There" was introduced by Nora Bayes at Camp Merritt, Long Island (Cohan remembered the location as Fort Myer) in 1917, all the lights went out during the performance, but the show continued after the headlights of nearby parked cars and trucks were turned on the stage. This incident is reproduced in the film, with Frances Langford, billed as "The Singer," performing the song. Technical advisor William Collier, Sr. was in many musicals with Cohan. Daily production reports note that filming was completed in fifty-eight days, ten days behind schedule. A real horse was used in the "Little Johnny Jones" number, and among the many other musical numbers in the film were extravagant productions of "Give My Regards To Broadway," "You're A Grand Old Flag," "Over There," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," as well as Cagney's more intimate rendering of the love song "Mary." Cagney was several years older than Rosemary DeCamp, who played his mother, and actress Joan Leslie was only seventeen. This was the only film role in which Walter Huston sang and danced, and this was the first time James Cagney appeared in a film with his sister Jeanne.
Instead of tickets for the film's New York City premiere, Warner Bros. sold war bonds, ranging in price from $25 to $25,000. A June 1, 1942 news item notes that over 1,554 people bought bonds and raised over $5,000,000 for the war effort. The item adds that similar openings were planned for other cities, including Los Angeles and London. A premiere performance to benefit the Mexican Red Cross was held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. A May 27, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that the premiere would be broadcast over WMCA from 8-8:30 p.m. and members of the cast would be interviewed by actress Helen Twelvetrees.
Modern sources add the following information: Although the contract between Cohan and Warner Bros. stipulated that he compose three new songs for the film, these songs were never written. The filmmakers worked rapidly in order to complete the film before the ailing Cohan died. They held a special screening for Cohan and his wife Agnes, but Cohan lived long enough to read the film's rave reviews. The idea of a film about Cohan had made the rounds of the studios-Fred Astaire was at one time considered for the role-but Cagney, who had twice been falsely labeled a Communist, took the role of "Cohan" partly because he and his brother William believed that performing in an obviously patriotic film such as this would deflect political criticism. Cagney recreated his role as "George M. Cohan" in the 1955 Paramount film The Seven Little Foys, directed by Melville Shavelson. In the film, Cagney as "Cohan," dances a duet with Bob Hope as "Eddie Foy." Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of The Film Daily Ten Best Pictures of 1943 and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Director Michael Curtiz and editor George Amy were also nominated for Oscars; Walter Huston received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor; and Robert Buckner was nominated for Best Original Story. James Cagney won his only Academy Award for his performance in this film. Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld received an Oscar for Best Music Scoring, although Roemheld does not receive a credit on the film. The film also earned an Oscar for Best Sound Recording.