skip navigation
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Remind Me

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Michael Curtiz, notorious for his mangling of the English language, once referred to Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) as "the pinochle of my career." Although one does not usually associate the Budapest-born director of Casablanca (1942) and other classics with musicals, he made a total of 13 musicals and musical biographies, beginning with the Al Jolson vehicle Mammy (1930). Curtiz made a star of Doris Day in her first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948), and directed her in three more of her early movies: My Dream Is Yours (1949), Young Man With a Horn (1950) and I'll See You in My Dreams (1951). He also directed such other musical stars as Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Rosemary Clooney and Elvis Presley.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, the musical biography of patriotic song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, also rates as the favorite film of its star, James Cagney. Although he now seems the only logical choice, Cagney would have missed out on his big chance if a deal between Cohan and MGM to make a film to be called The Four Cohans hadn't fizzled out. Covering the years when Cohan had toured with his father, mother and sister, the movie would have starred Mickey Rooney as the young Cohan. The deal collapsed after studio head Louis B. Mayer refused to allow Cohan the right to final cut on the proposed film. The next movie mogul to show an interest in the project was Samuel Goldwyn, who had a commitment to make a film starring Fred Astaire. When Astaire refused the role of Cohan as not right for him, the rights were picked up by Warner Bros., who cast resident star Cagney in the role with Cohan's blessings. Cagney, in particular, was eager to play Cohan because he was, at the time, suspected of being a communist sympathizer due to his union activities (he was president of the Screen Actors' Guild) and because of his open support of the New Deal. He wanted to show his patriotism on screen, and the George M. Cohan story was the perfect vehicle to do this.

Yankee Doodle Dandy, with its many flag-waving musical numbers, proved just the ticket for World War II-era audiences and became the top-grossing movie of its year, as well as Warners' top-grossing movie to that time. It was nominated for Academy Awards in eight categories, including Best Picture and Director (Curtiz), and won three Oscars, including one for Cagney as Best Actor. Curtiz, according to film historian Richard Schickel, was "a fortunate choice as director. His taste for shadowed lighting catches the flavor of Cohan's backstage world, and the subtle flexibility of his camera imparts a musical flow to the piece even in its non-musical moments."

One of Curtiz' keys to success was the decision to allow Cagney free rein in his scenes, permitting the actor to improvise as the cameras were rolling. A prime example, and reportedly Cagney's favorite moment in the film, is when he suddenly breaks into a tap-dance as he comes down the stairs in a scene at the White House where Cohan has met with President Franklin Roosevelt. "I didn't think of it till five minutes before I went on," Cagney later recalled. "And I didn't check with the director or anything; I just did it." The ordinarily hard-boiled Curtiz was so moved by the scene in which Cohan bids farewell to his dying father (Walter Huston) that he reportedly ruined a take with his loud sobs. According to Cagney biographer Michael Freedland, tears streamed down Curtiz' face as he stumbled away to find a handkerchief and exclaimed to Cagney, "Gott, Jeemy, that was marvelous!"

Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner, William Cagney (associate)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph, from story by Buckner
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Editing: George Amy
Original Music: George M. Cohan, Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld
Principal Cast: James Cagney (George M. Cohan), Joan Leslie (Mary Cohan), Walter Huston (Jerry Cohan), Richard Whorf (Sam Harris), Irene Manning (Fay Templeton), George Tobias (Dietz), Rosemary DeCamp (Nellie Cohan), Jeanne Cagney (Josie Cohan), Frances Langford (Nora Bayes).
BW-126m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Roger Fristoe & Jeff Stafford



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more