AFI #98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Give my regards to Broadway, Remember me to Herald Square, Tell all the gang at Forty Second street, that I will soon be there!

I’m generally not one for musicals, but I can appreciate a great one when I see it. I liked The Sound of Music and The Music Man as much as the next guy. But I certainly had no understanding of the history of the Broadway musical nor the impact that George M. Cohan had on the American theater and popular culture. I do love history, so I was actually quite interested in seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy for the first time. I have to say I was not disappointed. I really liked Yankee Doodle Dandy!

The 1942 film tells the life story of George M. Cohan, complete with many wonderful recreations of his best Broadway shows. I think I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Cohan wrote Over There and You’re a Grand Old Flag, but I definitely didn’t know he wrote tons of well-known hits including Give My Regards to Broadway. Over There, by the way, was written in 1917 and Cohan was later given the Congressional Gold Medal for it and other patriotic songs by President Roosevelt in 1936. Cohan is also recognized for his impact with a bronze statue in Times Square (something no other Broadway actor can claim). The guy had a great life and career.

But while the film is a great tribute to Cohan, it’s really a showcase for the rare talent of James Cagney, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his wonderful portrayal of Cohan. Most film fans know Cagney as the quintessential tough guy in great movies like Angel’s With Dirty Faces and White Heat…but the dude can sing and dance! Guys like Cagney were the original triple threats back in the day — they could act, dance and sing. Cagney was incredible in this role and his Oscar was well deserved. Cagney adds spark to the many musical numbers in the film as he tells the Cohan story through the many shows he wrote, produced and starred in. And while this film will always be remembered for the Yankee Doodle Boy number taken from Cohan’s 1904 Broadway debut Little Johnny Jones, you’ll be amazed at how many other great musical moments the film brings to life. Give My Regards to Broadway was also in Little Johnny Jones.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was directed by Michael Curtiz, who of course also directed Casablanca and White Christmas (Curtiz also directed Mildred Pierce which has just been remade as an HBO miniseries). The film is not a musical per se, but more a tribute to Cohan through music. It’s not as if the actors break into song in the middle of the movie like a true musical — I think that would have been a very bad idea. Instead it’s just a very creative biopic about a great American. I was struck as I watched this film about how different the concept of patriotism has become. Patriotism has morphed into a political tool with folks on both “sides” of the American political spectrum claiming it as their own. I think we could all learn a lesson about true patriotism these days…maybe we should all be made to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy together.

Next Up on the AFI list: #97 Blade Runner (one of my all-time favorites)

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10 thoughts on “AFI #98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

    • I’ve never seen the director’s cut, but I love the original. I guess whichever version is streaming on Netflix!

  1. Pingback: The AFI Top 100: Final Thoughts | Days of Speed & Slow Time Mondays

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