This outstanding musical is about the life and times of George M. Cohan, playwright, entertainer, composer and patriot. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Award Nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Story. Academy Awards: Best Actor--James Cagney, Best Sound Recording, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Producer Hal Wallis originally envisioned 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' as a straightforward biography of one of Broadway's most successful and prolific impresarios, George M. Cohan, but America's entrance into World War II a few months before its release transformed this lavish musical into a rousing, flag-waving propaganda piece that stirred the passions and stoked the resolve of a nervous, uncertain nation. Like his titular alter ego, Cohan claimed he was born on the 4th of July (July 3 is his actual birth date), and for most of his life the pint-sized dynamo symbolized Americana. Though Cohan wrote his most famous and patriotic songs - 'You're a Grand Old Flag,' 'Over There,' 'Give My Regards to Broadway,' and the timeless title tune - in the early part of the 20th century, they all struck a renewed chord with 1942 audiences, propelling 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' to monumental success. Yet despite its eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, some of the film's luster has faded over time. 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' still entertains today, but seems more old-fashioned than most musicals of the era; a quaint, featherweight period piece that sadly lacks any emotional pull beyond love of country.
Cohan once said about himself: "Once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance man." And the same holds true for the actor who immortalized him on screen, James Cagney. In his autobiography, Cagney writes, "Psychologically I needed no preparation for 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' or professionally either. I didn't have to pretend to be a song-and-dance man. I was one." Cagney, of course, rose to film stardom playing gangsters and wise-guys, but was also an adroit hoofer (he showed off his tapping skills most notably in Busby Berkeley's 'Footlight Parade') and cut his theatrical teeth on Broadway musicals. (Cohan even rejected him for one of his shows when Cagney was first starting out.) Though smashing a half-grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face in 'The Public Enemy' put him on the cinematic map, portraying a Broadway legend would win Cagney a Best Actor Academy Award and cement his reputation as an immensely talented, multi-faceted performer.
Ironically, Cohan was not too far removed from the pugnacious punks Cagney often played on screen. Instead of a gun, Cohan wielded arrogance, and his cocksure attitude alienated many a Broadway cohort. Refreshingly, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' doesn't shy away from depicting Cohan's abrasive personality, insufferable ego, and brazen ambition - quite a feat, considering Cohan's contract granted him complete script approval and the power to cancel the film's release if he disapproved of the finished product. (The unprecedented deal completely stressed out studio chief Jack L. Warner, who heaved a huge sigh of relief when Cohan at last gave the movie his blessing.) Cohan adamantly opposed any depiction of his domestic life, so the writers merged his two wives into one and created a new name for the character - Mary, after the popular Cohan song, 'Mary's A Grand Old Name.' Sixteen-year-old Joan Leslie landed the part, playing opposite the 42-year-old Cagney, and in keeping with Cohan's wishes, the two rarely express any affection for each other during the movie. (In real life, Cohan fathered four children, but none appear in the film.) Leslie could only work limited hours each day, because she had to attend school on the Warner lot, but somehow she and Cagney make a believable couple and manage to minimize the vast age difference. (Interestingly, Rosemary DeCamp, who played Cohan's mother, was also a relative youngster and 11 years Cagney's junior!)
The film's cut-and-dried plot focuses almost exclusively on Cohan's career and is almost completely devoid of any dramatic impact. Told in flashback, the tale begins as an elderly Cohan receives the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jack Young), which inspires the blustery thespian to regale FDR with his life story. We then follow Cohan from his humble beginnings as part of his parents' vaudeville act to his juvenile success as 'Peck's Bad Boy,' his tenure as one of the singing Four Cohans - the other three were his father (Walter Huston), mother (DeCamp), and sister (Jeanne Cagney) - and eventual renown as Broadway composer, lyricist, actor, and uber producer who sometimes had as many as five hit shows running simultaneously on The Great White Way. Any personal strife (beyond the death of his father) is ignored, which leaves the film emotionally bereft. Historical inaccuracies also abound, and as we bounce from one song to another, with only negligible chatter and some comic shtick in between, a bit of ennui sets in, despite the lively numbers and spirited performances. Outside of successful shows and some mild family squabbling, nothing of note really happens to Cohan, and the lack of any cohesive narrative makes it difficult to invest in the characters and remain involved in the film. Songwriter biopics often suffer from such a malaise, because - let's face it - most composers lead normal, insulated, rather boring existences. Their songs may provide great entertainment, but their lives, generally, do not.
Cagney agreed to star in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' partially to quell any lingering rumors about his supposed Communist sympathies, spawned from his years as a "strong Roosevelt liberal" in the 1930s. Playing the all-American Cohan, a man whom many thought really was "a real live nephew" of Uncle Sam, put a stop to any whispers about Cagney's patriotism. And Cagney gave the role his all, ceaselessly studying Cohan and adopting his trademark stiff-limbed dance style, vocal timbre, and stage persona. Simply from the standpoint of stamina, it's an admirable performance, and Cagney's triple-threat abilities undoubtedly helped him snag the Best Actor Oscar, the first time a musical performer garnered the award.
And the film's dozen or so musical numbers are really what 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' is all about. Curtiz, whose next film would be the Oscar-winning 'Casablanca,' had never before directed a musical, but seems to have a firm grasp on the genre, constructing modest yet effective song sequences that reflect the simplicity of Cohan's music and don't require any suspensions of disbelief. Curtiz also received an Oscar nomination for his work, as did Huston for Best Supporting Actor, but it's Cagney's presence that looms the largest over this sprightly piece of hokum. His performance remains strong and captivating more than seven decades later, and though his fine work can't mask the film's lack of substance, he keeps 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' relevant, inspiring plenty of admiration, and proving he really is that yankee doodle boy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Yankee Doodle Dandy' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Classic movie lovers rejoice! Warner Archive has delivered yet another scrumptious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of a vintage title, one that beautifully captures the original look and feel of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' and James Wong Howe's exceptional cinematography. Superior contrast and stunning clarity lend the image presence and depth, while a natural grain structure provides a palpable film-like appearance. When compared to the very good 2003 DVD, the Blu-ray picture looks more vibrant and exhibits far less texture. Blacks are stronger and deeper, and the gray scale flaunts more distinct variations. Background details are easy to discern, shadow delineation is quite good, and close-ups show off fine facial features well. Best of all, not a single speck, mark, or scratch mars the pristine source material, and no digital doctoring, such as edge sharpening or noise reduction, seems to have been applied. Black-and-white musicals generally pale in comparison to their Technicolor cousins, but this stellar transfer makes us miss those saturated hues just a little bit less. Never has 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' this good, making an upgrade essential for fans of this flag-waving film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies robust sound that's somewhat limited by the recording equipment of the early 1940s. Though any trace of age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been scrubbed away by Warner technicians, the audio lacks the same degree of fidelity and tonal depth that often distinguishes MGM musicals of the period. Still, this solid effort proves the Oscars the film won for Best Musical Score and Best Sound Recording were warranted, despite a slight nagging shrillness that occasionally creeps into the mix. Distortion, however, is absent, dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and the tapping from Cagney's fancy footwork is crisp and distinct. For a 72-year-old movie, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' sounds darn good, and though the audio never dazzles, this is still a grand old track.
All the extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and it's quite a bounty. As an added bonus, the two Looney Tunes animated cartoons included in this edition are presented in glorious 1080p.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Rudy Behlmer always provides top-notch audio commentaries, and his discussion of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' doesn't disappoint. Behlmer edited a book comprised of Warner Bros studio memos, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Burbank dream factory fuels this informative and absorbing track. Behlmer date stamps almost all the scenes in the film and names the soundstages on which they were shot. In addition, he points out several historical inaccuracies and identifies some music in the film that wasn't written by Cohan. He also talks about the incessant rewrites that plagued the production, Cagney's quick-witted improvisations, the star's intense dislike of fellow actor S.Z. Sakall, and how teenage leading lady Joan Leslie had to adhere to child labor laws during shooting. Anecdotes abound, including one that concerns Cohan's rejection of a young, unknown Cagney when the novice actor auditioned for one of the impresario's shows early in his career. When it comes to commentaries, Behlmer is the best in the business, and this essential track will fascinate anyone with an interest in classic films.
Warner Night at the Movies 1942 (44 minutes) - When Warner Home Video first began marketing their classic catalogue on DVD, the studio often included a "Night at the Movies" segment on its classic discs - usually comprised of a trailer, newsreel, short subject, and cartoon - in an effort to recreate a local theater's typical cinema program for the year of the movie's release. Unfortunately, the inspired practice was soon abandoned, but thankfully, this edition remains, and kicks off with an introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin (3:21). His jovial remarks are followed by a trailer for 'Casablanca' (2:16) and a war-themed newsreel (9:16) chronicling, among other things, the graduation of West Point cadets, a joint U.S.-China air strike on Japan, the addition of Mexico to the Allied force, and FDR honoring American troops. Next up is a vintage propaganda short, 'Beyond the Line of Duty' (22:01), which charts the career of Captain Hewitt T. Wheless from his humble roots as a rural ranch hand to his heroic exploits as an Army Air Force pilot commanding a flying fortress in the Pacific. Wheless plays himself in the surprisingly absorbing, Oscar-winning short, which is narrated by Ronald Reagan and features commentary by FDR himself. Finally, a Merrie Melodies animated short, 'Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid' (7:00), finds that wascally wabbit battling a not-so-bright buzzard who's determined to bring him back to the nest for dinner. Though not as clever as some Bugs Bunny cartoons, this short provides a few chuckles and looks gloriously vibrant in 1080p.
Documentary: "Let Freedom Sing! The Story of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'" (SD, 45 minutes) - This comprehensive documentary meticulously chronicles the biopic's journey to the screen, providing historical background on the Cohan family, production details, and notes on the film's impact and lasting appeal. Among other things, we learn how the script evolved from a straight drama into a musical; how the influence of Cagney's brother, William, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor affected the movie's production; how Cagney's sister, Jeanne, beat out Ruby Keeler for the role of Cagney's sister in the film; and how George M. Cohan originally approached Fred Astaire to portray him. Cagney's love-hate relationship with director Michael Curtiz is also examined, along with Cagney's improvisations on set, and Cohan's death shortly after the film was released. Actress Joan Leslie, who played Cagney's wife in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' actor John Travolta, and film historians Rudy Behlmer, Robert Osborne, and Bob Thomas, among other noteworthy contributors, comment on this beloved piece of Americana and how it still resonates today.
"John Travolta Remembers James Cagney" (SD, 5 minutes) - The star of 'Grease' recalls his lifelong fascination with Cagney, how 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' was his favorite film as a child, and how an emotional meeting with the legendary actor spawned a close relationship that continued until Cagney's death.
Vintage Short: 'You, John Jones' (SD, 10 minutes) - This 1943 war-effort short subject, directed by Mervyn LeRoy ('Quo Vadis,' 'The Bad Seed'), features Cagney as an everyman air raid warden who, while on duty one night, expresses his gratitude to God that the U.S. has not been bombed like other countries around the world, and that his wife (Ann Sothern) and young daughter (Margaret O'Brien) are safe. He then envisions the horrors his daughter would face if they resided in such hotspots as England, Greece, China, Yugoslavia, France, and Russia. Though Cagney's earnest portrayal rings true, moppet O'Brien (a year before she would gain renown as Judy Garland's impish sister in 'Meet Me in St. Louis') is the short's real star, and it's amazing the six-year-old actress wasn't scarred for life after enduring the barrage of harrowing situations that befall her character. One minute she's an amputee, the next a starving street urchin. In between, she survives two traumatic bombing scenes and shows up dead in the rubble in two others (once with her eyes open)...all in the span of 10 minutes! (The short's subject matter is serious, but the rapid-fire, hyper-dramatic presentation of such unrelieved strife does provoke a chuckle or two.) To top it all off, O'Brien must also recite large sections of the Gettysburg Address in preparation for a school recitation contest...and to stoke the patriotic passions of the audience! It's quite a performance, and definitely merits a look.
Vintage Animated Short: 'Yankee Doodle Daffy' (HD, 7 minutes) - Despite its suggestive title, this 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon has nothing to do with 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' but it's an entertaining romp in its own right. Porky Pig plays a busy talent agent who's held hostage by the frenzied Daffy Duck, who's trying to promote his progeny. The usual shenanigans ensue, including an impersonation of Carmen Miranda by Daffy and a thrilling aerial climax.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 4 minutes) - The rousing original preview is packed with energy and patriotism.
Audio Vault (36 minutes) - Outtakes, rehearsals, and a radio adaptation comprise this audio collection. First up is the Cagney outtake 'You Remind Me of My Mother' (1:29), followed by two Cagney rehearsal cuts with piano accompaniment, 'You're a Grand Old Flag' (1:41) and 'Give My Regards to Broadway' (1:07). All the principals join in the 'Four Cohans Medley' (0:42) and Cagney and Leslie sing a duet of 'Harrigan' (1:29), again with solo piano accompaniment. And finally, a severely truncated version of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' was performed on 10/19/1942 as part of the Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater radio series, with Cagney, Leslie, Huston, Jeanne Cagney, Richard Whorf, and S.Z. Sakall all reprising their film roles. Cut down to a lean 30 minutes, including commercials, introduction, and farewells, this telling of 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' foregoes plot in favor of music, and ends up little more than a prolonged medley of George M. Cohan hits. Audio quality is a bit rough, but we're lucky this treasured relic still exists at all.
George M. Cohan was an American institution, and though 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' takes great liberties with his life story, Michael Curtiz's rousing - if formulaic - biopic salutes the man and his music with plenty of warmth, reverence, and patriotic fervor. James Cagney's Oscar-winning portrayal, distinguished by his distinctive, vigorous dancing, anchors the film (and cracks its corny veneer), while more than a dozen of Cohan's most recognizable tunes comprise the truly American soundtrack. Though slim on plot, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' coasts along on the strength of its music, performances, and production values, winning us over with its irrepressible charm. Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation honors this Oscar-winning movie with a brilliant video transfer that improves upon the previous stellar DVD, high-quality mono audio, and a cavalcade of absorbing supplements. Though it never rivals the musicals made across town by MGM, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' remains a prime example of old-fashioned, rock-'em-sock-'em entertainment, and its undeniable patriotism makes it deserving of an annual spin on July 4th. Recommended.