YankeeDoodleDandycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1942, 125 min., Black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be G despite brief WWI montage)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C

John Travolta and I have at least one thing in common: Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of our favorite movies growing up. Maybe that’s because we’re Baby Boomers, and we were raised with postwar patriotism, much of which was reflected in the movies that Hollywood made.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the top musical biopics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it has an unbelievable backstory. But just as unbelievable is that this four-star movie about Broadway sensation George M. Cohan doesn’t interest the rest of my family. My wife, who’s not a Baby Boomer, thinks it’s only okay, and my kids find the flag-waving corny, the Vaudeville sequences otherworldly, and the black-and-white picture the last straw. But if your family is into old-time biopics, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the best, and it has an interesting history.

At least one good thing came out of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. James Cagney, popular for his gangster roles, had to fly to Washington, D.C. to defend himself against charges that he was a Communist. Though he set the committee straight, afterwards his brother told him, “We have to make the damnedest patriotic picture ever.” Cagney’s very next film would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biography of Broadway sensation George M. Cohan, who was honored by President Roosevelt and Congress for composing the patriotic anthems “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Ironically, Yankee Doodle Dandy would also earn Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor.  

YankeeDoodleDandyscreenAs the title suggests, it’s a flag-waving musical, but one that comes by its patriotism and show-biz affection honestly. Cohan, who had his born-on-the-Fourth-of-July life story rejected by one studio before Jack Warner agreed to do it, died the year the picture was released. Filming began on December 8, 1941—the day after Pearl Harbor. Just as Cohan was a vaudevillian who appeared with his parents and sister as The Four Cohans, Cagney sang and danced his way along the same circuit, performing with his wife. Yankee Doodle was a real family affair, with James as its star, brother William as associate producer, and sister Jeanne playing his onscreen sibling. There’s plenty of performance footage of the Cohans onstage and montages of George’s successes.

Like other black-and-white biopics of the decade, Yankee Doodle Dandy is nostalgic and slightly sentimental, portraying simpler times and, in this case, an extinct form of entertainment that was the only show in town before radio and television. More than a few of the routines may seem corny and overly long to contemporary audiences, but Cohan’s familiar tunes (like the title song and “Give My Regards to Broadway”) and Cagney’s high-stepping, fast-talking chutzpah carry the film—not that the rest of the cast is superfluous. Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp and the two Cagneys click as a vaudeville family struggling to succeed despite Georgie’s reputation for being hard to work with. Joan Leslie (Sergeant York) is also charming as the wide-eyed young woman who becomes George’s wife and inspires him to write “Mary is a Grand Old Name.” But the focus never shifts from George M., and it’s Cagney’s exuberance that fuels the film as it follows Cohan’s break from the act and his rise to Broadway fame against the backdrop of World War I. Then too, director Michael Curtiz (The Sea Hawk) knows a few things about making rousing films. His Casablanca premiered the same year as Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The bottom line is that Yankee Doodle Dandy is a classic American film, and it celebrates two classic Americans: Cohan and Cagney. Whether it will be a hit with your family depends on how your family responds to old black-and-white musicals.