Friday, September 5, 2014

James Cagney Yankee Doodle Dandy Where were you in 42

James Cagney is George M. Cohan
the Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney stars in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the life story of George M. Cohan, who went from child star of the vaudeville stage to "the man who owned Broadway," writing, acting, singing and dancing in multiple hit shows. 

The film of Cohan's life is just right with Cagney in the lead. James Cagney would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role. There are many fantastic reviews and synopses of the film available. I wanted to see what went into the making of the movie and a little about how were Cagney and Cohan alike.

While other studios were interested in making the movie, Cohan sold the rights to Warner Brothers because James Cagney worked for them. Cohan had approval on actors and it had to be Cagney. The star began work on the dance numbers months before the film went into production.

Bill Cagney, James' brother was producer of the film. Cohan liked the fact that Jeanne Cagney, Jim's sister would play his own sister, Josie. Jeanne Cagney was part of a campaign to write letters to the troops. "Please write a letter to those gallant men in the service."
James Cagney plays
George M Cohan
The Cagney siblings had a relationship much like the one shared by the Cohans. Family was very important to both Cohan and Cagney. From a 1942 article:

"Fred Niblo, Josie's son, works on the Warner Lot. 'I don't mean to butt in,' he'd said. 'But please be careful whom you choose as my mother.' 

"So before mentioning the possibility to Jeanne, Bill sent pictures to Cohan and Niblo. 'Perfect,' Cohan wired, 'if she can act the way she looks.' 

"Niblo dropped in Bill's office. 'You didn't have to send me your sister's picture. I've seen her on the lot. I've heard the way people talk about her. I'd like a girl like that to play my mother.' Then Bill called Jeanne." 
-- Screenland 1942
Clip photo James Cagney, brother sister and his mother set of Yankee Doodle Dandy
Bill, Mrs. Cagney, Jeanne and James Cagney on the set
Niblo was the son of Josie Cohan Niblo and Fred Niblo directed silent film classics with the brightest stars of the day including Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand, Greta Garbo in The Temptress, Ramon Novarro in Ben Hur and Norma Talmadge in Camille.

Yankee Doodle Dandy James Cagney
1942 1-SHEET Vintage Movie Poster Linenbacked
Yankee Doodle Dandy doesn't say how or when it happened, but Josephine died young in 1916 from a heart condition. The director, Fred Niblo, would go on to marry again. Niblo was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the people who give out the Academy Awards, the Oscars each year.
Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan
"All signs point to its being a boy"

Other stars include Walter Huston as Cohan's father, Jerry Cohan. One of the many things in Cohan's contract was his ability to approve of the actors playing the Cohan family. He liked Huston because he found that the actor had a dancing background. 

Mr. Huston holds his own alongside Cagney. You'll no doubt recognize him as the father of director and screenwriter John Huston, grandfather of Anjelica Huston. Huston trained in vaudeville, he was a friend of Cohan's for years.

James Cagney and Joan Leslie
Pretty Joan Leslie was seventeen when she played Mary Cohan, George's wife. The character she plays is largely fictional. The film is at least a somewhat Hollywoodized version of Cohan's life. 

His divorce is not mentioned, neither of his wives had the first name, Mary. For some reason his four children are not mentioned. On a side note, one of his daughters, Helen Cohan Carola, acted in films such as Lightnin'.

"When Joan Leslie's 17th birthday rolled around she had advanced to a 50 year old in the script celebrated the day in a white wig and wrinkled puss! ... Joan says she got her biggest bang out of her mom's gift a sleek grown-up party gown by Orry Kelly. It's her first bid to svelteness."
-- Modern Screen 1942

Eddie Foy the most famous comedian of his time was played by son Eddie Jr. James O'Neill was the father of writer Eugene O'Neill. Cohan felt his best serious
Helen Cohan,
daughter of
George M Cohan 

acting performance was in Eugene O'Niell's Ah Wilderness!  

The Cohans and O'Neills remained friends for at least two generations. 

Of film biographies, Yankee Doodle Dandy was a forerunner when it came to biopics about celebrities who we know from being in front of or behind the movie cameras. Maybe the first real biopic about such a person would be The Great Ziegfeld from 1936 with William Powell as Florenz Flo Ziegfeld, Jr.

In 1946 we saw The Joson Story with Larry Parks as Jolson and Evelyn Keyes playing his wife. Her name in the movie is Julie Benson, though she is meant to symbolize Ruby Keeler.

New York premiere ad Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly sold out 1942 James Cagney
Ad for NYC premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy selling war bonds

With older movies I like to go back and see what was going on when the film was made, think about who was their intended audience of that time? World events could have subtly shaped the story. Filming of Yankee Doodle Dandy began late November, very early December 1941.

War is declared

"It's over two years since the idea was first broached. No one could foresee that war would be declared a week after they stared shooting." Director Michael Curtiz, born in Hungary, was a naturalized American citizen. Shooting was stopped so cast and crew could listen to the radio and hear President Roosevelt declare war on Japan. 

It's said that those assembled stood up and sang The Star Spangled Banner before returning to work. Yankee Doodle Dandy was the kind of movie that the country needed at the time, just like the songs Cohan wrote were just what they needed at the time he wrote them. Even the movie poster art was very patriotic.

"We'd just been a bunch of miscellaneous people. Now it was as if something terribly big, bigger than we could conceive just at first, had tied us all together into one." Rosemary DeCamp (who played Nellie Cohan, George's mother).

The day the film held its big premiere in New York City, May 29, 1942 is the day that John Barrymore died. He was a legendary actor of stage and screen, part of that iconic acting family.

George M. Cohan

George Michael Cohan is said by most sources to have been born on July 3, 1878. Some still believe that he was born on the 4th of July.  

A scene where Cagney stands before a poster slathered with Cohan's name is very reminiscent of Orson Welles' philosophy of having your name on the screen, the poster, etc in as many places as possible. These were not only brilliant artists but marketers, as well. Give the people what they want.

George M. Cohan in the film Broadway Jones
When movies were new and still something of a novelty, George Cohan was dabbling in motion picture acting. He was asked if he thought he'd have success in movies. Film was so new and no one knew how different it would be to act on stage (legitimate acting) vs acting for a camera. Give My Regards to Broadway was a song from his first Broadway hit show.

Cohan and Claudette Colbert

"A man likes what he succeeds in doesn't he? My life is the theatre; my successes have been of the theatre. So far, I think they expect the pretty boys in the movies -- and no one has yet accused me of being a handsome leading man. I believe in motion pictures. I believe they have come to stay and will go on improving, changing, enlisting fine minds. 

"The trouble with legitimate actors is that they think pictures is a cheap little trade with no essentials to learn. My experiences have given me a profound respect for the camera. I believe it takes years to master it. .... Broadway Jones is my favorite Cohan picture. For one reason because it is the only one of my pictures I have ever seen." -- Photoplay 1917 

Cohan is said to have originally said, "Say what you will about me, just make sure you spell my name right." 

June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor for outstanding service to the cause of Americanism, for his patriotic spirit contributing to the morale during WWI. It was in particular for the songs he'd written such as You're a Grand Old Flag and Over There.  

"If there is a more sincere, more devoted, more energetically patriotic profession or trade in the country than the film folks it is yet to be discovered." During World War One movie magazines ran articles with titles such as "Will pictures survive the war?" And later, "Have the movies fulfilled their war obligation?" The war was featured prominently including motion picture actors and other industry professionals who went into the service. The patriotism of movies and those who made them was not to be questioned.
-- Quote from Motion Picture Magazine 1918 

A study of the history of theater for a good foundation in the art would have to include Cohan and his works. Joel Grey starred on Broadway as Cohan in the musical George M! 1968. Grey was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical at the Tony Awards. Joe Layton won the Best Choreography Tony for his work on George M!

George M. Cohan died of cancer late 1942. He had the pleasure of seeing the completed film but word is that he never got to meet James Cagney. 

Carl Van Vechten - Harlem Renaissance
George M. Cohan Original Portrait
President Roosevelt sent a telegram to Cohan's widow. In part, it read:
"A beloved figure is lost to our national life in the passing of your devoted husband. He will be mourned by millions whose lives were brightened and whose burdens were eased by his genius as a fun maker and as a dispeller of gloom. My heartfelt sympathy to you and all the family."  

These days, there are many places we look for morale boosts when they're needed. Poetry and music are always consoling or rousing. Country music in particular has given us some amazing patriotic songs, songs to honor our veterans in the last few decades. 

What are your favorites? What do you think would be George Cohan's favorites?? What do you listen to on Veterans Day? Do you think if the young George Cohan were here today he and Bruce Springsteen would sing Born in the USA together?

James Cagney:
A hoofer born on the seventeenth of July

No one was a dirty rat in Yankee Doodle Dandy. James Cagney may be well known as a tough gangster in movies, he was a song and dance man at heart. He had been a piano player and dancer long before he did this film. After he graduated from high school and was discharged from the Army he told a story that he'd confided to a friend at the department store where he was working that he wanted a job with more dough.

"The young clerk advised him that he could give him a steer if you could only sing and dance." Jimmy Cagney said, "I couldn't do either of course. But I said I could,
Cagney and his wife 1937
also, of course.

"Then for about eight weeks, I was one of six boys doing female impersonations. It was a knockabout act, partly burlesque. We had a lot of fun, and it never occurred to any one of us to be ashamed of it. It might seem strange and unbelievable, taking into account my habitual desire to go unnoticed. 

"But again, this illustrates what I mean when I say that I am not shy or self-conscious when I am on the stage or screen. For there I am not myself. I am not that fellow, Jim Cagney at all. 

"I certainly lost all that consciousness of him when I put on skirts, wig, paint, powder, feathers and spangles! ....

"Jimmy's family, however thought he was wasting his time. The young medical students, his brothers and his mother who had wanted professions for her sons could hardly be expected to look with favor upon a relative of theirs dangling about in pink tulle."

As always, he worked different jobs simultaneously. He and his girlfriend only had spats arose because Jimmy wouldn't take her to dance halls. Dancing was sissified, he said, and 'only cake-eaters dance.'"

Cagney with Evelyn Daw in Something to Sing About 1937,
re-released 1947 as The Battling Hoofer
He met his wife when he was a chorus boy and she a chorus girl. There was a time when Cagney was a dance instructor on the side; he taught tap among other things. It was all to make ends meet.

Watch Cagney in a boxing movie such as Winner Take All. His footwork is important, that of a dancer as much as a fighter. You can bet he had experience fighting on the streets of New York growing up and some of those moves came in handy.

"'I never liked punchers. I liked boxers. If a kid could box, I didn't care whether he could break an egg with his punches or not.' He was known as Cellar-door-Cagney because of his prowess in doing tap dances on the slanting cellar doors where so much of the life of the neighborhood kids was lived. He played marbles shot crap, swapped junk and boasted with the best of them."
-- Modern Screen 1937

James Cagney & Edward G. Robinson 24X36 Poster
Wise guys, the artist and the dancer

In the 1937 film Something to Sing About, Cagney does a routine dancing on a simulated giant piano keyboard reminiscent of the keyboard dance done by Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in Big many years later. (see link below)

In 1955 as a tribute to Eddie Foy, James Cagney reprised the role of George M. Cohan in the movie The Seven Little Foys. Cagney danced with Bob Hope. He received no money for playing the part. Eddie Foy, Jr. as you'll remember from above played his father in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

When people think about dance in film, James Cagney isn't usually a name that comes to mind but he's very talented and he puts everything he's got into his work. He has a style all his own and I think you'll enjoy him in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Someone told me that Gene Kelly called himself the Marlon Brando of dance?? Not sure what you'd say about Cagney? I guess he's the James Cagney of dance, that's for sure and that's pretty cool. 

Note the Gene Kelly quote I've heard is: "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando."

What an amazing career. The Strawberry Blonde, The Public Enemy, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Something to Sing About and Mister Roberts, just to name a handful of the films of this versatile actor.

You can stream Yankee Doodle Dandy, rent it or buy it for your collection on disc or digitally. If you remember seeing it in color, you're right. It was colorized in 1986 but that version isn't shown as often as the original black and white. 

Amazon Prime, better than some other services, has some of Cagney's earliest movies like The Public Enemy with Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke, Smart Money with Edward G. Robinson and White Heat with Virginia Mayo and Edmond O'Brien through the 1981 Ragtime.

Related Books, Pages of Interest:
James Cagney and Tom Hanks dance on a Giant Piano

WWI Centenary Gardens Chelsea Flower Show-Never Forget 

Cagney by John McCabe available in different formats, paper or digital for your Kindle or other device

Contemporary Pop, Rock, Country Memorial Songs for friends, family, soldiers

"My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you
and I thank you"

World War One blogathon banner September 2014

Hosted by Silent-ology and Movies Silently


  1. The scene at the end of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" with Cohan/Cagney joining in the singing of "Over There", after some prodding from Frank Faylen, never fails to move me. Cagney was a great actor and Cohan one of his greatest roles.

    1. Thanks for your comment and I agree about that scene. Love James Cagney.

  2. Lots of great info here on classic film that I grew up with. Thank you for covering it for our blogathon!

  3. Thanks for sharing this review - I've been meaning to watch this for a while. I've heard very mixed reviews about it; that the story is historically inaccurate, etc but surely that's the fun of a biopic.
    (Just one question - do you know why it wasn't filmed in Technicolor?)

    1. Thanks for your comment. Agreed, seems a rarity when a biopic *is* that accurate, artistic license, but.... They can use real people in fictional stories. Watching older films w/our knowledge and contemporary viewpoint is interesting.

      I'm curious too about films that were made in technicolor and will try to find out. Lots of great minds out there. Does anyone know??

  4. Wow - an awesome post. A great choice for the blogathon. Love Cagney and Cohan - who was the perfect man of his time.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment and for hosting the blogathon.

  5. Thanks for all the fascinating background information on this film! I have only seen Cohan act in the so-so Seven Keys to Baldpate. It's a pity that Broadway Jones is considered a lost film. Enjoyed the review very much!

    1. I appreciate your comment! I just scratched the surface of Cohan's life. He was so prolific and I learned a lot about the history of the theater and early filmmaking.

  6. Enjoyed all the background information you have put together here on this great film. I think my favourite scenes are Cagney singing and dancing on stage in this. Amazing to realise that Joan Leslie, who is now 89, was only 17. Judy

  7. I love that Cohan quote: "Say what you will about me, just make sure you spell my name right." Fantastic!

    I didn't realize Joan Leslie was so young when she appeared in this film. It just shows the talent she had at that tender age.

  8. I'm glad you wrote about this and included all that background. You're right that a study of American theater would require a study of George M Cohan. I'm sorry that Cagney and Cohan never got to meet, but that much energy in one room might have triggered an explosion. Thanks for sharing with us.


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