Follow TV Tropes


Film / Yankee Doodle Dandy

Go To

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a 1942 Musical Biopic film directed by Michael Curtiz, starring James Cagney and Walter Huston. It tells the life story of Broadway song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, composer of such classic songs as "Over There", "You're a Grand Old Flag", "Give My Regards to Broadway", and the title tune. Cohan's life and career are depicted from his beginnings with his family's vaudeville act, to fame and fortune as a Broadway composer and American patriot.

The film begins in the (then) Present Day, with Cohan having just come out of retirement to play President Roosevelt in his best friend's new musical I'd Rather Be Right. After the show, he's summoned to meet the real President. Cohan chats with Roosevelt, recalling his early days on the stage. The story then flashes back to his youth, starting with his birth.

The Four Cohans perform successfully. Later, in partnership with another struggling writer, Sam Harris, they finally interest a producer and are on the road to success. George also weds Mary, a young singer and dancer. As his star ascends, he persuades his now-struggling parents to join his act, eventually vesting some of his valuable theatrical properties in their name.

A critical and commercial triumph, Yankee Doodle Dandy won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Cagney. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993. The most famous scene in the movie, Cagney's tap dance down a White House staircase, was done without any rehearsal.

Cagney would briefly reprise the Cohan role for a cameo in the 1955 film The Seven Little Foys, in which he performs a tabletop challenge dance with Bob Hope as Cohan's friend and rival Eddie Foy.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Cohan's several children are omitted from the narrative.
  • Age Cut: Teenaged George Cohan demands his mail at a hotel. Pan to his feet, cut to a different pair of feet, pan up to James Cagney as the adult Cohan demanding his mail at a hotel.
  • Artistic Licence History: Among many other historical liberties, the song "Mary Is a Grand Old Name" was a tribute to his daughter Mary (although his second wife was named Agnes Mary ), the last of the Four Cohans to pre-decease George was his mother rather than his father, the failure of Popularity happened nine years before the sinking of the Lusitania rather than concurrently with it, and Cohan's run as FDR in I'd Rather Be Right happened three years after he received the Congressional Gold Medal.
  • As You Know: Some dialogue establishing that the other Cohans have an offer to play in Boston, but George has been blackballed due to his obnoxiousness.
  • Blackface: The Four Cohans, in one of their shows.
  • Call-Back:
    • We see Cohan composing the melody to "Over There", followed by the song being performed at a rally as America enters World War I. 25 years later, as America enters World War II, the song is sung again.
  • The Cameo: Eddie Foy Jr. appears in one scene as his own father, Eddie Foy Sr.
  • Composite Character: Cohan's respective wives Ethel Levey and Agnes Mary Nolan are fused into a singular Mary Cohan for the film.
  • Dated History: Cagney as a dancing Franklin D. Roosevelt comes off as odd to a modern viewer, but back in the day Roosevelt's paralysis was carefully concealed from the public.
  • Eagleland: One of the most unapologetic Flavor 1 examples ever made.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: "Extra! Extra! Lusitania torpedoed by German sub!"
  • Framing Device: Cohan relates his life story to FDR after the President presents him with the Congressional Gold Medal.
  • Happily Married: George and Mary (played by Joan Leslie).
  • Invisible President/The Faceless: FDR's face is never shown.
  • Meaningful Echo: When the Four Cohans perform together, George M. Cohan thanks the audience by saying, "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you." At the end of the movie when President Franklin Roosevelt presents him with the Congressional Medal, Cohan thanks the President with those same words.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: After the opening scene with Cohan meeting Roosevelt, Cohan's story starts with Cohan's birth, and continues with him as a prima donna teenager in the family show, before Cagney takes over.
  • The Musical Musical: The presentation of Cohan's music and Cagney's recreation of Cohan's performances are far more accurate than the portrayal of Cohan's life story.
  • Off the Record: "Off the Record" from the musical I'd Rather Be Right is prominently featured.
  • The Oner: There's a long shot late in the movie panning over various Times Square advertisements of Cohan's musicals through the years.
  • The Prima Donna: Young George Cohan is very much this, which winds up getting him blackballed by various theater managers.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Production on this film started just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack, Warner Brothers then decided to make the most over-the-top patriotic film ever, and they did.
  • Sensational Staircase Sequence: Done near the end, with James Cagney dancing down a short flight to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Also a case of Throw It In.
  • Significant Birth Date: The hero of this super-patriotic film was, as the title song puts it, "born on the Fourth of July".note 
  • Title Drop: The title to one of Cohan's most famous songs.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The version of Cohan's life presented in the film takes a very Broad Strokes approach where the main points are there but the details are heavily fictionalized especially his personal life. After seeing the finished product, Cohan's daughter Georgette observed "That's the kind of life Daddy would have liked to have lived."