Yankee Doodle Dandy

January 28, 2012 13 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, production began on “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. This was by accident, of course, but the timing couldn’t have been better for a movie like this. The early days of World War II were unsure for the United States and a flag-waving film couldn’t help but to inspire America to defeat the enemies. The movie isn’t a “war” movie per se, but rather the story of George M. Cohan. Cohan might not be a household name, but his songs helped inspire the troops in World War I. Songs like “Over There”, “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Grand Old Flag” are just a few numbers in this movie and just a very few of the recognizable tunes that Cohan produced. James Cagney plays the lead in this film, something that was a departure for him as he was known for mainly playing ruthless gangsters in films like “The Public Enemy” and “Angels With Dirty Faces”. However, it may have been mean to be as he walked (danced, rather) away with his only Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of George M. Cohan. Ironically enough, even some sixty years later, this film continues to inspire in light of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States. Patriotism, it seems, is just as timeless as any emotion.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” follows the story of the Four Cohans from the time that George (James Cagney) was born (on the fourth of July, no less) until his later years as he took his act solo on Broadway. Walter Huston, father of director John, plays Jerry Cohan, the father of the talented family. Starting out very young, George and his sister (Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne) performed in a traveling show that took them across the country. By the time George was an adolescent, it was clear that he was the star of the show, but also a bit full of himself as well. This led to him later taking his act solo as his sister became married and his parents too old to perform. Cohan did it all, though, being an actor/director/producer/writer and so on, the immense talent is only hinted upon in the movie. Told in flashbacks, Cohan has been bestowed an honor by the President of the United States (Roosevelt) and he’s actually telling the story to him. We see his triumphs and failures and see Cagney almost literally become him during the musical numbers.

The film was selected by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 100 American Films of all time (#100 – hey, one of them had to be last) and rightly so. A vast majority of movies are great at the time, but don’t stand the test of it. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is one of those that will likely be as good or better years down the road. What’s so ironic about the film is the fact at how good it was and how Cagney played so against his character. He started out in Vaudeville and was an accomplished singer and dancer, which helped him land the part. His brother, William, acted as his manager and one of the deciding factors that made Cagney take the part was that he was being investigated as a Communist! The movie was nominated for Best Picture and James Cagney beat out Gary Cooper among others for his Best Actor Oscar. In a studio system that put out a movie a week, this one has withheld the test of time and will likely continue to do so. Though James Cagney will still likely be best remembered for his roles as a gangster, it was his turn as George M. Cohan that impressed the critics. Warner’s Special Edition is the best way to see one of the better movies made in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.

Video: How does it look?

The video presentation for “Yankee Doodle Dandy” certainly doesn’t disappoint. I’ve only seen the movie via television (until now, naturally) and I must say that it’s a definite improvement over that of cable and far superior to that of VHS. While the film doesn’t seem quite as striking as that of “Citizen Kane” (by far Warner’s best effort on a black and white DVD transfer), I have to say that I was impressed that a 60 year old movie looks this good. Films in black and white tend to not show nearly as many errors as their colorized counterparts (ironically, this movie is available on VHS in a colorized format as well as the original black and white), but they do indeed exist. For the most part, there is a sharpness and “smoothness” to the film that gives it a very distinctive look. The midtones are rich and deep and there is hardly any evidence of edge enhancement to be seen. To say that this is the best the film looks is a drastic understatement and I’m hard-pressed to anything negative to find about the transfer here. Another top notch effort by Warner is all I can say.

Audio: How does it sound?

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital mono and we really couldn’t ask for anything more. The movie, a musical, relies on a musically heavy audio track and though the sound is mono, it sounds pretty good (especially for a movie of this age). A lot of films a plagued with a “hiss” that sometimes interferes with the dialogue. Naturally, the range will be limited by the amount of channels (one), but that’s not really a factor. Relying on both dialogue and musical numbers, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” really wouldn’t sound that much better even if it were re-mastered in 5.1 sound. All of George M. Cohan’s songs heard here (“Over There” and “Yankee Doodle Boy” to name just a few) are presented in the best possible sound and do not disappoint. There’s really not much more to say…the audio mix is more than sufficient and to say the movie sounds as good as it looks is the ultimate compliment to this great movie.

Supplements: What are the extras?

As with other Warner two-disc Special Editions, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” comes loaded with supplements and all are a welcome addition to an already great film. While the majority of extras are located on the second disc, the first has a few surprises to share as well. We start out with a commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer (who authored the book “Inside Warner Brothers (1935-1951), so suffice it to say; this guy knows his stuff! Like his track for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, Behlmer is full of interesting factoids about the production and about Cagney in general (and after digesting all of the supplements, it does become a bit redundant; but better too much than not enough). It’s a very informative track that true fans will want to listen to. As part of their continuing “Night at the Movies” series, Leonard Maltin hosts this feature that attempts to re-create a night at the movies for the year 1942. Shown is a trailer of “Casablanca”, a newsreel (dominated by the early stages of World War II), a short “Beyond the Life of Duty” and a Looney Tunes short, “Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid”. A gallery of trailers for some of Cagney’s selected movies is also shown that span his entire career.

This brings us to the second disc which houses the remainder of the supplements. This second disc is dominated by two documentaries, “Let Freedom Sing! The story of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’” and “James Cagney: Top of the World” hosted by Michael J. Fox. First up, is “Let Freedom Sing” which chronicles the life of George M. Cohan and essentially tells the story of how his life story came to be and how Cagney ended up playing the lead part (which was originally offered to Fred Astaire). Interviews with film critics and historians offer up more information that we know what to do with, but suffice it to say; if you want to know about the making of this movie, this is for you. A brief segment features John Travolta as he remembers his friendship with Cagney (naturally in his later years) as told by Travolta himself. Essentially Cagney wasn’t really interested in meeting any celebrities, but found out that Travolta could sing and dance; then decided on meeting him. Though we don’t get as choked up as Travolta, it’s nice to see today’s actors pay tribute to the actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Though keeping with the theme, the wartime short “You! John Jones” stars Cagney as he reflects on the war in America. Filmed after “Yankee…” and after his Best Actor Oscar, was Cagney just trying to cash in on his success here? Most likely not, but the short is included nonetheless. Some audio-only treasures are found as well including five numbers that can be heard. Some are dialogue, but there’s a few of them that are of rehersal’s and such. A neat feature and one to check out. “Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater” is also an audio-only feature performed by Cagney and Rita Hayworth or all people! Two very appropriate Looney Tunes shorts are shown in “Yankee Doodle Daffy” and “Yankee Doodle Bugs”. Seeing these Looney Tunes not only excites me for the upcoming DVD’s, but they make a lot more sense when you know what they’re parodying. We have some cast and crew bios as well as some still galleries of posters, set photos and sheet music galleries. Lastly, we have a documentary hosted by Michael J. Fox (though this looks like it was made in the mid-90’s) that covers the story of James Cagney’s life. From a child to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, almost every aspect of his career and life on and off screen is shown. A must for any Cagney fan. It’s even organized by scene selection, so you can skip to whatever part you like. All in all, another fine Warner two-disc Special Edition and one that certainly belongs on any serious movie-lover’s shelf. The highest of recommendations!

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