Yankee Doodle Patriot: George M. Cohan & the Movie That Inspired a Nation

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, James Cagney, 1942
Everett Collection

It’s one of Hollywood’s most beloved musicals, as American as apple pie and as irrepressible as the Spirit of ’76.

Warner Bros.’ 1942 smash hit Yankee Doodle Dandy recounts the life of singer, dancer, composer, playwright, actor and producer George Michael Cohan, a.k.a. “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” James Cagney, a fellow Irish-American who also began his career in song and dance, stars as the writer of such unforgettable tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” along with many others. 

George Michael Cohan

Wikipedia/Public Domain

George M. Cohan was known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway”


Told mostly in anecdotal flashbacks, the story opens at the White House in the early days of World War II. Summoned by President Franklin Roosevelt, Cohan recalls some of the highlights following his birth on July 4, 1878: childhood performances with parents Jeremiah and Helen and sister Josephine in the vaudeville act “The Four Cohans,” his first Broadway success, marriage, and patriotic activities in World War I (during which he wrote the combat’s unofficial anthem, “Over There”), up to an attempt at retirement and finally a triumphant Broadway comeback in Rodgers & Hart’s “I’d Rather Be Right” — playing, of all people, Roosevelt himself. 

While the script took liberties with dates (Cohan actually was born on July 3) and other facts (omitting Cohan’s divorce and remarriage, as well his “intense hatred” of FDR, from whom he received a Congressional medal for his contribution to patriotic morale), one reviewer noted, “Who the heck cares? Dandy has song, dance, pathos, pageantry, uproarious comedy and, best of all, James Cagney at his Oscar-winning best.” 

It was exactly the sort of feature wartime America was hungry for, earning over $6 million in rentals for Warner Bros. — the company’s biggest box-office success to that time.

To some, Cagney, best known for his gangster roles of the 1930s, must have seemed an unlikely choice to play Cohan, a part Fred Astaire turned down. Neither a great singer nor dancer, the actor nonetheless threw himself into the role with so much enthusiasm that it hardly mattered. As critic Edwin Jahiel put it, “He acts so vigorously that it creates an illusion.” Cohan served as a consultant on the film, although in a limited capacity, as he was already suffering from the abdominal cancer that would end his life shortly after Yankee’s release. Of Cagney’s portrayal, Cohan famously remarked to his son, George M. Jr., “My God, what an act to follow!”  

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp, 1942

Everett Collection

An enduring myth claims that Cagney took the role to avoid being blacklisted for Communist sympathies. But while the actor actually was accused of being a Communist in a 1940 California grand-jury trial, no whiff of scandal prevented the picture from earning three Oscars and five additional nominations. Re-released in 1996 by Ted Turner as the first computer-colorized film,
it also was selected in 1993 by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Much like Mr. Cohan himself.

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September 2019

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