Friday, July 4, 2014

World War II Films: Yankee Doodle Dandy

James Cagney & Joan Leslie
If To Be or Not To Be was an example of tragic timing (see previous post), Yankee Doodle Dandy illustrated what can happen when all the pieces fit together perfectly. Yankee Doodle Dandy was to be yet another musical biopic (biography picture), a type of movie that was popular at the time. The picture chronicled the life of George M. Cohan, a song and dance man who wrote, starred, directed, and produced his own plays during the early twentieth century. Here's where a bit of luck--albeit morbid luck, comes into play. Cohan was synonymous with the American musical, known for his patriotic productions, and even honored by FDR in 1936 for his contribution to World War I with such songs as "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." Within the first few days of production on Yankee Doodle Dandy, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America was suddenly at war again. The ground was ripe for a patriotic production, one that Cohan's life easily provided. Add to this, the dynamic acting of James Cagney. 

When Cagney was suggested for the film, Cohan scoffed at the idea--how could this gangster character portray a song and dance man? Cagney may have developed into a roughian type in his films at Warner's, but he was a dancer at heart.
Dancing Cagney

Prior to Hollywood, he had been a hoofer in vaudeville. In fact, his dancing style was inspired by Cohan's energetic, stiff-legged dance movements. (Can you imagine Cohan's first pick, Fred Astaire, dancing in such a manner?? I love Astaire, but his graceful steps would have been completely out of place!) Fortunately, Cohan was convinced and the rest was cinematic magic. Cagney loved the role; it gave him the chance to break out of the mobster mold and get back to his roots. He threw himself into the film and earned an Oscar for his performance. 

In addition to Cagney's win, Yankee Doodle Dandy won Oscars for Best Score and Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston) Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Editing, but did not win. Nonetheless, the film was a huge commercial success and raised five million dollars in War Bonds (Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy). 

At a time when America's future looked uncertain, Yankee Doodle Dandy delivered an uplifting, triumphant display of patriotic spirit.  It was the perfect rallying cry for World War II. 

Happy 4th of July!

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