Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): Patriotic Biopic, Starring Jimmy Cagney in his Oscar-Winning Performance

Yankee Doodle Dandy, Michael Curtiz’s rousing biopic of patriotic showman George M. Cohan, which features the perfectly cast Jimmy Cagney in his only Oscar-winning performance, was extremely popular at the time.

One of the top-grossing pictures of the year, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” generated more than $5 million in its theatrical run.

The screenplay by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph is based on Buckner’s story.  In the beginning of the tale, vaudevillians Jerry and Nellie Cohan (Walter Huston and Rosemary De Camp) are visited by an agent who offers them an engagement, but their young son, George Michael, is so boastful that they lose their jobs.

As a mature man, George falls in love with Mary (Joan Leslie), a stage-struck girl, and takes her with him when he tries to sell a musical show he had written. George fails, but in the process he meets a young showman, Sam Harris, (Richard Whorf) and together they form a partnership. Cohan then persuades the established star Fay Templeton (Irene Manning) into starring in his new show.

Years later, after achieving greatness and success in the American theater world, George retires. However, when asked by his old friend Harris to return, he consents. As a cumulative reward for his patriotic songs and action, George is decorated by the President of the U.S.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” combines the rags-to-riches success story of the theatrical Cohan family with warm-hearted musical nostalgia, highlighting such songs of WWI as “Over There” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” thus celebrating both the unique life of a quintessential American figure, George M. Cohan, as well as the unique ideology of the American Way of Life. 

Audiences at the time remember fondly Cagney’s curtain speech: “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you, My sister thanks you. And I thank you.”

Most of the critics raved about the film and Cagney’s turn, as Rose Pelswick wrote in the New York Journal-American: “It’s unquestionably Cagney’s most brilliant bit of make-believe. He gets over that characterization by suggestion rather than by out-and-out imitation. A typical gesture here, a well-remembered mannerism there, and, at all times, a buoyant vitality, it’s a performance that has both authority and charm.”

This was the last film Cagney made under his contract for Warner, after which he formed his own production company and release his films through United Artists.

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Jack Warner and Hal B. Wallis, with William Cagney

Director: Michael Curtiz

Original Story: Robert Buckner

Actor: James Cagney

Supporting Actor: Walter Huston

Film Editing: George Amy

Scoring of a Musical: Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld

Sound: Nathan Levinson

Oscar Awards: 3

Actor
Scoring
Sound

Oscar Context

In 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy competed for the top award with nine other films: The Invaders, King’s Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, Mrs. Miniver, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, and Wake Island.

Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler.

Walter Huston lost the Supporting Actor to Van Heflin in Johnny Eager.

Emeric Pressburger won the Writing Oscar for the British war film The Invaders (aka 49th Parallel).

Daniel Mandell won the Editing award for the Gary Cooper star vehicle, Pride of the Yankees.

Cast

George M. Cohan (James Cagney)

Mary (Joan Leslie)

Jerry Cohan (Walter Huston)

Sam Harris (Richard Whorf)

Dietz (George Tobias)

Fay Templeton (Irene Manning)

Nellie Cohan (Rosemary De Camp)

Josie Cohan (Jeanne Cagney)

Schwab (S.Z. Sakall)

With:

Frances Langford

George Barbier

Walter Catlett

Douglas Croft

Eddie Foy, Jr.

Minor Watson

Chester Clute

Odette Myrtil

Patsy Lee Parsons
Capt. Jack Young
Credits

Warner (First National Picture)

New York release date: May 31, 1942