YANKEE DOODLE DANDY - DVD review

...Cagney's picture through and through. He embues every scene with the kind of electricity only a handful of screen stars have ever managed.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"I'm a Yankee Doodle dandy,
A Yankee Doodle, do or die;
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's,
Born on the Fourth of July.

I've got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart,
She's my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee Doodle came to London,
Just to ride the ponies,
I am a Yankee Doodle boy." --from the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" by George M. Cohan, 1904

Actor, producer, songwriter, and entertainer George M. Cohan (1878-1942) really was born on the Fourth of July, and much to our everlasting good fortune, he never let people forget it. At least, he and his family said that's when he was born, even though his birth certificate said July 3. They were show people to the core, and they could hardly overlook a chance for such patriotic publicity. So it went with Cohan, who was raised on the stage and performed almost till his dying day.

It was only fitting that the movie rendering of the famous showman's life should be performed by another man whose entertainment credentials were wide and varied: Jimmy Cagney. Today, thanks to his portrayal of Cohan in the 1942 musical biography "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Cagney is probably more recognized as Cohan than Cohan himself! Warners' two-disc Special Edition set marks the occasion in grand style.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is Cagney's picture through and through. He embues every scene with the kind of electricity only a handful of screen stars have ever managed. Playing Cohan from his brash early twenties until his acceptance in 1940 at age sixty-two of a Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt was no easy feat in itself, but Cagney carries it off with total assurance. Singing, dancing, strutting like a bantam rooster, Cagney was never more confident of himself or his character than in this film, a portrayal that won him an Oscar for Best Actor. The film also won Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Sound Editing and was nominated in a number of other categories as well. It's an all-around good show, but it's mostly all-around good Cagney. He would briefly reprise the role more than a decade later in "The Seven Little Foys" (1955), and audiences still loved him for it. "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and Cagney's part in it, was a moving memorial to America's most-popular song-and-dance patriot, the real Cohan dying just months after the movie's release.

For the uninitiated, Cohan wrote and/or starred in a string of Broadway musicals and plays, among them "The Governor's Son" (1901), "Little Johnny Jones" (1904), "Forty-five Minutes from Broadway" (1906), "The Talk of New York" (1907), "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford" (1910), "Broadway Jones" (1912), "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1913), "The Tavern" (1921), "The Song and Dance Man" (1923), "American Born" (1925), "Ah, Wilderness!" (1933), and "I'd Rather Be Right" (1939). Among his most celebrated songs are "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Mary's a Grand Old Name," "Give My Regards to Broadway," and the tune that became a virtual anthem for Americans during the First World War, "Over There." His career was further memorialized in the 1968 stage musical "George M!"

But don't get me wrong. There's more to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" than a great performance by Cagney and a few great songs. There's a great story, too, and a great supporting cast. Cohan's wife, Mary, is played with innocent charm by Joan Leslie; his father, Jerry, is played in bravura style by Walter Huston; his mother Nellie by Rosemary DeCamp; and his sister, Josie, by Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney. Then, there's Richard Whorf as Cohan's partner, Sam Harris; Irene Manning as the prima donna singing star Fay Templeton; George Tobias as the money man, Dietz; S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall as Schwab, another money man; Eddie Foy, Jr., as his own father, fellow song-and-dance man Eddie Foy; and Captain Jack Young as President Roosevelt. It's a formidable group of veteran character actors who surround Cagney in exemplary fashion, yet, as I say, it's really Cagney's picture despite the fine support. He's so amazingly dynamic, he overshadows everyone around him.

Then there's Michael Curtiz. Yes, THE Michael Curtiz, possibly the most overlooked great director in screen history. His resume of thirties, forties, and fifties films looks like a playlist of Hollywood's Golden Age, with things like "The Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Captain Blood," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Angels With Dirty Faces," "The Sea Hawk," "Casablanca," "Life With Father," "Night and Day," "Mildred Pierce," "Jim Thorpe--All-American," and "White Christmas" among many others to his credit. He was every bit as versatile as Cagney when it came to picture making. With Curtiz at the helm, you could expect at the very least a competent product and more often than not a superior work. With "Yankee Doodle Dandy" he created yet another classic.

Oh, and if you're not a musical fan, don't worry about the actors suddenly breaking out into song and dance at the drop of a hat. All of the singing and dancing is done on stage or during a number's composition, in perfectly natural and realistic surroundings. So younger audiences won't feel uncomfortable, for example, when Cagney sings "Mary" because it's done at the time of its writing at the piano and directed toward his wife.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" came at the right time for the right audience. It was a patriotic movie at the beginning of the most monumental conflict the country would ever face, World War II. But for me, the best and most touching scenes in the film are not simply the big, patriotic production numbers. They are, in addition, a couple of moments that come at the very end: First, when Cagney's Cohan briefly dances down the White House stairs; it lasts for mere seconds yet remains in memory forever. And then, outside the White House watching a parade go by, when he's not recognized and asked to join in a chorus of "Over There." A soldier turns to him and says, "What's the matter, old-timer, don't you remember this song?" There was a time when Cohan would have answered smugly, "I wrote it." Instead, he sings along with a tear in his eye. Sweet.

Video:
The 1.33:1, Academy-ratio, black-and-white image is near perfect, insofar as the transfer is concerned. Warner Bros. appear to have been working with an excellent print, and age spots and scratches are almost nonexistent. Only in a few brief instances did I notice any signs of deterioration, and it was so minor as to be inconsequential. Delineation is probably as good as it ever was when the film was new, but the B&W contrasts are sometimes not as well defined as they might be, looking a mite washed out on occasion, especially in brightly lit scenes. Mostly, though, this is a clear, unblemished picture.

Audio:
The sound is obviously vintage monaural, but the Dolby Digital, single-channel remastering cleans it up considerably, rendering it smoother than it might have been when first recorded. Like the picture quality, the audio is flattering and easy on the ear. The musical numbers are well executed sonically, lacking the depth and breadth that stereo would have provided, of course, but smooth and agreeable. Only in the loudest passages does the sound become slightly edgy, but it's not at all distracting. Moreover, it remains dead quiet at normal levels and conveys dialogue as well as music with a natural and realistic, albeit somewhat limited, tonal balance. In short, it's mono, but it's good mono.

Extras:
With "Yankee Doodle Dandy" Warner Bros. produce a two-disc set worthy of the title "special edition." Disc one alone might be labeled a special edition by some studios, it contains so much material. First, there's the standard screen presentation of the movie itself, with its Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack. Next, there's a full-feature audio commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer. After that is a Warner Night at the Movies, introduced by Leonard Maltin, that includes a "Casablanca" theatrical trailer; a patriotic short subject, "Beyond the Line of Duty"; and a Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Bugs Bunny Get the Boid." Finally, there are a generous thirty-eight scene selections and a James Cagney trailer gallery with trailers for seven of the actor's most-famous films. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Disc two, as expected, is where the real background material lies. Here, you'll find first a forty-six minute documentary, "James Cagney: Top of the World," made in 1992 and hosted by Michael J. Fox. Then, you'll find a new, forty-four minute, making-of documentary, "Let Freedom Sing! The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy." Both documentaries feature interviews with practically everyone who ever knew or worked with the actor. Next, you get a five-minute reminiscence, "John Travolta Remembers James Cagney," who explains to us how he has always tried to emulate Cagney as an actor and entertainer. This is followed by a 1943 inspirational wartime short film starring Cagney, "You, John Jones," directed by Mervyn LeRoy. After that is a 1942 "Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater radio production of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," with most of the movie's cast recreating their famous roles, plus a selection of audio-only outtakes and rehearsals for the movie. Lastly, there are two classic WB cartoons, "Yankee Doodle Bugs" and "Yankee Doodle Daffy"; and a whole series of galleries for dressed-set photos, scene concept drawings, publicity materials, and sheet music.

Parting Thoughts:
Cagney is often thought of today as merely one of the movie's little tough guys, but, in fact, he was one of the most versatile actors the screen has ever produced. He played in gangster movies and romances, musicals and Shakespeare with equal ease. In "Yankee Doodle Dandy" he reached the apex of his career, putting everything together--comedy, drama, singing, and dancing--in a film that still delights audiences young and old. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is an American success story, and a great piece of entertainment.

"Ladies and gentlemen: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you." --James Cagney, "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
6
Extras
9
Film Value
9