Song of the Day #4,437: ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – James Cagney

Continuing my personal ranking of the 25 movie musicals deemed essential by the American Film Institute…

#16. Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942
(#18 on the AFI list)

I’ve gotten the most joy out of watching the older movies on AFI’s list of essential musicals. Though I didn’t plan it this way, I’ll feature six of the seven movies released before 1950 over the next six days, and every one is a treasure.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is the first James Cagney film I’ve ever seen. Prior to this, my exposure to his work was limited to the reenactment of Public Enemy staged at Disney World’s Great Movie Ride. I thought of him as an old-timey gangster, and indeed he was typecast in those roles early in his career.

But Cagney branched out into musicals and comedies and became one of the most versatile and beloved actors in old Hollywood. Watching him in this film, it’s easy to see why.

Yankee Doodle Dandy depicts the life of composer/performer George M. Cohan, a showbiz legend who produced more than 50 Broadway musicals between 1904 and 1920. The film is lightly fictionalized (shifting around some events and combining two marriages into one) but generally sticks to the facts in portraying Cohan’s rise from a child star to an American institution rewarded with the Congressional Gold Medal by FDR.

Cagney nails Cohan’s signature talk-singing style and his energetic dance moves, and turns on the charm in the dramatic scenes. This was one of the earliest biopics, and it perhaps over-flatters its subject, but the warm-heartedness is key to its appeal.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Editing, and Screenplay. It won for Best Sound and Best Score, and Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for this performance. Director Michael Curtiz lost, but won the following year for a little film called Casablanca.

[JOHNNY]
I’m the kid that’s all the candy
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
I’m glad I am

[FANS]
So’s Uncle Sam

[JOHNNY]
I’m a real live Yankee Doodle
Made my name and fame and boodle
Just like Mister Doodle did, by riding on a pony
I love to listen to the Dixie strain
“I long to see the girl I left behind me”
And that ain’t a josh
She’s a Yankee, by gosh

[FANS]
Oh, say can you see

[JOHNNY]
Anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?

[FANS]
Little Johnny Jones, the jockey from the U.S.A

[JOHNNY]
Will ride the pony Yankee Doodle English Derby Day

[FANS]
Jonesy’s broken records every track and every meet

[JOHNNY]
So Yankee Doodle’s gonna be the boy they have to beat

[FANS]
Sportsmen of the British Isles who’ve followed his career
Have offered Johnny anything to keep him over here

[JOHNNY]
But all the money in the Bank of England couldn’t pay
Enough to keep young Johnny Jones away from old Broadway

[FANS]
If you want to take a tip, the surest of sure things

[JOHNNY]
Have your houses mortgaged, hock your watches, pawn your rings

[FANS]
And put it all on Yankee Doodle, Johnny Jones is up!

[JOHNNY]
I’m gonna give America the English Derby Cup

[FANS]
He’s gonna give America the English Derby Cup

[JOHNNY]
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
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 the Yankee Doodle Boy

[FANS]
He’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle do or die
A real live nephew of his Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July
He’s got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart
She’s his Yankee Doodle joy
Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies
He is the Yankee Doodle boy

(dance break)

Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies
He is the Yankee Doodle boy

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,437: ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – James Cagney

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    I’ve never seen this movie, and I don’t recall ever actually seeing James Cagney in any movie. Given your high praise, and my general interest in biopics, I should probably remedy that.

  2. Amy says:

    Love your shout out to Cagney’s brilliant performance in The Great Move Ride. 🙂 I, too, have never seen an entire film starring Cagney (with the exception of Ragtime, though I can’t specifically recall his performance in that one). With Dana seemingly on board, looks like we might have out Friday movie picked out.

  3. Peg says:

    I remember seeing this one many years ago. I was impressed with his dancing as I never thought of him as a dancer.

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