Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray Review: You're a Grand Old Film

James Cagney gets born of the fourth of July for the Warner Archive's dynamic HD release of the already exceptional George M. Cohan biopic.
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Generally, as I have pointed out in a previous article, biographical motion pictures are something of specialty items - usually commissioned, produced and released in order to cash-in on the death of a celebrity. But in the instance of 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy, we have a biopic that is a whole different affair altogether. Although the subject of the picture itself, the iconic patriotic American Broadway composer/playwright/performer George M. Cohan - conceived and brought to the attention of studio executives by the man himself (!) - was still alive at the time the film was made, he did not fall under the "and well" part that sometimes precedes the declaration of one's existence.

In fact, Cohan was on the verge of leaving Broadway for good in order to begin appearing on that great big stage in the sky due to an unbreakable contract with abdominal cancer. So, unlike most biographies, Cohan himself was able to not only serve as a technical adviser for Yankee Doodle Dandy (when he was able to), but also had the privilege of seeing the film's final cut before he passed away five short months after the premiere. In fact - despite the many historical inaccuracies within the confines of the film (done to make the movie play out in a more "believable" dramatic form), reports state that Mr. Cohan was so delighted with his new on-screen portrayal by former tough guy James Cagney, declaring "My God, what an act to follow!" upon viewing the completed Warner Bros. wartime project. (And boy, was he ever right.)

Of course, the wartime setting marks another intriguing aspect of this motion picture. Production for the film had already started before the events of December 7, 1941 took place (you know, the whole "day which will live in infamy" thing?), so the cast and crew of the movie decided they could do no harm in transforming the project - ever so slightly - into a patriotic piece for an American public who had had their entire world turned on its axis (sorry). Fortunately, the propaganda is subdued just enough that it never rubs itself in your face (unlike a few Olivia de Havilland features I watched recently); instead giving the story to actually rely on its story. It's shocking, I know, but it's true in this instance.

When an elder George M. Cohan makes a comeback to Broadway as President Roosevelt in the 1942 debut of Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right, he is summoned to the White House to visit the man in the Oval Office himself. Fearful his portrayal of FDR on stage may have upset him, a very anxious George begins to tell the President about his life. Born on the fourth of July to established vaudeville performers Jerry and Mary Cohan (Walter Huston and Joan Leslie, respectfully), George and his future sister Josie (played here by Cagney's real life baby-sister, Jeanne) establish themselves as the well-known touring act The Four Cohans. They're all-American. Happy. Content. But George wants to do more, feeling his composing/writing talents aren't being exercised to their fullest - and his stubbornness frequently negates proposed seasonal contracts the family troop.

When a chance encounter to crash the private meeting of a young playwright named Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) enables George to sell his new lavish musical revue, the partnership of Cohan & Harris takes off. Soon, the pair if producing one hit after another. The stage is in his heart as he composes "Give My Regards to Broadway". The nation is at his feet as he writes such patriotic tunes as "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There" - the latter of which becomes a standard for both World Wars. Yes, George is certainly on his way to fulfilling a legacy, wherein he will someday become known as The Man Who Owned Broadway. It's a keeper, kids (even with that minstrel show scene in there!).

Rosemary DeCamp is Cagney's faithful and wise wife, Irene Manning has a bit as Broadway star Fay Templeton, regular Cagney co-star George Tobias plays a producer who later regrets his own bullheadedness, Douglas Croft is a young George M. Cohan (Croft had also played a young Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees and was cinema's very first Robin, the Boy Wonder in the very racist Batman from 1943 shortly before disappearing from film altogether a few years later), and Eddie Foy, Jr. has a delightful bit with Cagney's Cohan as wisecracking Eddie Foy, Sr. (Cagney would appear again as Cohan thirteen years later alongside Bob Hope in The Seven Little Foys as a pro bono favor to the late Foy himself.)

While just about any other movie about a Broadway legend that contained its fair share of singing and dancing numbers, propaganda, and that "based on a true story" brouhaha I have learned to loathe so much would have me running, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a film that breaks all of the rules usually found in films of the same ilk. It takes itself seriously, passionately delivering its drama (go on, try not to cry when Cagney visits his dying father, I dare you), but it also knows how to liven the darkening of the light (not an intentional Concrete Blonde reference, I swear) with a well-placed, rousing number (which, fortunately, are set on the stage, so they don't come off as "fantasy") and some fine humor (such as Cagney's wonderful, impromptu descent on the White House staircase).

Replete with many a familiar face from yesteryear (including Frank Faylen, Ann Doran, Fred Kelsey, George Meeker, Ward Bond, and many more), Yankee Doodle Dandy is truly one of those movies you can shed a tear over for not only its dramatic value, but the fact that we may never see motion pictures like this again. It's an excellent example of a bygone age, and this Warner Archive Blu-ray release wisely carries over the Warner Night at the Movies option from the 2003 Special Edition DVD release, wherein viewers can opt to watch the movie after an accompanying trailer (Casablanca), newsreel, short film (an unmistakable WWII propaganda piece narrated by Ronald Reagan), and Merrie Melodies cartoon (Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid) too! The Warner Night at the Movies version is introduced by Leonard Maltin, who informs his audience what they're about to see in another fine example of a bygone age.

Also included on this Blu-ray are other highlights from the 2003 DVD, including a very meticulously researched audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; a Turner Entertainment-made making-of on the film; a brief and rather forgettable interview with John Travolta (made as the fallen star was filming Ladder 49), who struck up a friendship with an elusive James Cagney in the late actor's final years solely because Travolta was also a dancer. A weird, creepy wartime propaganda short entitled You, John Jones casts star Cagney as a volunteer air raid warden who realizes how good he - and especially his on-screen daughter - have it as "God" keeps giving him horrible glimpses of what his little girl's fate would be if they lived elsewhere in the world! Talk about another shining example of a bygone age.

One Warner Bros. cartoon is simply not enough, and the Warner Archive's Blu-ray of Yankee Doodle Dandy gives us an HD look at the Looney Tunes classic, Yankee Doodle Daffy. The disc concludes with the film's theatrical trailer, a selection of audio outtakes (rehearsals, demos, etc.), and a chapter menu page has been added so fans of the film and its numbers can jump to the movie's showstopping song and dance moments. And while all that might be enough to sell you right then and there, please permit me to state that the video and audio presentations on this Blu-ray are absolutely outstanding, and offer up a superb upgrade to the old Standard Definition release.

Highly recommended.

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