Tonight on TCM: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Tonight on TCM at 8PM Eastern, Yankee Doodle Dandy, one of the very best of Hollywood show biz bio-pics, as well as one of the best onscreen snapshots of vaudeville, directed for Warner Brothers by the great Michael Curtiz (who directed Casablanca the very same year!) 

James Cagney tears it up as his hero George M. Cohan, so right for the role in so many ways. Cagney had tap danced in vaudeville; this film is the best showcase he ever had in Hollywood for displaying those skills. His famous simple acting style was inherited from Cohan. And it is one Irish-American‘s tribute to his Irish-American spiritual forebear. Equally touching (and accurate) is Walter Huston’s portrayal of Cohan’s legendary dad Jerry, a gentle and generous pushover. Rosemary DeCamp plays his mom Nellie.

Released just as America was entering World War Two, Yankee Doodle Dandy struck the right note of patriotism at just the right time. And, amazingly, it cleaves very closely to the true story of Cohan’s life. The biggest difference being the replacement of Cohan’s real first wife Ethel Levey, with the fictional “Mary” (played by Joan Leslie), whom here becomes the inspiration for the Cohan song by the same name.

Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own dad again, and for some additional stunt casting Jeanne Cagney (Jimmy’s sister) plays Josie Cohan, George M.’s sister. The precocious Young George is played by Douglas Croft, who later went on to play Robin in the Batman serials. Minor Watson portrays E.F. AlbeeIrene Manning plays Fay Templeton; singer Frances Langford is Nora Bayes. and Richard Whorf is Cohan’s partner Sam Harris. Impressionist and radio actor Art Gilmore is the voice of FDR; Clinton Rosemond has a terrific scene as the White House butler. Gorgeous Georgia Carroll is Betsy Ross in the play-within-the-play. Also in the film: the inevitable Cuddles Sakall, Walter Catlett, Odette Myrtil, Spencer Charters, Syd Saylor, William B. Davidson, Frank Mills, Frank Faylen, and George Tobias (perhaps best remembered today as the neighbor Mr. Kravtiz on Bewitched). It’s like a 4th of July picnic of character actors!

In my house, along with 1776, Yankee Doodle Dandy has become an annual Independence Day ritual, much like The Ten Commandments for Passover/Easter, and the many Halloween and Christmas specials. Let the fireworks begin!

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,