There is a story that James Cagney stood on his toes while acting, believing he would project more energy that way. That sounds like a press release, but whatever he did, Cagney came across as one of the most dynamic performers in movie history--a short man with ordinary looks whose coiled tension made him the focus of every scene.
He's best known for the gangster roles he played in the 1930s, a decade when he averaged almost four films a year for Warner Bros. From “Public Enemy” (1931, with its famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene) to “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), he was Hollywood's leading crime star--even at the studio that also had Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart under contract. But he didn't win his Oscar until 1942, when he played Broadway showman George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Maybe that was because Hollywood doesn't like to honor actors playing bad guys (Cagney was nominated but didn't win in 1938, as a gangster in “Angels With Dirty Faces”). Maybe it was because the nation was newly at war in 1942, and happy to honor a patriotic biopic about the composer of “It's a Grand Old Flag.” Or maybe it was because Cagney threw himself into the role with such complete joy.
Audiences didn't expect to see Cagney singing and dancing. He'd been a hoofer in his stage days, but danced only once in a major film (“Footlight Parade,” 1933). Now he had the lead in the life story of one of the most famous song and dance men of his day--a role everybody knew Fred Astaire had turned down.
Cagney wasn't a dancer by Astaire's standards, or a singer by anybody's, but he was such a good actor he could fake it: “Cagney can't really dance or sing,” observes the critic Edwin Jahiel, “but he acts so vigorously that it creates an illusion, and for dance-steps he substitutes a patented brand of robust, jerky walks, runs and other motions.”
You can sense that in an impromptu scene near the end of the movie. Cagney's Cohan is walking down a marble staircase at the White House when he suddenly starts tapping and improvises all the way to the bottom. Cagney later said he dreamed that up five minutes before the scene was shot: “I didn't consult with the director or anything, I just did it.”
What's he doing at the White House? The movie is told in one of the most implausible flashbacks in the history of musical biographies--a genre famous for the tortured ways it doubles back to tell showbiz stories. As the movie opens, Cohan has been called out of retirement to star as Franklin D. Roosevelt in “I'd Rather Be Right,” a Broadway musical hailing the president as war clouds gathered. He gets a telegram summoning him to the White House, and arrives on foot, drenched, late at night. He's shown into the Oval Office, where an over-the-shoulder shot of FDR identifies him by his cigarette holder. The president says he remembers seeing “The Four Cohans” in Boston 40 years earlier.
“I was a pretty cocky kid in those days,” Cohan muses. “Pretty cocky kid ... “
That sets off an entire film of flashbacks, narrated by Cohan, as he tells the president his life story. How he was born on the Fourth of July (“I was 6 before I realized they weren't celebrating my birthday”). How he began as a child star, touring with his parents, Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie (Rosemary De Camp), and his sister, Josie (Jeanne Cagney, Cagney's own sister). How he got a swelled head after starring in “Peck's Bad Boy,” and how while still a teenager he played his own mother's father on the stage.
That memory sets up a famous sequence, as a young fan named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to get advice from the apparently bearded and ancient Cohan, who continues the deception until suddenly breaking into a frenzied dance. She shrieks as he takes off his makeup (in showbiz, he tells her, “you'll have to get used to false eyebrows”) and soon he's writing a hit song for her (“Mary”) and they're getting married.
These are all of course staples of showbiz biography--reality turned into myth, if not into press releases. Today's biopics focus on scandal and Freudian gloom, but in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” everything is upbeat, and even George's marriage proposal is couched in showbiz dialogue. No wonder that when the aging George M. Cohan himself was shown the movie, he liked it. (According to historian Jay Robert Nash, his response was right in character: “Cohan grinned, shook his head, and paid the inimitable Cagney his highest compliment: `My God, what an act to follow!' “)
It was. As Pauline Kael said of Cagney, “Though he was born in 1899 and is somewhat portly here, he is so cocky and sure a dancer that you feel yourself grinning with pleasure at his movements. It's quite possible that he has more electricity than Cohan himself had.” Unlike Astaire, whose entire body was involved in every movement, Cagney was a dancer who seemed to call on body parts in rotation. When he struts across the stage in the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number, his legs are rubber but his spine is steel, and his torso is slanted forward so steeply we're reminded of Groucho Marx.
There are two currents to the story: patriotism and success. Cohan sees himself as a flag-waver, and the critics attack him for writing only lightweight musical comedies. Stung, he writes a serious play, but when it flops he apologizes and returns to what his fans demand: sentiment, silliness and rousing nationalism. (Ironically, two of his lyrics supplied the titles for anti-war films: “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Johnny Got His Gun.”)
Every scene follows the themes. He tries to enlist for World War I, is rejected for being too old, and protests, “This war is a coffee klatsch compared to what I go through in the course of a musical show.” He does a tap dance in the recruiting office to demonstrate what he means, walks outside and catches two notes from a marching band. And then, in one of those fantasies of creation so beloved in films about musicians, he sits on an empty stage with a piano and doodles with the notes until he discovers the opening for “Over There.”
The movie hurries from one obligatory scene to the next: retirement of parents, offscreen deaths of mother and sister, onscreen death of father (Walter Huston goes out on a good exit line) and a montage of marquees from his hit shows. Finally comes the White House visit and, after Cohan has told the patient FDR his entire life story, a private presentation of the Medal of Honor.
There's little that's really original in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which was directed by Michael Curtiz, the gifted Warners workhorse whose credits included “Casablanca,” also released in 1942. The cinematography, by the legendary James Wong Howe, uses the elegant compositions of figures that were common at the time, and the staging includes two numbers where big studio treadmills are used to move groups of extras, or keep them marching in place.
But the greatness of the film resides entirely in the Cagney performance. Even Walter Huston, one of the finest character actors of the era, is confined by routine material. There is a sudden chemistry in a sequence involving Fay Templeton, as a Broadway star Cohan wants to work with (the relatively unknown Irene Manning is stunning in the role). But mostly it's bio by the numbers--except for Cagney's electricity.
He doesn't dance so much as strut; he doesn't act so much as sell you his desire to entertain. In dialogue scenes, when other actors are talking, his eyes dart across their faces, silently urging them to pick up the energy; he's like Michael Jordan impatiently willing his co-stars to keep up with him. And when he's in full sail, as in “Give My Regards to Broadway” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” it's like regarding a force of nature.