I was not enthusiastic when my dad suggested we see Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. We were at the TCM Film Festival and I was pushing to see something else. I was finally convinced when my dad mentioned that actor Malcolm McDowell would be introducing the film.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I know McDowell spoke a lot about the genius of James Cagney. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, McDowell discussed Cagney’s influence on his life and career.

“He influences me all the time. If you love somebody that much, if you admire somebody that much, it’s sort of woven into your DNA. I don’t really have to think about it. Cagney’s just there” (McDowell).

Cagney was known for his roles as tough criminals and all around jerks.

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

That’s why Yankee Doodle Dandy was such a revelation. It was a completely different part for him. If you’re not familiar, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) follows the life of George M. Cohan, the composer, actor and producer known for patriotic songs such as “Over There” and “You’re a Grand, Old Flag.” Cohan’s family was a famous vaudeville act during the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They were called The Four Cohans. The film follows them behind the scenes in the theatre.

Here are just a few reasons watching Yankee Doodle Dandy should be on your fourth of july to-do list.


The first, and most important reason to watch this film is James Cagney’s performance. He’s energetic, sincere and absolutely brilliant. As much as I love Fred Astaire (who was also offered the role), Cagney was the only man for the part. He shined, in both the dramatic moments and the musical numbers.



In addition to Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy is filled with wonderful character actors including Joan Leslie as Mary (George’s sweetheart), Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan (George’s father) and Jeanne Cagney as Josie Cohan (George’s sister). Of course, Jeanne was actually James’s sister.

The Four Cohans: Rosemarie DeCamp, Cagney’s IRL sister Jeanne Cagney and Walter Huston


The music, written by George M. Cohan is incredible. Featuring songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Mary’s A Grand Old Name,” and “Over There,” you can’t help but tap your foot and sing along. George M. Cohan received the Gongressional Gold Medal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his composition of patriotic songs.

Here’s one of my favorite numbers, a song Cohan wrote for his wife, Mary:


The film definitely shouldn’t be categorized as a romance, but the scenes between Cagney and Joan Leslie are particularly fun. My favorite scene might be the scene when Cohan first meets Mary. Mary thinks he’s an old man (since he’s dressed like one) and he’s going along with it. To watch the scene: Being Eighteen is Very Wise



I say it’s great, but don’t take my word for it. It also won three Oscars, including Best Score and Best Actor for James Cagney. In 1974, Cagney was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. His speech is pretty great.


This is why it’s perfect viewing for Independence Day. It promotes patriotic values and is really, at its heart, about the love of a family. The scene where Cagney is at his father’s death bed is said to have been so powerful that director Michael Curtiz started balling and ruined a take.


Also, Cagney improvised one of the best moments of the film where he comes down the stairs at the White House dancing.


I’m telling you this is a good one. It’s pure fun and will make you sing the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy even if you don’t want to. It’s that powerful.

Vintage trailer below:


One thought on “The Genius of James Cagney and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’

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