erik lundegaard

Sunday July 04, 2021

Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Do we have Martin Dies and the aptly named John L. Leech to thank for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?

Dies (pronounced “Dees”) was a U.S. congressman from Texas, who, from 1937 to 1944, chaired the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, also known as the Dies Committee, which was the predecessor to HUAC. Leech was a government witness for Dies who accused James Cagney and more than 40 Hollywood artists and artisans of being communists. His accusations made the front page of The New York Times in mid-August 1940. A week later, the stars were cleared … on pg. 21 of the Times. 

So who exactly was John L. Leech and why did he say these terrible things about Jimmy Cagney? I spent a recent weekend doing a deep dive on newspapers.com trying to figure it out. It’s quite the journey.

In the early ’30s, Leech twice ran for political office in Los Angeles on the communist ticket, got swamped both times, then showed up a few years later in Portland, Ore., working as a house painter while acting as a government witness in the deportation hearing of west coast labor leader Harry Bridges, whom Leech accused of being a communist. It was a huge story in the summer of 1939. In the end, Bridges won the case, while the dean who adjudicated, James M. Landis, had strong words about Leech:

“It is impossible accurately even to summarize this day and a half of testimony by Leech. In evasion, qualification, and contradiction it is almost unique. Its flavor cannot be conveyed by a few scattered abstracts from the record, for the evasions are truly labyrinthine in nature.”

Apparently to Martin Dies, this meant someone he could work with. Just a year later came the headlines accusing Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Jean Muir, Fritz Lang, Clifford Odets, and many others of being communists. In his testimony, Leech said that Cagney was both a Communist Party member and contributor, who, since 1934, was so important he dealt directly with the central committee. Leech also said Bogie attended communist study groups and contributed $150 a month. The reaction from the stars was swift. “I have never contributed money to a political organization of any form,” Bogart said. “That includes Republican, Democratic, Hollywood Anti-Nazi League or the Communist party.” He then asked for the chance to face his accuser. Frederic March said the same. “Mr. Leech is an unmitigated liar. … I will welcome the opportunity to meet Mr. Leech face to face and call him a liar.”

William Cagney spoke for Jimmy:

“As his brother and manager I say that Jimmy is not a Communist, never was a Communist, and never will be a Communist. Neither is he in sympathy with the Communist cause in any way whatsoever. … He did give a donation six years ago for food and clothing to the starving women and children who were the innocent victims of the San Joaquin Valley cotton strike. This was purely a humanitarian gesture, as are his contributions to the Community Chest, the Red Cross, the Motion-Picture Relief Fund and other deserving groups.”

Bogie was the first to get his name cleared, followed by March. A few days later, despite a lifelong fear of flying, Cagney made a cross-country planetrip to meet Dies in San Francisco and get the all-clear sign. In all, everyone Leech accused but one (Lionel Stander) was cleared. Think of that. There were communists in Hollywood, particularly among screenwriters, but Leech’s scattershot accusations only managed to net one. Leech was not just a rat, he was a dirty rat. He accusations were filled with lies.

And he kept doing it! That’s the amazing thing. In a 1944 congressional race, some of Leech’s previous testimony—accusing  U.S. Rep. Franck R. Havenner of communist ties—surfaced. Havenner still won his election but it smarted, and in office he denounced Leech’s testimony as “malicious perjury,” called the now-defunct Dies Committee a “star chamber,” and demanded Leech be subpoenaed for questioning. Didn’t happen. Instead, HUAC was formed, and in a few years it would make the Dies committee look like pikers.

Meanwhile, Leech kept going. In May 1949, his name surfaced as a government witness in deportation hearings in LA. Two months later, he’s the government witness in deportation hearings in Seattle. A year after that, it’s back to LA for more scare headlines and deportation hearings. Almost no newspaper mentioned his previous discredited testimony.

But someone finally called him on his shit. On May 9, 1951, the Spokesman-Review printed a small AP story about Jacob Kaufmann of Spokane, Wash., who had been ousted from the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America for alleged communist ties. He was now suing his union for libel, and one member, John L. Leech, for slander. The following year, Kaufmann was publicly cleared of all allegations, and Leech was forced to sign an affidavit stating that Kaufmann was not a communist “and statements made linking him to Moscow were due to mistaken identity.” Then this:

Kaufman, whose slander suit against John L. Leech as the outgrowth of the charges was settled out of court after the plaintiff’s testimony was completed in a Superior Court trial last month, also is to receive a nominal sum for damages.

John L. Leech spent more than a decade accusing powerful labor leaders, politicians and Hollywood stars of having communist ties, and he kept getting away with it and getting away with it. And then a house painter brought him down.

Anyway, back to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

In 1940, Bill Cagney was rattled enough by the bad publicity surrounding Leech’s accusations that he went looking for vehicles to wash away the taint from his brother. And along came this biopic about the flag-wavingest song-and-dance man to ever hit the Great White Way. And he was Irish to boot.

For a time, the biopic property was with Samuel Goldwyn Co., with Fred Astaire—Cohan’s choice—considered for the lead. After Astaire passed, and the project went to Warner Bros., Cagney was suggested. “Cagney? The gangster guy?” Cohan supposedly said. “Can he dance?” Told he could, he asked if he could sing. “Not much, but neither could you.”

Believe it or not, Cagney had his problems with the project, too. He was a strong union man—a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, its president in 1942—while Cohan had refused to join Actors Equity, and as a producer opposed a 1919 strike by the group. When Cagney got past that, he had a problem with the original screenplay by Robert Buckner—not funny enough, he said—and demanded that the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who had done such good work on “The Strawberry Blonde,” punch it up.

Eventually, with Warners pushing, and brother Bill pulling, Cagney agreed to star in what he’d always wanted to star in: a big-budget musical. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, won him his only Oscar, and in 2007 was voted by the American Film Institute as the 98th greatest Hollywood film of all time.

And all because of a dirty rat.

Such, such are the joys
I’m curious how the original script ended. In the final version, FDR gives George M. Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor—“the first person of your profession to receive this honor”—Cohan does a jaunty wing-step down the White House stairs, then walks out into the D.C. night, where a parade is going by: new recruits for World War II singing Cohan’s WWI hit “Over There.” He joins the marching but not the singing. One soldier, calling him “Old Timer,” asks if he doesn’t remember the song. “Seems to me I do,” Cohan replies. “Well, I don’t hear anything,” the guy responds. So Cohan starts singing, tears in his eyes. And ours.

But this couldn’t have been the ending in the original script. Production began Dec. 3, 1941, four days before Pearl Harbor, and five days before we declared war on Japan. Warner Bros. was the first studio to pull out of Germany and the first to make real anti-Nazi movies, but even with that pedigree I can’t imagine they’d end a movie with contemporary U.S. soldiers singing “Over There!” if we weren’t already at war.

I admit I have trouble being impartial about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I saw it as a kid on TV some weekend afternoon in the ’70s and fell in love. I wasn’t the only one. When he was 5, John Travolta watched it on “The Million-Dollar Movie” on local New York TV, and became so enamored of the film and its star that his mother used to get him to do his chores by telling him Jimmy Cagney was on the phone telling him to do them.

That said, the movie is a little cornball. I have less trouble with the flag-waving than with all the talk about “the people” and their wisdom: “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like” kind of stuff. The female lead, Joan Leslie, all of 16 when production began, is so sweet it makes your cheeks hurt, while the FDR portrayal is overdone and stentorian. Then there’s the racial matters: the Cohans doing a number in blackface; the quiet black servants constantly waiting on the white stars; and the Negro spiritual during the superpatriotic “George Washington Jr.” None of it has aged well.

But it’s got Cagney in Cohan numbers, and that makes it worth it. The centerpiece of the film, the “Little Johnny Jones” production on Broadway in 1904, which made a huge star out of Cohan, kills me every time. I get such joy watching it. Watching him. Cagney lights up and lights us up. Most people assume the way Cagney dances here is the way he normally danced, but it’s not. He’s imitating Cohan. He’s acting the dance.

It is amusing to think about the story told in “Little Johnny Jones.” An American jockey goes to London to win the English Derby Cup but loses so badly everyone assumes he threw the race. Eventually he’s cleared, which is another light-up moment, and the play’s happy ending. But doesn’t that mean he was just … bad? Our happy ending is that Little Johnny Jones isn’t a cheat, he’s just overrated.

(The real Cohan musical was more complicated and melodramatic, involving a girlfriend, a San Francisco gambler, and kidnapping. Cohan based it on Tod Sloan, a flashy, well-dressed—thus: “dandy”—American jockey who popularized the modern forward-riding style, became an international celebrity, and was invited to England to race for the stable of the Prince of Wales—eventually Edward VII. A year later, Sloan was accused of betting on his own races, there was no flare exonerating him, and despite scant evidence he was banned from the sport in both Britain and the U.S. for life. Secondary careers, including in Hollywood, never took off. He went broke in the 1910s and died in 1933, age 59.)

I’m also amused by the framing device for the film. Cohan, long retired to the family farm, has returned to the stage as FDR in the triumphant Rodgers, Hart and Kaufman musical “I’d Rather Be Right,” which debuted in 1937 though the movie makes it contemporary. Amid post-show banter he gets a telegram from the big man himself, asking him to the White House, and he assumes he’s in trouble. Of course not. It’s the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he doesn’t get that until the end of the movie. First, he tells the president—who, remember, is presiding over a country that’s just entered a world war—his entire life story. One can’t help but wonder if FDR ever snuck a glance at his watch.

We see Cohan’s birth on the Fourth of July (in reality, a day earlier), then his early, bratty days. He performs the song his father, Jerry (Walter Huston) has sung, an Irish ditty called “Keep Your Eyes Upon Me,“ at age 7, played by Henry Blair. Better is when he progresses to pre-teen world and is played by curly-haired Douglas Croft. Neither boy tries to do a Cagney the way Frankie Burke did in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (and, to a lesser extent, the way Frankie Darro managed in “The Public Enemy” before the roles were switched), but Croft is excellent both on stage in “Peck’s Bad Boy” and backstage as the little diva who gets a licking from the Brooklyn kids, then from his father after his vanity ruins a high-paying vaudeville gig.

(Croft is his own sad story. In 1942 alone, he played boyhood versions of Gary Cooper (“Pride of the Yankees”), Ronald Reagan (“Kings Row”), Glenn Ford (“Flight Lieutenant”) and Cagney. A year later, he became the first cinematic Robin, the Boy Wonder, in the Columbia movie serial “Batman.” Then he served in WWII, technician 5th grade, suffered a motorcycle accident in 1947, and doesn’t have a credit after that. He died in 1963, from acute alcohol intoxication and liver disease, age 37.)

That spanking from his dad is supposed to set Georgie right but it never does. Cohan remains cocky—but now with the Cagney twinkle—and his ego keeps losing the family gigs. He’s basically Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey from “Tootsie” but suffering from vanity rather than perfectionism. At their boarding house, overhearing he’s a liability, he pretends he’s just sold a musical and urges mom, dad and sis (Jeanne Cagney) to go on the road themselves. It all works out because he keeps meeting cute: his future wife, Mary, who thinks he’s the old man he’s been playing onstage; and his future partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), when the two scam Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) into backing “Little Johnny Jones.” It’s an odd scam. Harris is pitching a play Schwab isn’t interested in, Cohan interrupts, pretends to be Harris’ partner, and pretends they have a meeting with another money-man about his play—which is exactly the kind of thing Schwab is looking for. So wouldn’t it make more sense for Cohan to pitch “Little Johnny Jones” himself? Without the subterfuge? As a kid, I always enjoyed their friendship but as an adult I keep thinking, “What does Sam Harris do exactly?”

For the record
Should we talk about the songs? As a kid, I always loved the “Harrigan” number he and Mary perform, to no avail, before Dietz and Gotz. It’s an Irish song, about an Irish man, with Cagney turning the Irish up to 11. I just remember being thrilled. I loved “Mary,” too, and often helplessly sing it in my head when I meet a Mary. I like the rhythms and rhymes in the opening stanza of “Yankee Doodle,” and I like how Cagney comes in a beat behind for the first chorus. “Over There” is rousing but “Grand Old Flag” was never my bag—although “emblem of/land I love” scans well. And the song has obviously lasted.

The brunt of the movie contains three big musicals from Cohan’s heyday: “Little Johnny Jones” (which includes “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”); “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (the title song, “Mary Is a Grand Old Name”); and “George Washington Jr.” (“Grand Old Flag”). Between the first and second musical we get Cohan’s marriage to Mary and the wooing of actress Fay Templeton (Irene Manning), and between the second and third we get the comic back-and-forth between Cohan and theatrical rival Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.). Warners was grooming Manning to be a star, so she gets a lot of screen time, but I’m not sure “Yankee Doodle” served her well. We wind up not liking her much. Cohan, the biggest thing on Broadway, has to come hat-in-hand to her? And she turns him down and insults him? Then she insists on singing “Mary,” which he’d written for his wife? Plus the ”Forty-Five Minutes" musical flags a bit without Cagney on stage. Manning just doesn’t have that Warners vibe. She’s more MGM.

Cohan is considered the father of the American musical so it would’ve been nice to see more of what he was displacing, and why he was considered so fresh. And shouldn’t he also be considered the father of American sampling? Many of his songs contain snatches of earlier songs. In the “Grand Old Flag” sequence alone, we hear snippets of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Was he the first to do this or was it a common practice back then?

The movie gives us a sense of why he ended, though. After WWI, there’s a nice montage—by Warners’ montage master Don Siegel—with the camera wandering around the Broadway lights in the late teens and ’20s, and landing on different Cohan musicals, from which we hear a few lines. It’s supposed to demonstrate his ubiquity but it also demonstrates his lack of range: “Nellie Kelly” sounds a bit like “Molly Malone,” which sounds a bit like “Billie,” which sounds a lot like “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.” Cohan is becoming derivative. Of himself.

If the first third of the movie is his struggle and rise, and the second third is his ascendance, the movie falters a bit with the final third, when things fall away. Sister Josie gets married and decides to leave the act, and mom and dad do the same. We get a sappy bit where Georgie makes Dad his equal partner. We get another bit where Cohan tries to write a drama and fails. Mom and Josie die off camera, the father famously on camera. (The scene brought director Michael Curtiz to tears.) Cohan and Harris part company, Cohan and Mary travel the globe, then there’s a restless retirement on the farm. Those damn kids in their jalopy stop by, like a Paleolithic version of Archie’s gang, and don’t know who he is. That’s about when Sam Harris needs help, so Cohan returns in “I’d Rather Be Right.” 

As a kid I was confused by a dancing FDR—“Didn’t they know he had polio?” I asked my father—but the number we see, Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” totally works. I particularly like the verse they added for WWII:

And for my friends in Washington who complain about the taxes
Who cares as long as we can knock the axe out of the Axis?
Don't print it—strictly off the record

I can’t forget how Lafayette helped give us our first chance
To win our fight for liberty, and now they’ve taken France
We’ll take it back from Hitler and put ants in his Japants
And that’s for the record!

On the last two lines, Cagney breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera as if he’s calling out Hitler and Tojo. I get chills watching it now. Can’t imagine how thrilling it must’ve been when the movie was released in the early, dark days of the war, when we were still slightly staggered from the sucker punch. There he was, our favorite movie tough guy, dressed as our longtime president, laying down the law. It’s moments like these that help me forgive the movie its shortcomings, and urge me to return to it again and again.

A pretty good part
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered on May 29, 1942, about a week before the Battle of Midway, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Picture, Director and Supporting Actor for Huston. It won three: Sound Recording, Musical Score, and Actor. Cagney’s acceptance speech was, like him, short and modest. 

I’ve always had the feeling ever since coming into it, that you can only be as good as the other fellow thinks you are—or, I might add, as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done, and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought: I might say it was a pretty good part. Thank you.

Some irony. Cagney had finally gotten the type of role he’d longed for at the Warners factory: not another gangster or hot-shot pilot but what he was: a song and dance man. Ever since 1938, though, he’d had an out clause in his contract. At the conclusion of any film, if he felt his relationship with the studio had become toxic, he could walk. This is what he and brother Bill did after “Yankee Doodle,” just when he and Warners had begun making beautiful music together. Shame. For five years, and four undistinguished pictures, the Cagneys were on their own. They only returned when they ran into financial trouble. His first movie back? “White Heat.” One can’t help but wonder what else they might’ve made if he’d stuck around. 

“Yankee Doodle” presages Cagney’s own retirement to his farm on Martha’s Vineyard in 1961—though I doubt, like Cohan, he was reading Variety there. Eventually Cagney was persuaded to return to work, too, for a small part in Milos Foreman’s “Ragtime.” Like Cohan’s, this return took place exactly five years before his death. “Ragtime” was 1981, Cagney died in ’86. “I’d Rather Be Right” was 1937, Cohan died on Nov. 5, 1942, age 64.

Cohan did get to see the picture before he passed. He’d long fought with Warners over what parts of his life to portray—Mary, for example, is an attempt to gloss over the fact that he had two wives, neither named Mary—but after watching the film in in his home in Monroe, New York, he cabled Cagney this simple message: “How’s my double? Thanks for a wonderful job. Sincerely, George M. Cohan.”

Posted at 08:34 AM on Sunday July 04, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s  
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