It really is a treat to watch movies through Turner Classic Movies, because you often get to learn something about an older film that you would have never known any other way. In this case, by watching “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on TCM, I got to learn the real George M. Cohan had three wives, none of which were named Mary, the name of Cohan’s one wife in the movie.
One might expect me to hate the movie for that. That “Yankee Doodle Dandy” changes what happened to suits the needs of the movie. Actually, I think it gives the film character. For as much as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” wants to realistic, this is a fantasy, similar to films like “It’s A Wonderful Life” that take every-day people and put them in extraordinary situations that we would never see in life.
George Cohan’s wife being okay with her song being used in a play without her getting any credit whatsoever? That would never happen. The president sitting down with George Cohan for two hours in the Oval Office, during the middle of World War II, to talk about his life and then hand him the Congressional Medal Of Honor for singing and dancing? Sure, that is completely plausible.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The film changes so many aspects of George Cohan’s life to suit its narrative needs and adds scenes that never happened to Cohan. Keep in mind, this film came out in the midst of World War II, in fact shortly after Pearl Harbor, when the country needed a reminder that the little guy can make a big difference in the world. That if we set our minds to it, we can make the most impossible of tasks seem right within our grasps.
Overall, I loved “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for James Cagney’s performance, which is always full of energy and a constant desire to keep the show going. This is a man who gave everything to the stage because it was the best and most honest way to portray ones’ self, in front of thousands of anonymous people. It’s also a testament to the American spirit – a Irish boy, raised to believe in his country, who used little more than his wits, body and will to become not just a man, but an icon.
Final Grade: A-