“Yankee Doodle Dandy” won three Academy Awards including Best Actor James Cagney, Best Music and Best Sound and is listed as #100 on AFI's 100 Best Films of All Time.
After production of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had already commenced, the bombing of Pearl Harbor seemed to imbue the cast and crew with added determination to make a patriotic film that would motivate the United States, from a shocked nation, to a mobilized force, during World War II. Though a classic flag-waving musical of the Forties, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is also a piece of history from a dark time capsule, and Warner Bros have wisely chosen to raid their archives in search of extras that not only appeal to fans of the classics, but explain the historical subtext that dominated composer/dancer/director/producer George M. Cohan himself, as he progressed from vaudeville to a Broadway star, while war crept up the horizon.
This is an exceptionally well-produced DVD set in that regard, organizing the extra features so fans can experience a night at the movies, Forties-style, with vintage shorts and subjects (with an intro by Leonard Maltin) before the film proper; and Rudy Behlmer's typically informative commentary, that bridges film facts with the more serious WW2 details that resonate in Disc 2's extras. See the movie first, then learn a little.
Behlmer's track is fairly consistent, and there's less overlap between materials on both discs. Focusing more on the production minutia – sets, costumes, and actor portraits, for example – it's a good production overview by the author of “Inside Warner Bros.”
The bio and war topics lead into the 1992 documentary “James Cagney: Top of the World” that heads Disc 2. Produced by Turner Pictures and hosted by Michael J. Fox, it's one of the better star bios, and gives a good portrait of an actor who began as a song and dance man, yet gained tremendous fame playing gangsters and thugs during the Thirties. Fighting studio head Jack L. Warner in the courts, Cagney not only won better salaries and roles, but co-founded the Screen Actor's Guild with his colleagues after the brutal hours that dominated the production schedules of early films.
Cagney's union support and liberal leanings later brought him to the attention of Communist witch hunters, and after a vindicative tete-a-tete, influential brother and manager William Cagney suggested the next best move was to make the most patriotic film to wipe away the HUAC grime.
“Let Freedom Sing!” takes up Cagney's involvement with George M. Cohan's story, and while a pivotal figure – along with brother William – in this making-of documentary, Cagney's limelight in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is shared with co-star Joan Leslie, and multiple historians and colleagues. The bare facts are delivered in a lightly-paced series of segments that move from Cohan's life through production, and the film's enduring legacy with staunch patriots and Cagney fans.
John Travolta's inclusion in this set seems a bit off at first, until the articulate actor explains his childhood idolization of the film, enhanced by round-the-clock TV airings. When he became an international star after “Saturday Night Fever,” Travolta pushed and succeeded in meeting his idol, and ultimately enjoyed a 5-year friendship with the retired “actor's actor,” and expert hoofer.
Like other two-disc “Special Editions” from Warner Bros, two vintage themed cartoons have been included, and a rather visceral WW2 propaganda short as well. Whereas the cartoon “Yankee Doodle Daffy” contains blatant war cheer in the final half, “You, John Jones” has Cagney playing an air raid warden called to duty one night. Thanking God for sparing the U.S. from enemy bombings, “Big Buddy” speaks from the Heavens, and Cagney sees his daughter in various traumatic scenarios. Though designed as a sympathy piece for suffering allies, the religious aspects are really jarring, and the daughter's patriotic speech that bookends the short really packs a punch. It's a fascinating work of wartime ephemera that exemplifies not only the theatrical program material of the time, but a kind of overt propaganda no longer practiced in the more culturally diverse present day.
Filling the up the DVD are several musical rehearsal outtakes with Cagney and cast, plus a rare radio adaptation of the film, starring Cagney and musical goddesses Rita Hayworth, and Betty Grable.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan