James Cagney never said, “You dirty rat,” but he did "rat out" his favorite movie: “Many people assume that one of those knock-down, drag-'em-outs would be my choice. A discerning critic...can’t understand why I would choose Yankee Doodle Dandy over White Heat and The Public Enemy. The answer is simple, and it derives from George M. Cohan’s comment about himself: Once a song-and-dance man, always a song-and-dance man. In that brief statement, you have my life story; those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.”
Yankee Doodle Dandy may not have told the whole truth about Cohan – his daughter called it “The kind of life Daddy would have liked to have lived” – but its timing was impeccable. Released six months after Pearl Harbor, the country was still reeling from the sneak attack that propelled us into World War II. Moviegoers craved the upbeat songs and unabashed patriotism that the Cohan pic offered. Most of all, they were dazzled by Cagney’s image-reinventing performance, which earned him the Best Actor Oscar in 1943.
Cagney didn’t just play Cohan; he inhabited him. Having come up through vaudeville, Cagney knew some smooth moves, yet spent hours mastering Cohan’s stiff-legged dance style, tutored by Cohan’s longtime choreographer. Reportedly, Cagney broke a rib while shooting one number, but kept steppin’ until the scene was safely in the can. In his autobiography, Cagney wrote that his hard work paid off with the one viewer who mattered most: “Fortunately, before George M. died, he was able to see Yankee Doodle Dandy, and he gave it his blessing.”
Behind the scenes, associate producer Bill Cagney knew Yankee Doodle Dandy would be more than just a great gig for his big bro. Bill pursued the project, Cagney admitted, “to remove the taint that apparently still attached itself to my reputation – a reputation now scarred by my so-called radical activities in the '30s when I was a strong Roosevelt liberal. Anyone of that background was usually colored pinko in hue at the very least. Bill chose Yankee Doodle Dandy with deliberation.” Or as Bill told Cagney, “We’re going to have to make the goddamnest patriotic picture that’s ever been made.”
Because c’mon. What could be more American than a star-spangled bio of a flag-waving Broadway legend like Cohan? In addition to Cagney’s spot-on impersonation, audiences enjoyed Cohan’s most hummable hits: wartime morale-boosters like “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” plus the toe-tapping tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway.”
One of Cagney’s most memorable Cohan moments came when he tap-danced down the White House stairs after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from FDR. The award was real, but the footwork? A fictitious flourish that Cagney claims he improvised on the spot: “I didn’t think of it ‘til five minutes before I went on. And I didn’t check with the director or anything. I just did it.”
When Cagney died in 1986, Frank Sinatra praised his pal as “a feisty little chunk of America who made it to the top of the world.” Ronald Reagan, who had presented Cagney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom two years earlier, said, “Jimmy Cagney was the classic American success story, lifting himself by determination and hard work out of poverty to national acclaim. I believe the entire nation loved Jimmy Cagney, and I think he must have loved us, too, because he always gave us his very best… Goodbye, dear friend.”