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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Michael Curtiz
Cast:
James Cagney, Jeanne Cagney, Walter Huston, Frances Langford, Jane Leslie, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Richard Whorf
Writing Credits:
Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph

Tagline:
The Yankee Doodle Dandiest Entertainment of 'em all!

Synopsis:
A musical portrait of composer/singer/dancer George M. Cohan. From his early days as a child-star in his family's vaudeville show up to the time of his comeback at which he received a medal from the president for his special contributions to the United States.

MPAA:
Rated NR

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Monaural
Subtitles:
English
French
Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 125 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 9/30/2003

Bonus:
Disc One
• Audio Commentary With Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
• “Warner Night At the Movies 1942” Introduced By Leonard Maltin
• James Cagney Trailer Gallery
• Awards
• Cast & Crew
Disc Two
• “Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy” Documentary
• “John Travolta Remembers James Cagney”
You, John Jones 1943 Wartime Short Featuring Cagney
• Classic Cartoons
• Still Galleries
• “Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater Radio Show”
• Prerecording Session Outtakes and Rehearsals
• “James Cagney: Top of the World” Documentary


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RELATED REVIEWS


Yankee Doodle Dandy: Special Edition (1942)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 30, 2003)

To date, we’ve gotten 90 of the AFI’s Top 100 flicks on DVD. 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy resides at the very bottom of that chart as film #100. It also sat at or near the bottom of the movies I wanted to see. A musical biography of composer George M. Cohan didn’t exactly sound like something I’d normally want to watch. Happily, the movie proved to be surprisingly amusing and endearing.

The movie starts at approximately present day, and we see the premiere of a production called I’d Rather Be Right. This offers the return of Cohan (James Cagney) to the stage after a long absence. He plays the president in the comedic show, so when he gets a summons to come to the White House, he fears that he’s in hot water.

When he arrives, he receives a personal meeting with “the President” (a thinly disguised FDR, played by Captain Jack Young). Cohan quickly launches into a retrospective discussion of his life and career, so the film jumps back 60 years. We see that his parents Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie (Rosemary De Camp) are in show business, and Jerry rushes from a performance to witness George’s birth.

Born on the Fourth of July in 1878, the movie then moves forward to show the progress of the performing clan the 4 Cohans; that group includes younger sister Josie. 13-year-old George (Douglas Croft) proves to be the star of the show, which goes to his head and makes him cocky and bratty. Some kids beat him up and his father reprimands him, so he promises to become more modest. However, this doesn’t last, and George soon returns to his arrogant and brash self.

From there the movie follows the Cohans through the years. Eventually the adult George (James Cagney) meets an aspiring performer named Mary (Joan Leslie). The pair hit it off and become a romantic item. After a while, George starts to write his own tunes, but he does so fairly unsuccessfully until he meets another floundering artist named Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Harris can’t sell his plays because producers want songs in them, so Cohan and he hook up to integrate their works. This succeeds, and the pair become a big hit with their musicals. The rest of Dandy follows what happens to George and the rest of the Cohan family over the years up to the “present” and his meeting with FDR.

Before I watched Dandy, I worried it would provide a pandering hagiography. The prospect that Dandy would come across as sappy and purely sentimental seemed especially strong since Cohan himself remained alive at the time of his release. (Cohan died less than half a year after the flick’s June 1942 premiere.)

Happily, Dandy offers a surprisingly spunky and irreverent piece of work. The set-up seems somewhat lame and awkward, as the way it gets Cohan to tell his life story feels forced and artificial. However, the presentation of his biography quickly becomes engaging.

Much of the reason Dandy succeeds stems from Cagney’s fine, Oscar-winning performance as the lead character. Cagney seems confident and lively throughout the role, and he makes a clean departure from his typical gangster part. The actor portrays Cohan as a raging egotist but Cagney makes him charming and likable nonetheless.

As for Cagney’s singing and dancing, Gene Kelly had nothing to fear, but he handled himself fairly well. Actually, his hoofing seems pretty good, but his speak-singing comes across as somewhat awkward. At first I thought this came simply from a lack of talent, but as I explored the DVD’s extras, I found otherwise. For one, we learn that Cohan sang that way, and in addition, we hear some rehearsal renditions from Cagney that offer much stronger crooning. In any case, Cagney holds his own in the musical numbers.

One of my big fears related to Dandy came from its patriotic nature. I have a low threshold for jingoism, and given the era in which they shot Dandy, I figured it’d become pretty intolerable in that regard. However, it keeps the flag-waving from becoming excessive. Sure, we get a lot of it, but those elements seem much less heavy than I expected. In addition, Dandy largely avoids the sappy sentimentality I figured would mar it.

Instead, Yankee Doodle Dandy provided a nicely light and plucky film that seemed gleefully irreverent much of the time. It never appeared afraid to make Cohan look like a boob, though it always did so in a comedic and affectionate way. Does it represent a clear and accurate biography of the composer and performer? God, no; this is clearly a fantasy version of his life. But with results that seem so much fun, who cares?


The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B-/ Bonus A

Yankee Doodle Dandy appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the flick’s advanced age, the picture looked quite positive.

Across the board, sharpness remained solid. The movie always came across as nicely detailed and well defined. I noticed no problematic signs of softness and the film remained distinctive. No issues related to jagged edges or shimmering showed up, and only a little light edge enhancement showed up at times.

Print flaws seemed almost totally absent. The film’s natural grain appeared at an appropriate level and caused no distractions. At about the 1:19:50 mark, some light scratches briefly manifested themselves. If any other defects showed up, I failed to notice them. The movie looked wonderfully free from specks, marks, debris or other concerns. Black levels came across as terrifically deep and rich, while low-light shots were appropriately smooth and lacked any problematic denseness or muddiness. Contrast was tight and distinctive as the movie represented a fine black and white presence. Lose the minor edge enhancement and Yankee Doodle Dandy becomes a virtually flawless transfer. Even with those minor issues, it still merited an “A-“, as it seemed exceedingly strong for a film of this era.

The monaural soundtrack of Yankee Doodle Dandy didn’t live up to the standard set by the visuals, but the audio seemed fine for a movie from 1942. Speech appeared acceptably natural and distinct. I noticed no problems with edginess or intelligibility, and dialogue was fairly well reproduced, though a little thin and sibilant in general. Effects played a fairly minor role in this song and speech dominated film, but they remained reasonably accurate and without distortion or other problems. Music sounded decent but unexceptional. Louder singing tended to seem somewhat shrill and rough, but most of the songs were clean and acceptably dynamic. No problems connected to noise, hiss or other source issues appeared. Overall, the soundtrack of Dandy was a bit above average for its vintage, but it didn’t stand out as superior in that domain.

This two-DVD release of Yankee Doodle Dandy comes equipped with a nice collection of extras. On the first disc, we begin with an audio commentary from film historian Rudy Behlmer. He’s provided tracks for many different flicks, and here he offers yet another fine running, generally screen-specific discussion. This chat frequently takes the form of a production diary, really. Behlmer often tells us about the day-in, day-out experiences for each scene, and this allows him to get into many great production details. Behlmer also tells us about the various participants and explores issues such as the history behind the songs and the story, script changes and improvisation, and cast and crew interactions. It’s a lively and informative discussion that helps educate us about the film.

A creative and fun addition to the set, Warner Night at the Movies attempts to replicate the cinematic experience circa 1942. As explained via a three-minute and 15-second introduction from Leonard Maltin, this feature includes a preview for Casablanca, a flick from the same era as Dandy, plus a period newsreel, an animated short called Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid and a war-related inspirational short entitled Beyond the Line of Duty. These are the kinds of pieces that might have preceded a theatrical showing of Dandy, so if you activate this feature, you get an attempt to duplicate a night at the cinema. I like this program and think it’s quite clever. Use the “Play All” option to run each of these features and then automatically launch into Dandy.

DVD One provides a James Cagney Trailer Gallery. This provides seven promos for Cagney flicks, including one for Dandy. It’s a nice collection of trailers from a span of 18 years.

The first disc concludes with two text pieces. Awards shows some honors given to Dandy, while Cast & Crew lists a variety of main participants. The latter provides no details about the folks; it just shows their names and jobs.

Now we head to DVD Two and its surplus of extras. James Cagney: Top of the World runs 46 minutes and 30 seconds as it covers the life and career of the actor. Hosted by Michael J. Fox, it combines clips from his work, archival pieces and old comments from Cagney, and interviews with actors David Huddleston, Make Clarke, Virginia Mayo, Joan Leslie, and Jack Lemmon, screenwriter Julius Epstein, actor Pat O’Brien’s daughter Brigid O’Brien, Cagney’s daughter Casey Cagney Thomas, producer AC Lyles, and director Burt Kennedy. This program starts at the beginning and follows Cagney’s career chronologically. The presentation tends to be a little dry, but it’s a solid and reasonably complete examination of Cagney’s life.

Another documentary shows up next via Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy. This 44-minute and 30-second piece uses the standard mix of movie snippets, archival materials, and comments from actors Joan Leslie, John Travolta, and Joel Grey, producer AC Lyles, film historians Behlmer, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne, Warner Bros. art director Gene Allen, biographer David Collins, and authors John McCabe and Patrick McGilligan. It opens with a discussion of Cohan’s life and career and tells us how his story made it to the screen. It discusses why Cagney became involved, the creation of the script, Cohan’s demands for control of the flick and liberties taken, casting, notes about director Michael Curtiz and other crewmembers, plus additional elements. As with the Cagney program, “Freedom” lacks much sizzle, but it covers its subject well and gives us a solid look at the film.

More information from the actor comes up in John Travolta Remembers James Cagney. After producer AC Lyles tells us how he got Cagney to meet with the actors, the five-minute and eight-second session consists of statements from Travolta as he discusses his long-time affection for Cagney and the brief relationship they shared. It’s a sweet little remembrance of Cagney.

In the Looney Tunes domain we find two cartoons related to the flick: 1943’s “Yankee Doodle Daffy” and 1954’s “Yankee Doodle Bugs”. Other than their titles, neither really has anything to do with Dandy, though at least “Daffy” takes place in show business. It’s also the superior cartoon. “Bugs” is okay, but “Daffy” provides a very funny short.

After this we locate a live-action short from 1943 called You, John Jones. Cagney stars as the title character in this wartime flick that runs 10 minutes and 25 seconds. Jones mans an air raid station and waxes about how much he appreciates the lack of bombing on US soil. Apparently some divine power doesn’t believe him, so we see some fantasy segments that show what it’d be like for his daughter if they lived in war-torn territories. It’s an odd piece – why are they teaching John a lesson when he already is thankful and doing his part? Still, it’s a good addition to the set as a historical curiosity.

Within the Audio Vault we get two features. “Outtakes and Rehearsals” includes an unused song as well as rehearsal takes and other warm-up ditties. Cagney’s performances are interesting to hear since he actually sings the songs, unlike his talk-crooning in the final flick. Also in the “Audio Vault” we discover an October 19, 1942 broadcast as part of the “Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater” radio show. This reprises Dandy in a manner that favors its music. Cagney narrates the piece as part of his chat with FDR, and this leads into many songs. Essentially the narrative feels like a loose excuse for the crooning, and the radio show doesn’t seem terribly interesting. At least it brings back the entire original cast, which is a nice touch.

Inside the Waving the Flag Galleries we see four collections of stills. These include “George M. Cohan Sheet Music” (22 frames), “Dressed Set Stills” (26) “Scene Stills” (59) and “Publicity and Posters” (7). The “Sheet Music” area seems especially interesting, though all the areas include some good shots.

On paper, Yankee Doodle Dandy sounded like it might offer a maudlin and sappy piece of nostalgia. In reality, however, the movie proved quite winning, as it gave us a peppy and amusing take on the life of a famous composer. The film seemed well executed across the board. The DVD also appeared stellar, as it presented excellent picture, decent sound, and a great set of supplements. I never thought I’d recommend a flag-waving musical biography, but Dandy won me over and earned my praise.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1666 Stars Number of Votes: 36
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