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date: 07 July 2022

‘A Great American Service’: George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the musical biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. George M. Cohan was still alive when the movie about his life was made and his influence is seen on how it depicts aspects of his life to suit his own account of it. But the chapter also explores how the movie is a self-reflexive backstage musical and how its attention to theatrical authenticity served to deflect scrutiny from the lack of veracity in Cohan’s biography. Examples include the changing of details in scenes from the stage musicals George Washington, Jr and I’d Rather Be Right to serve the movie’s hagiographic depiction of Cohan’s life, as memorably played by James Cagney. But on the whole, the chapter reveals that fidelity was the byword in the treatment of Cohan’s musical oeuvre and the staging of musical numbers. James Cagney also took great care to capture Cohan’s renowned, distinctive dancing style; his instructor Johnny Boyle had even performed in Cohan shows and staged dances for Cohan.

Keywords: Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan, George Washington, Jr, James Cagney, I’d Rather Be Right

At the intersection of two popular film genres—the film musical and biographical motion picture, or ‘biopic’—sits the hybrid subgenre of the musical biopic, films about the life and works of musical figures like composers, performers, or music industry professionals. Biopics, generally, are a sort of film adaptation, but the source material to be adapted is not an existing work but rather a personal history. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were a way of ‘sober[ing] up’ for a film industry tired of the ‘extravagances’ of 1920s romances, scholar Richard Gustafson has speculated.1 But in merging musical and biography, musical biopics walked a middle path, promising the spectacle of entertainment as well as some semblance of authenticity. The success of The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 (about producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr) set off a craze of ‘epidemic proportions’ for these films.2 Among the subjects featured—with varying degrees of faithfulness to their actual lives—were the Austrian composer known as ‘The Waltz King,’ Johann Strauss II (The Great Waltz, 1938); American songwriters Stephen Foster (Harmony Lane, 1935 and Swannee River, 1939) and Paul Dresser (My Gal Sal, 1942); and a famous husband-and-wife ballroom dance pair (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939). Many of these musical biopics spotlighted someone from American ‘show business,’ capitalizing on a ready-made story, natural ‘backstage musical’ set-up, and already popular songs and shows.

One of the most long-lived and critically acclaimed twentieth-century musical biopics is Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) about George M. Cohan. A Warner Bros. film, Yankee Doodle Dandy was produced by Hal Wallis and associate producer William Cagney, was directed by Michael Curtiz, and starred James Cagney as Cohan, a career-defining role for which Cagney won Academy and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Cohan’s (p. 316) story offered Warner Bros. and audiences the advantages of a showbiz biopic with one of the most famous showmen in the United States, yet it was also unusual in several ways. For one thing, Cohan himself was an uncommon, even singular, Broadway theatrical figure in his manifold professional roles: he was a composer, lyricist, playwright, director, producer, and star actor to boot. His career, which started with his family’s vaudeville troupe the Four Cohans, bridged historical and theatrical eras—from the nineteenth century into the twentieth, from vaudeville to musical comedy—and he was a key figure in the transition. Cohan was also a skilled self-promoter with a distinct interest in telling his own story; his many writings included an autobiography published when he was forty-six.3 And unlike Stephen Foster or Florenz Ziegfeld Jr, long deceased when their biopics hit the screens, Cohan was still living at the time of Yankee Doodle Dandy’s writing and premiere. The film’s contract stipulated that he would be an active participant in its development and have final approval of the product.4

Moreover, Cohan’s shows and his self-constructed personal narrative had long emphasized his American identity and patriotism, themes that were particularly timely in the early 1940s as World War II loomed. Thus, the goals of biopic, backstage musical, and wartime propaganda intersect in Yankee Doodle Dandy in ways that would not have been possible with any other protagonist. This chapter explores how the film harnesses the particularities of Cohan’s story as well as the communal, nostalgia-laden mythologies typical of the Hollywood musical to unify and glorify the United States in wartime, simultaneously solidifying the reputation of Cohan as a premier patriot and helping to position the musical as the nation’s own, homespun art form.5

‘The Story of George M. Cohan by Himself’

Upon Cohan’s death in 1942, only months after the release of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the New York Times declared ‘he was patriotism on the stage’ and that he ‘almost represented the American flag.’6 While Cohan was well known in the early twentieth century, especially for such patriotic shows and songs as ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag,’ the film solidified and made immortal—through the permanent fixity of recording technology—this image of him. It was only the culmination, however, of Cohan’s extensive decades-long efforts to shape his patriotic persona through the press in an era when Gilded Age–wealth and mass circulation newspapers propelled the notion of celebrity in the United States.7

Born in 1878, Cohan was the grandson of Irish immigrants in an era when the Irish were considered racially distinct from—and inferior to—Anglo-Saxons. Both in spite of his heritage and because of it, however, he built his career on hyper-patriotic ‘flag-waving’ shows.8 As his early, turn-of-the-century songs and musicals helped define a ‘Yankee’ national identity, he simultaneously linked himself to the patriotic heroes he (p. 317) portrayed onstage. He was so successful, in fact, that (long before the biopic chose the sobriquet as its title) he became known as the ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ celebrated in one of his hit songs. Programs, advertisements, and sheet music for Cohan’s patriotic musicals abounded with national buzzwords and other signifiers. In Little Johnny Jones (1904), Cohan was billed front and centre as ‘the Yankee Doodle Comedian,’ a change of tack from his first two Broadway efforts in which The Four Cohans received joint billing.9 George Washington, Jr (1906) was advertised as either the ‘great National Song Show’ or ‘His Latest American Musical Play,’ and its sheet music sported a flag design (see Figure 14.1). The Yankee Prince (1908) was said to open its first rehearsal with the singing of ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee,’ and, building on the title of the show The American Idea (1908), Cohan sponsored a contest for the best statements of ‘what the American idea is.’10 Some critics disparaged his ‘commercializing of the flag,’ as one put it, but the tactics won ringing endorsement from the box office.11 Cohan’s output did include more than just ‘flag-waving’ shows, and the film adapts his anecdote on the point. As he tells it, when theatre magnate A. L. (‘Abe’) Erlanger asked him whether he could write a play (p. 318) without a flag, he countered, ‘I could write a play without anything but a pencil.’12 Nonetheless, his reputation for patriotism is what stuck in the public imagination.

‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Figure 14.1 Cover of the sheet music for ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ (New York: F. A. Mills, 1906) from George Washington, Jr., University of Tennessee Library, Digital Collection, Sheet Music Collection, (accessed July 26, 2018).

Cohan’s patriotic reputation was deliberately earned. A master of what today might be called personal branding, he took full advantage of the human-interest journalism that proliferated at the turn of the twentieth century. He bolstered his patriotic persona in countless interviews and articles, including, early on in his career, in The Spot Light, a bulletin ‘devoted to the interests of Geo. M. Cohan and the Cohan and Harris attractions.’ The Spot Light noted in 1905 that when Cohan ‘makes himself sing’ the line ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ in the song ‘Yankee Doodle Boy,’ ‘he is singing the truth,’ because he was indeed born on 4 July 1878.13 Historians have disputed whether he was actually born on 3 July or 4 July, but Cohan certainly embraced sharing a birthdate with the national holiday, and it proved a convenient token of authenticity.14 He attributed the shape of his career to being ‘born under the Stars and Stripes’ and even chose 4 July for his wedding date.15

By the time of Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan’s autobiography was well rehearsed and familiar, at least to fans. A series of articles in 1914 in Green Book Magazine, a theatrical periodical boasting ‘timely articles by and about prominent stage folk’ as well as coverage of motion pictures, fiction, and a ‘play of the month,’ was one of many places one could read about Cohan.16 The magazine advertised its series as ‘The Story of George M. Cohan by Himself’ (though writer Verne Hardin Porter collaborated with Cohan and delivered the first installment about his parents), and its editor’s note declared Cohan’s life story ‘the most American document we have ever read.’17 The articles emphasize his strong family ties and theatrical upbringing, address character traits like his ego (or, as he preferred to put it, ‘self-certain[ty]’), highlight his lack of formal education, and plainly acknowledge the simplicity of his methods and aims—in short, they cast Cohan as a self-made song-and-dance man.18 Cohan’s Irish background is not overlooked—the story talks about the years his father Jerry spent playing in the hibernicon, an Irish-themed moving panorama show—but his American pride is paramount.19

Cohan did his best to shape the storyline of Yankee Doodle Dandy, even offering his own screenplay at one point.20 The film’s first screenwriter Robert Buckner wrote in a memo to the executive producer, ‘The picturization of his life story is an extremely serious matter with [Cohan]. He is independent as hell about it.’21 Because of his assertive involvement in the film and because he had already so deliberately shaped his public image, it is unsurprising that the film echoes similar themes to those he had propagated.22 The film presents his life story as an extended flashback during his visit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s office, where he expects to be upbraided for his portrayal of the president in the musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937) but instead receives a Congressional Gold Medal.23 As the flashback to the year of Cohan’s birth begins, the scene shows a banner with the year 1878, and Cohan, in voiceover, describes the period as ‘the beginning of the Horatio Alger age,’ setting the scene for his own ascendance from immigrant to preeminent American, poor vaudevillian to famous actor and wealthy impresario.24

(p. 319) In keeping with Cohan’s autobiographical writings, much of Yankee Doodle Dandy focuses on Cohan’s childhood and relationships with his parents and sister. His father Jerry, mother Helen, and sister Josephine (called Josie) are central characters. As Patrick McGilligan notes in his introduction to the published screenplay, many of ‘Cohan’s anecdotes about his childhood and youth were adopted wholesale.’25 In addition, the film ignored aspects of Cohan’s life that were uncomplimentary to him or that he found objectionable for the big screen.26 He famously insisted, for example, that there be no mention of his first wife Ethel Levey and no love scenes. Levey was, indeed, omitted, as were his children by both his first and second marriages, though Cohan eventually agreed to the film’s portraying a fictionalized love interest named Mary.27 The film also avoided any mention of Cohan’s infamous hard-line stance against Actor’s Equity Union, despite its major ramifications for his life and career. According to contemporaneous biographer Ward Morehouse, Cohan’s daughter Georgette said of the film, ‘That’s the kind of a life daddy would have liked to have lived.’28

Two sequential scenes early in the film establish Cohan’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ patriotic persona: his meeting with the president and his birth, related as a flashback. In both scenes, his Americanness is linked to his Irishness, helping to solidify cultural acceptance of a dual, patriotic Irish American identity at a time when the Irish had only relatively recently been accepted as bona fide Americans.29 The scene with President Roosevelt introduces the theme of Cohan’s Irish-tinged patriotism: remembering his youth, Cohan tells the president, ‘I was a pretty cocky kid in those days—a regular Yankee Doodle Dandy. Always in a parade or following one.’ The president comments, ‘That’s one thing I’ve always admired about you Irish-Americans. You carry your love of country like a flag, right out in the open. It’s a great quality.’ As historian Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan notes, this ‘oft-repeated quote’ from the film ‘became an acknowledgement of Irish contributions to the country.’30

As in his own writings, Cohan’s 4 July birthdate is critical to his historiography, and the birth scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy forcefully establishes both George’s Irish heritage and his complementary fate as a patriotic American through closely intertwined aural and visual signifiers of Irish and US national identity. Initiating the extended flashback after the early scene with President Roosevelt, an image of Cohan in the president’s study slowly dissolves to an American flag, then the camera pans downwards to Providence, Rhode Island, amidst Independence Day celebrations. We hear, then see, a marching band playing the nineteenth-century patriotic tune ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,’ then we see a sign for the Colony Opera House showing ‘Week of July 1, 1878 / Mr and Mrs Jerry Cohan / “The Irish Darlings.”’ On the stage inside, Jerry sings and dances as Irish dancing master Larry O’Leary, costumed in breeches, a cape, and a ‘jaunty Irish hat,’ with shamrock appliqués on his hat and lapels, and carrying a shillelagh.31 (His song, ‘The Dancing Master,’ was one performed by the real-life Jerry.)32 He dashes off the stage as soon as his performance ends, and a Civil War veteran with an Irish brogue rushes him through the parade to his destination—the bedroom where his wife Nellie has just given birth to George. As they consider what to call the newborn, the doctor suggests George Washington Cohan, since he was born on the Fourth of July, (p. 320) but Nellie replies that ‘Washington’ is too long to fit on a billboard. They instead combine George with the ‘nice short Irish [middle] name’ Michael. When the veterans outside fire a cannon in George’s honor and the baby breaks into a wail, Jerry exclaims, ‘He’s crying with a brogue!’ and hands him an American flag (see Figure 14.2).33 In continued voiceover, Cohan says, ‘I guess the first thing I ever had my fist on was the American flag. I hitched my wagon to thirty-eight stars. And thirteen stripes.’ Fulfilling the biopic’s generic expectation of establishing its hero’s ‘sense of destiny,’ the scene introduces the theme of patriotism as well as the literal symbol of the flag, one of many to be seen in Yankee Doodle Dandy.34

‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Figure 14.2 George M. Cohan at birth in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

The Stage and the Nation

In its celebration of American theatre, Yankee Doodle Dandy exemplifies the stage and screen’s ‘intertwining of intimately shared histories,’ as scholars Raymond Knapp and Mitchell Morris have put it.35 The film is at once a chronicle of US theatrical history and a sort of backstage musical, with its attendant tropes.36 While Cohan wrote plays as well as musicals, Yankee Doodle Dandy focusses almost exclusively on the latter. Occasionally musical and dramatic performances serve to advance the plot or develop a character, as when Mary plays and sings the song George has written for her (‘Mary’s a Grand Old Name’) at the piano in her home. More often, however, songs—both snippets heard in montages and complete numbers—mark the passing of time or highlight key moments in Cohan’s career. Dressing room scenes, backstage shots, and stage performances abound, and, with the notable exception of ‘Over There’ (discussed in this chapter’s next (p. 321) section), the songs are part and parcel of show business, whether the characters are performing onstage, auditioning for a producer, or singing a newly written number at a living room piano.37

In tracing Cohan’s journey through his theatrical experiences, from the touring circuits of vaudeville in small town America to the ‘legit’ stages in the heart of Broadway, Yankee Doodle Dandy strategically elides three simultaneous histories: those of Cohan, the musical, and the nation. Cohan’s voiceover narration at the start of his flashback—with his quip, ‘There weren’t so many stars then, in the flag or on the stage, but folks knew that more were coming’—reveals the story’s central metaphor while capturing the Gilded Age sense of optimism, confidence, and growth. After the scene of his birth, we see images of a family photo album, with Cohan’s sister Josie (who was, in fact, the elder sibling) added to an empty frame (see Figure 14.3a), and a series of theatrical scenes. The imagery and narration continue to link the Cohans’ experiences to the nation’s. Cohan describes playing a Daniel Boone show on the ‘kerosene circuit,’ the term denoting low-budget companies performing a series of one-night engagements in very small towns.38 We see a train traversing the countryside as Cohan, extending his use of flag symbolism, declares, ‘They kept putting new stars in the flag, and the Cohans kept rushing out to meet them.’ We see a young George playing the Irish ‘Dancing Master’ as his father had done, but with a novelty twist, playing (quite badly) the violin above his head. He also adds a patriotic flourish, shooting an American flag out of his shillelagh at the number’s conclusion. In another scene, Josie sings and performs a dance to ‘The Fountain in the Park,’ a popular late nineteenth-century tune by Edward Haley, and in yet another, we see the four Cohans performing a blackface minstrel number with tambourines. Cohan’s narration continues, ‘We trouped through depression and inflation. Part of the country’s growing pains.’ Throughout, the Cohans’ history touring the nation as performers is paralleled with the growth of the United States; their ups and downs are aligned with the nation’s.

‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Figure 14.3a–d Images of documents in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

While Yankee Doodle Dandy, more than many Hollywood musicals, treats theatrical performance unabashedly as a commercial business, the film also partakes of similar generic mythologies, as described by scholar Jane Feuer. It valorizes entertainment, for instance, and presents a ‘vision of musical performance originating in the folk.’39 Show business is business, but it’s also bound up with family ties (among the Four Cohans), romantic love (between George and Mary), and national sentiment. In one critical scene, the prominent producer Abe Erlanger tells the petulant star Fay Templeton, who has refused a role in a Cohan show, that she should reconsider.

erlanger.You’re making a mistake, Fay. He’s the most original thing that’s ever hit Broadway. And do you know why? Because he’s the whole darn country, squeezed into one pair of pants! His writing—his songs—even the way he walks and talks—they all touch something way down here in people! (He lays a hand over his heart.) Don’t ask me why it is—but it happens every time the curtain goes up. It’s pure magic!

templeton.I’m bored by magic. I know his formula—a fresh young sprout gets rich between 8:30 and 11:00 pm.

erlanger.That’s just it! George M. Cohan has invented the success story, Fay. And every American loves it because it happens to be his own private dream. He’s (p. 322) found the mainspring in the Yankee clock—ambition, pride, and patriotism. That’s why they call him the Yankee Doodle Boy.40

Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy insists, not only creates show business magic, but he embodies it. He becomes the epitome of Broadway because he’s the epitome of America.

Within Yankee Doodle Dandy, even as great liberties are taken with the major events of George’s life, considerable care is taken with the details of the Cohans’ theatrical history. The film’s original screenwriter Robert Buckner did extensive research using Cohan’s autobiography, the scrapbooks of the Robinson Locke Collection housed in the New York Public Library, articles in newspapers and magazines, interviews with Cohan’s acquaintances, and conversations with Cohan himself.41 As one montage depicts, the family did indeed tour together: with Jerry’s hibernicon company, as ‘The Cohan Mirth Makers,’ and later as the famous ‘Four Cohans’ act. The film’s iconography conveys a sense of authenticity; we see signs, playbills, and other documents, frequently used to introduce theatrical scenes (see Figure 14.3). The performance scenes are fairly true to life as well. George M. Cohan did, indeed, play the violin in his boyhood, Josie was known for her dancing, and Cohan wrote in his autobiography about the family playing ‘Daniel Boone on the Trail,’ ‘Peck’s Bad Boy,’ and other skits and shows referenced in (p. 323) the film.42 The plethora of seemingly historical images, evocative of a visual archive, serves both to commemorate theatrical history and to deflect from the film’s many biographical falsities.

Musical and choreographic decisions, too, were made with the goal of authenticity as well as capitalizing on the popularity of Cohan’s songs. In the contract, Cohan agreed to provide music and piano arrangements for the film.43 (He was even to provide three new songs, though that did not happen.) He was quite concerned with the accuracy of the film’s musical staging of his numbers, and his assistance was appreciated more in this realm than others.44 While the final version of the film had a few non-Cohan songs, the majority were his, including ‘The Warmest Baby in the Bunch’ (1897), ‘Mary’s a Grand Old Name’ (1905), ‘I Was Born in Virginia’ (1906, originally published as ‘Ethel Levey’s Virginia Song’), ‘Harrigan’ (1907), and others. The screenwriters took liberties with chronology as well as with the arrangement of some numbers, like ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ (1904) and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ (1906)—the first in order to explain the song’s role within the plot, and the second (discussed in more detail later in the chapter) to evoke national pride in wartime.45 Overall, however, fidelity was the byword in the treatment of Cohan’s musical oeuvre and the staging of musical numbers. James Cagney also took great care to capture Cohan’s renowned, distinctive dancing style; his instructor Johnny Boyle had even performed in Cohan shows and staged dances for Cohan.46

The numerous special features on the 2003 DVD release, including a second disc of ‘bonus material,’ extend the film’s approach to theatrical authenticity while also historicizing the film itself. These include feature-length commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; a short documentary chronicling Yankee Doodle Dandy’s making; Warner Night at the Movies 1942, a recreation of the various features (trailer, newsreel, and more) in a typical evening at the movie theatre during the period; listings of the film’s cast, crew, and awards; You, John Jones, a wartime short starring Cagney; the Looney Tunes cartoons Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943) and Yankee Doodle Bugs (1954); an ‘audio vault’ including prerecording session outtakes and rehearsals; and the ‘Waving the Flag Galleries’ containing images of sheet music, set and scene stills, and publicity materials.47 These supplementary features impart a similar veneer of authenticity to the film, as historical object, as the documents and performances do within the film’s story, furthering Yankee Doodle Dandy’s almost archival aura and masking its notable departures from the facts.

‘With the American Spirit at a Crisis’

The film’s nostalgia for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and its emphasis on the Americanness of the theatre were perfectly suited to the historical moment of its release during World War II. War was under way abroad when discussions about the film began, and Warner Bros. was already showing its keen interest in wartime intervention through anti-Nazi films like Sergeant York (1941).48 For Cohan and Cagney, however, the (p. 324) initial attraction of the project lay elsewhere. Cohan saw in the film a chance to preserve his legacy now that he was no longer so widely known.49 Cagney, on the other hand, sought a chance to distance himself from recent charges of communism as well as the opportunity to escape his ‘tough guy’ typecasting and to do a musical.50 William Cagney, associate producer of Yankee Doodle Dandy and James Cagney’s brother, explained later that he told Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner, ‘We should make a movie with Jim playing the damndest patriotic man in the country,’ George M. Cohan.51

The wartime climate and William Cagney’s comment notwithstanding, patriotism was not necessarily to be Yankee Doodle Dandy’s primary theme. Rather, during the film’s development, its writers struggled to choose their focus. In May 1941, Buckner and William Cagney despaired to executive producer Hal B. Wallis that ‘we needed a romantic personal story,’ but Cohan refused to let his ‘private domestic life [be] a major element of [the] picture.’ Buckner and Cagney explained a number of different approaches they had tried, like keeping the focus on the Four Cohans and developing a fictitious romance. Another tactic they tried, but found lacking, was ‘develop[ing] the patriotic theme, George M. Cohan as the symbol of a dynamic and sincere American.’ ‘We gave this angle a tremendous workout,’ they explained, ‘But it spreads too thin.’ Cohan, they acknowledged, was a good citizen, but they felt ‘the evidence is neither complete enough or dramatic enough to ask any intelligent person to accept [it] as the key to his character.’ Moreover, this theme failed as entertainment as well as biography; they thought it ‘dangerous as a bore to a modern audience, for today Cohan’s flashy type of patriotism sounds as cornily theatrical as it was in 1910’—a kiss of death for a motion picture that aimed first and foremost to entertain.52 Finally, they were concerned about the implications of opportunism: ‘Accidentally or not,’ they wrote, ‘the fact still blares at you that he made several million dollars with this act—during the War,’ presumably referring to the way Cohan profited from his hit song ‘Over There’ and patriotism more generally during World War I.53 The criticism of ‘flag-waving’ as a cheap trick pandering to the masses to make a buck that plagued Cohan during his career clearly troubled the makers of the film as well.54

By the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy’s production, however, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States had formally entered World War II, and Warner Bros. had decided to sell Cohan and the world on the picture’s patriotism. In part, when tensions between the recalcitrant Cohan and the studio came to a head in August 1941, stressing Yankee Doodle Dandy’s patriotism was a compelling way to persuade Cohan to allow the studio more liberties with the film’s storytelling. In a lengthy letter to Cohan dated 29 August 1941, Hal Wallis, William Cagney, and Robert Buckner made a forceful, last-ditch effort to get approval for their script, including the plea: ‘The dramatization of your life, Mr Cohan, has a great timely importance. It is the story of a typical American boy, who grew up with a strong love of his country, its ways and institutions. His life was spent in expressing and defending an American way of life.’ By now, the team had settled on its through line; they stated, ‘We believe that the deep-dyed Americanism of your life is a much greater theme than the success story.’ The letter concluded, ‘We have worked for six months because all of us here have an unshaken faith that this picture should be (p. 325) made—and today more than ever, with the American spirit at a crisis. It is our hope that perhaps you, too, will see this story of your life in its broader implications and give us your trust.’55 A memo from a couple of days prior confirms the coercive intention of their pitch. William Cagney reported to Wallis that an outside party close to Cohan ‘agrees with my point that Cohan should be made to realize that this is a great American message at the most crucial period in American history and he should patriotically bow to our efforts to dramatically present the story of this great American spirit.’56 Had the filmmakers been swept up in patriotism as war loomed? Or was this a ploy to get Cohan onboard? It seems likely that both were true to some extent. Whatever the degree of their sincerity, Wallis, Cagney, and Buckner’s appeal to Cohan’s sense of patriotic duty was successful, and work on the film proceeded.57

Several elements of the film bear witness to its wartime roots and the ways in which the theme of patriotism came to dominate the story. The emphasis on wartime Americanism is legible from the opening credits, which use a stars-and-stripes pattern for the lettering of the names. (Warner Bros. had done the same for Sergeant York shortly earlier.)58 Another indicator is the notable absence of Cohan’s two real-life Japanese American valets. The first was Yoshin Sakurai, who Cohan also cast in his play Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1910); this is the earliest known appearance of an Asian American actor on Broadway.59 The second was Michio ‘Mike’ Hirano, who had a small part in Cohan’s 1936 play Dear Old Darling.60 On 18 December 1941, only days after Pearl Harbor and during the filming of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cohan telegraphed Attorney General Francis Biddle to request permission to travel with Hirano in the wake of the Presidential Proclamation making the Japanese in the United States who were not naturalized ‘alien enemies.’ Cohan wrote that he would ‘personally vouch’ for Hirano.61 Recounting this story in an article for the magazine Cabinet, historian Scott A. Sandage points out that despite Hirano’s importance to the Cohan family, ‘the film did not portray Michio Hirano, not even for one line.’62 We see instead an African American, whom Cohan calls Eddie, assisting Cohan in a mid-film dressing room scene. Japanese Americans were expelled from US society just as they were in the film: President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the government began its forced ‘relocation’ of Japanese American citizens shortly before Yankee Doodle Dandy premiered.

The film’s propagandistic tinge is most glaringly obvious, though, in the treatment of ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag.’ In the original scene of the musical George Washington, Jr (1906), the song is prefaced by the hero encountering veterans who have come to Mount Vernon to decorate George Washington’s tomb.63 While the scene in the film likewise opens with a group of men in uniform (some with instruments, serving as the ‘military band’ mentioned in the song’s verse), it is otherwise wholly divorced from the plot and setting of the original show, unlike the film’s Little Johnny Jones number. The final screenplay contained little of the elaborate scene that ended up on the screen; its version was much shorter and emphasized the Cohans’ love for one another and Mary’s for George. According to that script, the Cohans would sing a verse and chorus, and then the company would have an ensemble dance number. ‘The happiness on the Cohans’ faces as they work together and smile at each other is something to see,’ and Mary watches (p. 326) George from the chorus ‘with much affection,’ the directions note.64 The number was also marked for spectacle early on—Buckner wrote in an earlier version of the screenplay that there should be ‘flags all over the stage. This is an excellent opportunity for special trick effects.’65 Still, the emphasis in earlier versions was the characters at least as much as it was the nation.

The final version of ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ follows through with Buckner’s ideas of spectacle, but it adds a sort of historical pageant of wartime scenes. In it, Cagney, as Cohan playing the hero of George Washington, Jr, sings a verse and chorus, backed by a group of Boy Scouts, then the Cohan song is intercut with various scenes representing key moments in US history with correspondent interpolated or newly composed tunes. Describing his plans for the number in a memo to William Cagney in January 1942, LeRoy Prinz, one of the directors of the musical numbers, cited as inspiration radio programs like ‘Cavalcade of Am[erica],’ which dramatized the nation’s history in glowing terms.66 In the final number as filmed, we see Betsy Ross sewing the flag. Visually referencing the iconic painting The Spirit of ’76, as Holley Replogle-Wong has noted, revolutionary soldiers with fife and drums play ‘Yankee Doodle.’67 An African American soloist and chorus sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and the Lincoln Memorial appears behind them; we hear Lincoln’s voice deliver a line from the Gettysburg Address: ‘And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ Soldiers of the Spanish–American War led by Theodore Roosevelt march to ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ (in fact, a Civil War–era song). We then seem to leave the musical’s historical moment as we hear a group of citizens—the farmer, labourer, banker, as Prinz described them—sing a rallying cry for the then-current conflict: ‘We’re one for all and all for one, / … / And now that we’re in it, / We’re going to win it.’ The closing musical phrase ‘We’ll fight as we did before’ segues directly into “for ‘my country, ’tis of thee …,’” quoting musically and lyrically from the well-known patriotic song by the same title. ‘All the tableaux,’ Prinz wrote to William Cagney, ‘are to have a spiritual effect.’68 The camera intersperses close-ups—for example, of the African American soloist’s face and soldiers’ bayonets—with long shots of the stage, moving between the ‘real-world’ framing of the stage, as the theatre audience would see it, and a more abstract, cinematic approach that invites film audiences to extrapolate to the present historical moment.

The finale of the number returns to the stage mode and the song ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag,’ with Jerry Cohan costumed as Uncle Sam and Nellie Cohan as Lady Liberty, but replete with spectacular visual effects. We see, as Prinz described it, an ‘ensemble of flags—entire group on treadmill across entire stage, walking towards audience’ to create ‘a finale of apparently hundreds of flags’ (see Figure 14.4 and ‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy video example 14.1). For this closing, he sought to evoke the theatrical rather than cinematic: ‘This will not be a [Busby] Berkeley effect, but all legitimate stagecraft that could have been developed at this period.’ The flag that appears on a scrim on the number’s final bars, he notes, ‘could have been done by Lantern projection.’69 As the final chord rings out, the camera shows audience members jumping to their feet and applauding enthusiastically. The choice of staging marks the Cohans and the theatre itself as emblematic of wartime patriotism.

‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Figure 14.4 ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ finale in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

(p. 327) The scenes about Cohan’s World War I hit ‘Over There’ are likewise written with pointed reference to current affairs. Upon learning about the sinking of the Lusitania, Cohan says, in voiceover narration, ‘It seems it always happens. Whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we’re a pushover all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag’s still waving over us.’ The clear implication was that Cohan’s brand of exuberant patriotism not only defined and celebrated the nation but also kept it safe, and the universal tone made its present-day applications patently obvious as well. In one scene, we see Cohan and a female singer, played by radio performer and film star Frances Langford, performing ‘Over There’ for the US troops. Langford’s casting drew a connection to the contemporary conflict, since she also performed for military forces in real life: she later said that entertaining the troops was ‘the greatest thing in [her] life.’70 As they perform, the lights go out, and Cagney, as Cohan, runs out into the crowd to ask vehicles to turn on their headlights to light the stage—this borrowed from Cohan’s own anecdotes.71 Returning to the stage, Cagney conducts the audience for a few bars and calls out, ‘Everybody sing!’ (as can be heard in ‘A Great American Service’George M. Cohan, the Stage, and the Nation in Yankee Doodle Dandy video example 14.2). The troops join in heartily, a powerful scene of communal singing that engenders a sense of national pride and civic duty, inviting the film’s audience, whether symbolically or literally, to join in.72

The scenes with Cohan and President Roosevelt that bookend the film bring the action to the present day; as Patrick McGilligan writes, ‘History was manipulated so the president’s summoning George directly from a performance of I’d Rather Be Right [which in reality opened in 1937] coincides with the outbreak of World War II.’73 Lyrics (p. 328) referencing Hitler and the war were added for the performance of ‘Off the Record’ in the I’d Rather Be Right scene. When the president gives Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor, Cohan protests that he’s undeserving as he’s ‘just a song-and-dance man,’ but the president insists, ‘A man may give his life to his country in many different ways, Mr Cohan. … Your songs were a symbol of the American spirit. “Over There” was just as powerful a weapon as any cannon, as any battleship we had in the First World War. Today, we’re all soldiers, we’re all on the front. We need more songs to express America. I know you and your comrades will give them to us.’ Cohan’s response ties the Horatio Alger narrative of the film back to the nation’s greatness and readiness for war: ‘I wouldn’t worry about this country if I were you,’ he says. ‘We’ve got this thing licked. Where else in the world could a plain guy like me come in and talk things over with the head man?’ FDR concurs, ‘Well, that’s about as good a definition of America as any I’ve ever heard.’ As Cohan leaves the White House, the soldiers and crowd outside are singing ‘Over There.’ He joins the troops, and a soldier asks him, ‘What’s the matter, old-timer, don’t you remember this song?’ Cagney, as Cohan, then joins in the singing, tears visible on his face. The real-life Cohan had indicated a scene of troops marching in his script, noting that ‘this shot of the boys marching away might possibly be a delicate thing to do considering world conditions today, but if it is strongly planted that it is June 1917, and not 1941, you might get away with it.’74 By the time of Yankee Doodle Dandy’s filming and release, however, a marching scene set in the present was no longer risky but apropos.

The film’s marketing and release established its reputation for wartime patriotism before audiences even stepped into the theatres. The premiere, which was moved from 4 July to 29 May in recognition of Cohan’s failing health, was held in Times Square as a war bonds benefit, with tickets available for the price of bonds ranging from $25 to $25,000.75 A second war bonds benefit labelled the ‘Build Ships’ premiere followed in Hollywood on 12 August. The reception at both was encouraging, and the day after the Hollywood premiere Jack Warner wrote to the heads of advertising and publicity at Warner Bros. that they should put forth ‘a real campaign, telling not only the Exhibitors but America and the world that we are “first in the hearts of our countrymen,” and “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” is one picture every man, woman and child should see.’76

The Legacy of Yankee Doodle Dandy

In the end, Warner Bros. and Cohan alike viewed the film as more than a commercial product or even a biopic: rather, it was their patriotic contribution to their nation. Jack Warner telegraphed Cohan on the day of the film’s premiere, ‘Dear George: I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for permitting me to produce the story of your grand and glorious career. … It’s more than a picture. It’s the whole spirit of America rolled into one and by your permitting me to produce this picture you have done a great American service.’77 Cohan’s response echoed these hopes that the film ‘may aid the (p. 329) theatre to contribute its share towards the realization of peace and civilization to follow the present tragic experiences. … With that thought I trust your statement in your telegram that Yankee Doodle Dandy is a great patriotic service will be true.’78 While reportedly quite pleased with the film and likely proud of its contribution to the war effort, Cohan may have also recognized the potential downside of flag-waving patriotism at this late stage of his life. His son later shared with Scott Sandage that his father felt very bad about Mike Hirano, who disappeared during the war. Cohan ‘finally made the connection,’ as Sandage put it, ‘between jingoism and prejudice.’79

Individual responses and reviews alike attest to Yankee Doodle Dandy’s impact at a pivotal time in US history. One enthusiastic viewer wrote to Jack Warner, ‘This picture will undoubtedly receive all its praise from the Box Office, and what is more important to us all, from the uplift in the morale of the American public.’ The letter closes, ‘Viva J. L. Warner! A true (many words could be used here, but only one would do you justice) AMERICAN!!!’80 Another wrote to Warner, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy just makes you feel like being a better American.’81 Critic Edwin Schallert described the film in the Los Angeles Times as ‘patriotic, with plenty of flag waving, yet not too much for the present.’ He further appreciated the film’s interweaving of national and theatrical history, complimenting its ‘delightful nostalgia attaching to the depiction of the old show days’ and noting that the film ‘brings to mind the passing pageant of American history through its chronicle of one man’s huge success in the show business.’82 The film also secured a permanent place in Hollywood film history. It won three Academy Awards, for Actor in a Leading Role, Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture), and Sound Recording. In 1993, it was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In adapting Cohan’s life and works, the makers of Yankee Doodle Dandy depicted a rich theatrical history that corresponded with the nation’s history. Drawing heavily on nostalgia for a mythologized past, they sought to show the nation’s merit and resilience through its depth of historical experience—both cultural and military—and its national pride, exemplified by the rose-tinted character of one of its homegrown citizens. Demonstrating the Americanness of musico-theatrical entertainment, Yankee Doodle Dandy helped establish ‘the American musical,’ as a national art form, only a few months before Oklahoma! burst onto Broadway. It rejuvenated Cohan’s legacy, which had begun to fade. And, furthering the project Cohan had already undertaken in his own public relations, it contributed mightily to his lasting image of patriot extraordinaire.


(1.) Richard Gustafson, ‘The Vogue of the Screen Biography,’ Film and History 7, no. 3 (September 1977): 32.

(2.) Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 235. On the musical biopic, see also John C. Tibbetts, Composers in the Movies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 102–154.

(4.) For an excellent account of the film’s creation, see Patrick McGilligan’s introduction to the published screenplay: ‘The Life Daddy Would Have Liked to Live,’ in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 11–64. The contract with Cohan is discussed on pp. 16–17.

(5.) On the musical’s mythologies, see Jane Feuer, ‘The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,’ in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), and The Hollywood Musical, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), esp. 15–22 and 90–97.

(6.) Russell Owen, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ New York Times, 1 March 1942.

(7.) Charles L. Ponce de Leon, Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Fred Inglis, A Short History of Celebrity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

(8.) For further discussion of Cohan’s early, hyper-patriotic musicals, his construction of his public identity, and how he negotiated his Irish American identity (including in a series of Irish American–themed musicals from 1918 to 1927), see Elizabeth Titrington Craft, ‘Becoming American Onstage: Broadway Narratives of Immigrant Experiences in the United States’ (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014), 30–158.

(9.) See, for examples, Little Johnny Jones Liberty Theatre playbill clipping, ‘Week Beginning … Nov. 14, 1904,’ box 819, Edward B. Marks Co. Collection on George M. Cohan, 1901–1968 (hereafter ‘Cohan Collection’) at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY); Little Johnny Jones advertisement, New York Times, 6 November 1904; Cohan, ‘They’re All My Friends’ (New York: F. A. Mills, 1904).

(10.) ‘Rehearsing “A Yankee Prince,”’ New York Tribune, 28 February 1908; ‘The American Idea,’ Boston Daily Globe, 10 September 1908.

(11.) Untitled article, Life, 12 October 1911, 618.

(12.) Cohan, Twenty Years on Broadway, 201.

(13.) The Spot Light 1, no. 28 (9 December 1905), Cohan Collection, MCNY.

(14.) Biographer Ward Morehouse uncovered a baptismal certificate naming 3 July as Cohan’s birth date, but other official documents name 4 July and Cohan scholar John McCabe argues that ‘the baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter.’ McCabe suggests that the date on the certificate is a ‘clerical error,’ citing a diary entry by George’s father as well as the fact that George’s parents always celebrated his birthday on the fourth and noting their ‘utter probity.’ Morehouse, George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1943), 24–25; McCabe, George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), 1–2.

(15.) Cohan, ‘What the American Flag Has Done for Me,’ Theatre Magazine, June 1914, 286; ‘Agnes Nolan of Brookline to Become Mrs George M. Cohan,’ Boston Daily Globe, 15 April 1907.

(16.) Table of contents, Green Book Magazine, December 1914.

(17.) Verne Hardin Porter, ‘The Story of George M. Cohan,’ Green Book Magazine, December 1914, 964.

(18.) George M. Cohan and Verne Hardin Porter, ‘The Stage as I Have Seen It,’ Green Book Magazine, February 1915, 247.

(19.) On the hibernicon, Jerry Cohan’s role in it, and its function for the Irish transnational community, see Michelle Granshaw, ‘Performing Cultural Memory: The Travelling Hibernicon and the Transnational Irish Community in the United States and Australia,’ Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 41, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 76–101; and Michelle Granshaw, ‘The Hibernicon and Visions of Returning Home: Popular Entertainment in Irish America from the Civil War to World War I’ (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2012).

(20.) On Cohan’s script, which the initial screenwriter Robert Buckner described as an ‘egotistical epic,’ see McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 30–34; Buckner to Wallis, 27 September 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 9/8/41–10/30/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(21.) Robert Buckner to Hal Wallis, 25 November 1941, folder 2375 ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 11/1/41–11/28/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(22.) One theme—Cohan’s lack of formal education—is stressed less in the film than in Cohan’s writings. As Patrick McGilligan notes, earlier efforts with the script had included attempts to dramatize the Cohan children’s education (and problems therewith) but they were ‘ultimately abandoned.’ McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 98, 211n14.

(23.) Cohan was, in fact, awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. Although it was authorized by Congress in 1936, Cohan did not receive it from President Roosevelt until 1940. Cohan may have delayed the meeting for political reasons: see McCabe, George M. Cohan, 234, and Garrett Eisler, ‘Kidding on the Level: The Reactionary Project of I’d Rather Be Right,’ Studies in Musical Theatre 1, no. 1 (2007): 19–20.

(24.) All film quotations are from Yankee Doodle Dandy, based on the story of George M. Cohan, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring James Cagney (1942; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video 2003), DVD.

(25.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 21.

(26.) On Robert Buckner’s attempts to show Cohan in a favourable light, see McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 25.

(27.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 20.

(28.) Morehouse, George M. Cohan, 229.

(29.) On the process of the Irish ‘Becoming Caucasian,’ see Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 91–135. On the film’s portrayal of Irish Americanness, see Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan, ‘“Yankee Doodle Paddy”: Themes of Ethnic Acculturation in Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ Journal of American Ethnic History 30, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 57–62, and Christopher Shannon, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2010), 153–169.

(30.) Dwyer-Ryan, ‘“Yankee Doodle Paddy,”’ 61. The ability for Irish American characters in film to easily maintain both identities stands in notable contrast to other ethnic groups as portrayed by Hollywood, for instance, the Jewish American protagonist Jackie Rabinowitz in The Jazz Singer: Shannon, Bowery to Broadway, xxxi–xxxii, 161–162.

(31.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 92.

(32.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 38; Michelle Granshaw, ‘Hibernicon and Visions,’ 90.

(33.) When they filmed this scene, the war had recently begun and tensions were high, so director Michael Curtiz had to get permission from both Warner Bros. and the city of Burbank, California, to fire the cannon: Behlmer commentary on Yankee Doodle Dandy, DVD.

(34.) Richard Gustafson describes a ‘sense of destiny’ as one of the archetypes of the early to mid-century biopic in ‘Vogue of the Screen Biography,’ 36. On the use of flags in American cinema, including Yankee Doodle Dandy, and this scene, see Robert Eberwein, ‘Following the Flag in American Film,’ in Eastwood’s Iwo Jima: Critical Engagements with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, ed. Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), esp. 85–86; and William H. Epstein, ‘Biopics and American National Identity—Invented Lives, Imagined Communities,’ introduction to ‘Biopics and American National Identity,’ ed. Epstein, special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 26, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 12, 15–17.

(36.) Rick Altman writes, ‘The greater the star, we might expect, the less it is possible for Hollywood to fit his or her biopic into the familiar syntactic mold of the backstage musical, for the public would certainly be aware of at least the basic outline of the star’s career. Such, however, is far from being the case’ due to the ‘American popular mythology’ in which these larger-than-life figures operate. Altman, The American Film Musical, 236.

(37.) On the use of the framing of the stage as part of LeRoy Prinz’s style, see Allen L. Woll, The Hollywood Musical Goes to War (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983), 55.

(39.) Feuer, ‘Self-Reflective Musical,’ 159–174, esp. 168.

(40.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 157.

(41.) James and William Cagney were not happy with the versions of the script that Buckner submitted in October 1941, and Edmund Joseph, then Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, were brought in to ‘doctor’ the script. The final production credits state that the screenplay is by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph; despite their significant contributions, the Epsteins agreed not to be listed. Robert Buckner to Hal Wallis, 15 April 1941, folder 2375 ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 1/16/41–4/28/41,’ and Robert Buckner to Joseph D. Karp (TS, unsigned), 27 April 1943, folder 2375 ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/42—1/31/44,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 19, 39–45, 54.

(42.) Cohan, Twenty Years on Broadway, 10–13, 22–26.

(43.) Heinz Roemheld and Ray Heindorf, however, were credited with the film’s musical scoring, for which they won an Academy Award.

(44.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 16–17, 30, 38, 54.

(45.) Seymour Felix, who staged the production numbers along with Leroy Prinz, wrote to Hal Wallis about going outside the bounds of the contract to interpolate small bits of music for dramatic purposes; for example, he stated: ‘If the “Yankee Doodle” number is to be done as a production number, it … might be a good idea to inject about eight or sixteen bars of music and lyrics, advising the audience that Little Johnny Jones, the jockey, is going to ride in the Derby race, this done to gallop music, which will help to create musical excitement.’ The additions ‘Good Luck Johnny’ and ‘All Aboard for Broadway’ were written by Jack Scholl and M. K. Jerome. Felix to Wallis, 12 November 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 11/1/41–11/28/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; George Feltenstein, liner notes to Original Warner Bros. Motion Picture Soundtrack: Yankee Doodle Dandy, R2 78210, 2002, cd.

(46.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 47.

(47.) Other features were directly related to James Cagney: a ‘gallery’ of trailers of Cagney films; a profile of Cagney hosted by Michael J. Fox; and a tribute to Cagney by John Travolta: Yankee Doodle Dandy, DVD.

(48.) During a 1941 congressional hearing to investigate purported ‘Moving Picture Screen and Radio Propaganda,’ initiated by the isolationist North Dakotan Senator Gerald Nye, Harry M. Warner gave a speech declaring outright, ‘I am opposed to nazi-ism. I abhor and detest every principle and practice of the Nazi movement.’ On Warner Bros. politically oriented prewar films, see Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism, 1934–1941 (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 39–42; Woll, Hollywood Musical, 3–11, 33–44.

(49.) ‘Four-fifths of the people who remember me are dead,’ Cohan commented to Buckner. The film’s opening, with Cohan’s name in lights on a marquee, was designed in part to ‘establish the importance of George M. Cohan for today’s generation’ according to a letter from director Michael Curtiz to Hal Wallis. McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 14–15; Curtiz to Wallis, 14 November 1941, folder 2375 ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 11/1/41–11/28/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(50.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 15–16, 46.

(51.) Thomas F. Brady, ‘Facts Behind “Yankee Doodle Dandy,”’ New York Times, 10 January 1943. The anecdote is related similarly on the James Cagney: Top of the World feature hosted by Michael J. Fox on the Yankee Doodle Dandy special edition DVD set.

(52.) One advertisement for Yankee Doodle Dandy proclaimed, ‘Warner Bros. are on an all-out basis on the entertainment front. … All of us who are Warner Bros. … have one purpose and one only; to give you the kind of entertainment that raises your spirits, lifts your chin, and helps brighten things for any day ahead.’ Yankee Doodle Dandy advertisement, undated, folder 2883, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy—Picture File,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(53.) William Cagney and Robert Buckner to Hal Wallis, 5 May 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 5/2/41–6/30/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(54.) On critics’ responses to Cohan and his ‘flag-waving’ musicals, see Craft, ‘Becoming American Onstage,’ 74–87.

(55.) Hal B. Wallis, William Cagney, and Robert Buckner to George M. Cohan, copying [story editor] Jacob Wilk, 29 August 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/41–9/5/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(56.) William Cagney to Hal Wallis, 27 August 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/41–9/5/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(57.) In response to this letter Cohan agreed to compromise according to 8 September correspondence from Buckner to Wilk. A 6 October telegram from Buckner to Hal Wallis reported a ‘very encouraging conference with Cohan today’ in which he ‘assure[d] general approval of new script’ with minimal changes. Robert Buckner to Jake Wilk, 8 September 1941, and Robert Buckner to Hal B. Wallis, 6 October 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 9/8/41–10/30/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(58.) Eberwein, ‘Following the Flag,’ 85.

(59.) Walter Anthony, ‘A Japanese Invasion,’ San Francisco Call, 28 January 1912; Esther Kim Lee, A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 14.

(60.) Scott A. Sandage, ‘Old Rags, Some Grand,’ Cabinet 7 (Summer 2002),; Cohen, ‘Dear Old Darling,’ Variety, 8 January 1936.

(61.) George M. Cohan to Hon. Francis Biddle, 16 December 1941, Cohan Collection, MCNY.

(62.) Sandage, ‘Old Rags, Some Grand.’

(63.) Cohan, ‘George Washington, Jr’ script (Act I, pp. 37–40), box 519, Cohan Collection, MCNY.

(64.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 169.

(65.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 219n42.

(66.) LeRoy Prinz to William Cagney, 7 January 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/42–1/31/44’ [filed out of date?], Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(67.) Replogle-Wong’s excellent analysis of this scene demonstrates how it presents ‘an idealistic version of the American model of national inclusiveness, in which past offenses are absorbed by the spirit of unification’: ‘Coming-of-Age in Wartime: American Propaganda and Patriotic Nationalism in Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ Echo: A Music-Centered Journal 8, no. 1 (Fall 2006): paragraphs 9–16.

(68.) LeRoy Prinz to William Cagney, 7 January 1942, in Warner Bros. Archives. Seymour Felix had been taken off the project in December 1941: Seymour Felix to Hal Wallis, 26 December 1941, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 12/1/41–1/30/42,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Rudy Behlmer commentary on Yankee Doodle Dandy, DVD.

(69.) LeRoy Prinz to William Cagney, 7 January 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/42–1/31/44’ [filed out of date?], Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(70.) Richard Severo, ‘Frances Langford, Trouper on Bob Hope Tours, Dies at 92,’ New York Times, 12 July 2005.

(71.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 221n52.

(72.) I draw here upon Sheryl Kaskowitz’s discussion of communal singing, of another patriotic song from the same era, in God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(73.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 24.

(74.) McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 221n53.

(75.) ‘Exploitation: Treasury Dept Cued WB’s $25,000 “Tickets” for ‘Yankee Doodle,’ Variety, 6 May 1942. On the premiere and publicity, see also McGilligan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 58.

(76.) Jack Warner [to ‘Messrs. Einfeld and Blumenstock’], 13 August 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/41–9/5/41,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. The document is filed with the July–September 1941 documents. However, the 1942 date is probably correct given that it was common during the period for a film to move gradually to different theatres and that the press reported that the national merchandising campaign would be rolled out following the film’s premiere: ‘Exploitation: Nat’l Campaign on “Yankee” Rests on Preem Results,’ Variety, 27 May 1942.

(77.) Jack Warner to George M. Cohan, 29 May 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 2/2/42–6/20/42,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(78.) George M. Cohan to Jack Warner, 17 August 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/42–1/31/44,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(79.) Sandage, ‘Old Rags, Some Grand.’

(80.) Donald A. Sardinas to [Jack] Warner, 29 May 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 2/2/42–6/20/42,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(81.) Lydia Wilbur to Jack L. Warner, 21 July 1942, folder 2375, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Story—Memos and Correspondence, 7/1/42–1/31/44,’ Warner Bros. Archives, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

(82.) Edwin Schallert, ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy” Registers Super Success,’ Los Angeles Times, 13 August 1942.