The notion for a biographical film about legendary show business powerhouse George M. Cohan had been kicking around Hollywood since the late 1930s. The father of American musical comedy claimed to be born on July 4, 1878 and began treading the boards at age eight in the family vaudeville act. During his career, he wrote more than 150 original songs, including the standards “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and the country’s most popular song during World War I, “Over There.” Cohan produced more than fifty musicals and plays.  At one point, five of his shows, co-produced with Sam Harris, ran simultaneously on Broadway. Cohan did it all: he was a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, and producer.

By 1941 he was ill and realized that his days were numbered. His ego was piqued by the notion of a movie biography to enshrine his legacy (he had already published his autobiography at the age of forty-seven), but he had serious misgivings about films. He had appeared in several silent movies that failed to capture his feisty style. After his popularity began to fade, Cohan starred in two early talkies.  His second picture, The Phantom President (1932), was a fiasco. Cohan compared the experience to a stretch at Leavenworth Penitentiary and vowed never to return to Hollywood.

yankee doodle dandy movie poster featuring James Cagney
In his much publicized Anglo-Hungarian diction, Michael Curtiz described Yankee Doodle Dandy as “ the pinochle of my career”.

But impending mortality mellowed his outlook. He negotiated with Samuel Goldwyn — who initially committed to a Cohan film starring Fred Astaire before the actor-dancer dropped out — and consulted with his close friend, the actor Edward McNamara. A former Irish cop who made more money pretending to be one, McNamara was also a pal of James Cagney. McNamara urged Cohan to consider Cagney to portray him while simultaneously pitching the project to the star. Around the same time, Variety’s publisher, Abel Green, advised Jack Warner about Cohan’s interest in a bio-musical film. Warner and Hal Wallis were intrigued. Wallis contacted William Cagney about having his older brother portray George M. Cohan and was surprised when James declined the role.

Cagney refused to play the part because of his personal feelings towards the show biz legend. Cohan had an infamous falling-out with Actors Equity in 1919 after he opposed a strike by actors from his position as an owner-producer. Cohan’s refusal to join Equity further damaged his reputation. As a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (he would be elected SAG president in September 1942), Cagney was diametrically opposed to Cohan’s position. Cagney’s trade-unionist liberalism, nurtured by his impoverished background and accentuated by a adversarial relationship with Jack L. Warner (characterized by continual squabbles over money, movies and suspensions) fed into an instinctive mistrust of producers. Although he respected Cohan as a great performer, he couldn’t countenance portraying a man that he regarded as an anti-union reactionary.

But changing political winds convinced Cagney to reverse his decision and to reexamine some of his own positions. In August 1940 an ostensible Communist Party member named John Leech testified during Los Angeles grand jury proceedings that Cagney, along with other famous Hollywood personages, including Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March, and Franchot Tone, were Communists, members of Communist “study groups,” or contributor-sympathizers. With regard to Cagney and the others, the charges were demonstrably false, but the newspapers had a field day.

Bill Cagney, summoned to a meeting with Jack Warner, needed to rehabilitate his brother’s reputation, and fast: “[Jack Warner] told me in no uncertain terms that if my brother didn’t clean his skirts of this charge, he was going to destroy him.” James had already been moving politically right at the behest of his wife by shedding some of his extreme left-wing friends, including the screenwriter John Bright, and maintaining a more conservative social circle that included Robert Montgomery and his Irish Mafia pals of Pat O’Brien, Lynne Overman and Frank McHugh.

photo of michael curtiz and jack l warner reviewing script on movie setJack L. Warner’s contributions to Yankee Doodle Dandy are best characterized by the words: “Hurry up.”

The younger Cagney contacted Martin Dies, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and arranged for James to testify. Dies, whose committee accused ten-year old Shirley Temple of being a Communist dupe in 1934, eventually issued a public statement clearing Cagney. The actor’s opposition to Yankee Doodle Dandy, as the Cohan picture was eventually titled, evaporated. As William Cagney related to the writer Patrick McGilligan, he told his older brother: “We’re going to have to make the goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”

Yet animus persisted between Warner Bros. and the Cagneys. James regarded executive producer Hal Wallis as a front-office suit responsible for reinforcing the actor’s image as a screen gangster. The chill was mutual. “He [Cagney] and I never became friends,” admitted Wallis. “He was cold to me and I wasn’t particularly fond of him.” Wallis also brooded over being forced to accept William Cagney as associate producer for the film (a condition of James Cagney’s 1938 contract with the studio). Fully aware of the battle lines, Michael Curtiz would walk a tightrope to maintain relationships with both sides while directing Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Wallis assigned Robert Buckner to write the script. Buckner’s specialty was drama and Westerns—he had no experience with musicals or lighter material—but he did a thorough job that took more than half a year. Cohan’s contract gave him script and title approval in addition to his $125,000 fee and 10 percent of the gross receipts over $1,500,000. He also had the final say on characters and all references to his family. Cohan approved Cagney to portray him but had his own ideas about the screenplay. He wanted to expunge any romantic or personal aspects from the screenplay and stubbornly resisted any effort to portray his life as other than a series of professional triumphs.

photo of jack l. warner, michael curtiz, hal wallis poring over screenplay and paperwork in office

Warner, Curtiz and Wallis:  A brilliant filmmaking triumvirate

After Cohan submitted 170 pages of script changes, Buckner, along with Wallis and William Cagney, crafted a letter that begged Cohan to allow them to take a limited amount of dramatic license in order to produce an entertaining musical biography. Using the recently successful Knute Rockne All American (1940) as an example, the trio beseeched Cohan for some reasonable flexibility. The letter swayed Cohan, who eventually compromised to a limited extent. The script was revised to introduce a fictional Mrs. Cohan named Mary, who would be played by sixteen-year-old Joan Leslie. There would be no mention of his first wife, who left him in 1907 (and would unsuccessfully sue Cohan and Warner Bros. over the film), or his second (successful) marriage. Cagney, who was uncomfortable displaying any type of sexual intimacy onscreen, would further downplay the romantic angle. Cohan’s relationships with other characters, including his family and particularly his partner, Sam Harris, were idealized. It became the story of a triumphant show-business personality living a storybook life.

But there was still James Cagney to contend with. When the star read through Buckner’s final draft (with contributions by the screenwriter Edmund Joseph) on his Martha’s Vineyard farm, he was appalled: “I read it with incredulity. There wasn’t a single laugh in it, not the suggestion of a snicker. And this was a script purporting to be about a great American light entertainer, a man who wrote forty-four Broadway shows, only two of which were not comedies.”

Cagney refused to do the movie unless the script was gone over thoroughly by Julius and Philip Epstein, who had impressed him with their work on The Strawberry Blonde (1941).  They transformed the stilted relationship between the Cohan and Mary characters into a charming romance. Comic scenes between the music publisher characters Goff and Dietz were added, and the Epsteins also built up the character of the couple’s daughter, Josie Cohan, played by Jeanne Cagney.  They also added the poignant death scene of Cohan’s father played by Walter Huston and the “Over There” coda, which concluded the film on an upbeat note.

During the production, Robert Buckner complained about the changes to his screenplay. He challenged the studio’s intention to grant the Epstein brothers equal screenwriting credit, informing Wallis that he was ready to take the issue to the Writers Guild. The Cagneys viewed Buckner as a Wallis loyalist who delivered a lousy script, attempted to undermine them, and was now trying to ace out the writers most responsible for the film’s success. Despite the friction, production would begin on schedule, even as it became shaped by bigger events.

photo of james cagney michel curtiz james wong howe on movie set of yankee doodle dandy
Three artists at work: James Cagney, Michael Curtiz and James Wong Howe.

The morning after Pearl Harbor was the first day of production on Yankee Doodle Dandy. Rosemary DeCamp, cast as Cagney’s mother, re- called the real-life drama that occurred before the cameras rolled:

The crew was standing still with grave faces. Jeanne Cagney, Walter Huston and I, made up and elaborately costumed, were staring at a little radio emitting the sound of President Roosevelt’s voice along with a lot of static. Mike Curtiz the director and Jimmy Cagney came in through the freight dock and walked across the big soundstage toward us. Mike started to speak, but Walter held up his hand. The president finished with the grave news that we were now at war with Japan and Germany. Then, the national anthem blared forth. Some of us got to our feet and sang the lyrics hesitantly. At the end, Jimmy said, clearing his throat, “I think a prayer goes in here . . . turn that damn thing off.” Someone did. We stood in silence for a full minute. Jeanne and I dabbed our made-up eyes carefully. Mike bowed and with his inimitable accent said, “Now boys and girls, we haff work to do . . . we haff bad news . . . but we haff a wonderful story to tell the world. So let us put away sad things and begin.”  From that momentous first morning, everyone on the set understood that Yankee Doodle Dandy would be a special picture.

— Rosemary DeCamp

The outbreak of the war was certainly a motivating factor, but it was the seamless collaboration between Cagney and Curtiz that inspired the rest of the company. During Angels with Dirty Faces and Captains of the Clouds, the star and director had developed a bond of trust. Curtiz knew he did not have to explain to Cagney how a scene should be played, nor did Cagney need to tell the director how to shoot the picture. Curtiz was also on his best behavior with the rest of the cast and crew, realizing that anything less would not be tolerated.

Joan Leslie, who would celebrate her seventeenth birthday during the production, remembered the collaborative synergy on the set that was unique for a Warner Bros. film: “Mike was so happy because he had everything he wanted: a wonderful script, a terrific cast, and don’t ever sell Bill Cagney short as the associate producer! He was on set every day and deeply involved in every aspect of the production. But it was Jimmy who inspired everyone, especially Mike. Jimmy suggested and added so many things and Mike would say, “Okay, Jimmy, that sounds great.” It was a beautiful thing to see.” Curtiz was delighted just to be the director of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The flag-waving jingoism and the overt sentimentality that future critics would characterize as maudlin were, to him, the picture’s most appealing aspects. Curtiz wore his American patriotism like a badge of honor— even more so with war recently having been declared.

Yet Curtiz remained Curtiz. “He was a ruthless authoritarian with an eagle eye,” remembered Rosemary DeCamp. “He could walk on a crowded set with extras and instantly spot the one with a missing earring, or twisted tights or running mascara.” Joan Leslie recalled how Curtiz continued to rely on his wife Bess Meredyth when a seemingly intractable script problem arose. “He would take it home and his wife, you know, is a very fine writer . . . and the next morning, he would come back, he’d say, ‘I know what we’re going to do.’ And we’d just bang into it and it was as smooth as silk.”

photo of yankee doodle dandy movie set with michael curtiz, james cagney

Curtiz (at far left with cigarette) directs the “Harrigan” number with Cagney & Joan Leslie with Chester Clute and George Tobias (back to camera).

For Curtiz, working with Cagney was the equivalent of having a co-director. For the charming “Harrigan” number, Cagney walked it through with Joan Leslie. After glancing at Curtiz, who nodded, Cagney did a run-through followed by the first take that Curtiz immediately printed.

Curtiz conceived the remarkable staging of the “It’s a Grand Old Flag” number, writing to Hal Wallis: “This seems to me to be the most important number in the show, particularly now in view of the declaration of war. It must be sold, not only musically, but also with a dramatic setting that brings out its theme and spirit. I have discussed this idea with Bill Cagney and he approves of it. Carl Weyl has built a miniature and drawn sketches to illustrate my plan, and I can best show these to you on the stage.”  He sold it after rehearsing the rousing number in front of an audience that included Wallis and the brothers Warner. It remains the most memorable sequence in the film.

Curtiz also repurposed the “Over There” number so there would be an audience of soldiers singing with Cagney and Frances Langford. He worked out Jerry Cohan’s deathbed scene by Walter Huston after entreating the Epstein brothers to “give me the tear in the eye” sentiment. The brothers eventually complied, writing what Julius believed was pure hokum: “We thought they’d never use it. But they did and it was one of the best scenes in the film.” All told, the director submitted seven different scenes to William Cagney to include in the picture while changing and adding additional bits of business.

The behind-the-scenes acrimony was unseen by most of the cast and crew, but both Cagneys became fed up with the incessant infighting. After Wallis quarreled with Bill Cagney about setting up a third unit to film the prologue, James Cagney notified Warner Bros. that he was exercising the “happiness clause” in his 1938 contract and would be leaving the studio at the end of the picture. Jack Warner and Wallis quickly backed off and tried everything they could to persuade him to change his mind.

An immediate benefit of Cagney’s resignation was that his brother was permitted to function as an actual producer for the balance of the picture rather than as a Hal Wallis sock puppet. Jack Warner’s ritualistic hounding of Curtiz over the production schedule receded. The film proceeded in comparative harmony; it was one of Curtiz’s happiest experiences at Warner Bros.

Yankee Doodle Dandy wrapped on April 27, 1942. Curtiz brought the film in at a relatively economical $1,532,000. Jack Warner launched the biggest publicity campaign in the studio’s history. The gala May 29 premiere in New York at the Warner Hollywood Theater doubled as a war bond drive. It was the first day of what would be an incredible nineteen-week run at the Hollywood, which totaled more than $323,000 in ticket sales. Yankee Doodle Dandy would gross more than $6 million on its initial release as Hollywood’s second-most profitable film of the year.  The reviews were all raves. Curtiz would remember the debut of Yankee Doodle Dandy as one of the high points of his career.  Despite his reputation for being difficult, the director demonstrated a deftness that kept both his bosses and the star of the picture happy while turning out a memorable hit picture. Michael Curtiz would characterize Yankee Doodle Dandy in his typically mangled syntax as “the pinochle of my career.”

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