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Yankee Doodle Dandy: Special Edition

It may be as corny as the Uncle Sam on stilts leading a Flag Day parade, but Yankee Doodle Dandy stars the irresistibly watchable James Cagney in a high-flying hagiography of actor-hoofer-songwriter-playwright George M. Cohan, the man best known today for composing standards such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Over There," "Grand Ol' Flag," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." This musical biopic's apple pie Americana is to Independence Day what It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. Directed by Warner's versatile workhorse Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is as much a part of America-at-war 1942 as Curtiz's Casablanca, which premiered the same year. Like that Bogart classic, it represents the best of its breed, in this case the rags-to-riches, feel-good story of success achieved through equal parts determination, talent, and good ol' American pluck.

Cagney reached back to his Broadway roots to play song-and-dance man Cohan, the vaudevillian child star who grew into the brassy toast of the Great White Way. Favorite scenes include Cohan and his future wife Mary (Joan Leslie) meeting cute, the death-bed moment with his father (Walter Huston), and Cohan taking Broadway by storm. Hollywood never let facts get in the way of a good story (e.g., Cohan had two wives, neither named Mary), and this is Hollywood at its revisionist best. Yes, the material is hackneyed, and even its structure — "I was a pretty cocky kid in those days, a pretty cocky kid" cue flashback — might elicit a stifled chuckle. But you can't take your eyes off that powerhouse Cagney for a second. Because Curtiz allowed him to improvise while the cameras rolled, Cagney proved that he was more than the hard-bitten gangsters that had made him a top screen tough guy in hits such as The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces. At only 5'-6" he was a nimble and agile dynamo. When his Cohan performs the title song on Broadway we get one of the great Hollywood musical numbers. During the scene in which Cohan says goodbye to his dying father, Cagney's performance so moved the typically imperturbable Curtiz that the director began bawling and ruined a take.

Production began the day after Pearl Harbor, which the cast heard about huddled around the studio radio. When the movie premiered on Memorial Day 1942, the war was not going well for U.S. forces, so the upbeat story and musical numbers were the Fourth of July sparklers that World War II audiences needed. Yankee Doodle Dandy became Warner Brothers' top-grossing movie of the year and its top-grosser to that time. Its eight Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Director, and Writing. It won three, including a Best Actor statue for Cagney, who regarded it as his favorite film. The Budapest-born, English-challenged Curtiz described it as "the pinochle of my career."

Quaint and nostalgic, Yankee Doodle Dandy points to that "more innocent time" we keep hearing about. It delivers its red-white-and-blue patriotism to you by the exuberant bushel, but this grand old film reminds us that there was a time when patriotism was more heartfelt than bullying and jingoistic.

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As a DVD, Warner Brothers' two-disc Special Edition stands up and salutes with a gorgeous print and transfer that make the black-and-white cinematography, by the masterful James Wong Howe, a thing of beauty all by itself. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio has been cleaned and bolstered to the hilt. (The film won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording.)

Matching Warner's two-disc editions of The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this release comes with a long list of first-class supplements. Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides an enthusiastic, info-packed commentary track. James Cagney: Top of the World is a terrific biographical documentary hosted by Michael J. Fox. Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy is a comprehensive production retrospective with insights from Joan Leslie, John Travolta, Joel Grey, film historians Behlmer, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne, biographer David Collins, and more. In a five-minute solo piece, Travolta movingly reveals how Cagney influenced his life professionally and personally.

Warner Night at the Movies takes us back to 1942, when a ticket stub bought you a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions before the feature. You, John Jones is an inspirational wartime propaganda short starring Cagney and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

All this plus a pair of themed Looney Tunes cartoons and loads of ancillary material give us a DVD that really is (there's no way around it) a dandy. Dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase.


—Mark Bourne



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