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With over 40 plays and 500 songs written, George M. Cohan, known as the “man who owned Broadway”, helmed the American musical comedy.
It’s no wonder Hollywood saw the potential of a film about the giant, and after being courted, Cohan sold the rights to his life story for $50,000, which included cast and script approval.
Interestingly, years earlier, James Cagney actually auditioned for Cohan for a musical, but was turned down. Little did they both know that much later Cagney would bring this giant to life on the screen.
1. Filming began after a tragedy.
The first day they began filming was December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The actors and crew listened to President Roosevelt on the radio as the grave reality of war sunk in. Rosemary DeCamp wrote, “Throughout that picture we all worked in a kind of patriotic frenzy, as though we feared we may be sending a last message from the free world…” They held a war bond benefit for the film which raised over $5 million for the U.S. Treasury Department.
2. Cagney wasn’t the first choice.
Fred Astaire turned down the role. Initially, Cagney did too. However, he reconsidered when the script, which lacked comedy despite being about a musical comedy pioneer, was rewritten and infused with humor. Cagney worked hard as the lead and even retooled scenes and dialogue before they were shot to get the best moments possible. A typical day for the actor started at 6:30am, followed by choreography, a short lunch break, and then more work until five. It all paid off, as Cagney won an Oscar for his performance.
3. Cagney’s sister is in the film.
Jeanne Cagney plays Josie, George M. Cohan’s sister. Ann Miller and Ruby Keller were considered for the role, but Cagney vetoed both options. He suggested his sister take the role but wanted Director Michael Curtiz to confirm she fit the role. The director agreed, and she began dance practice before filming began. Cagney called her a “natural”.
4. Cohan was protective.
In fact, he stipulated that there would be no love scenes in the movie. Cagney was more than happy to oblige. “To me, a panting and grappling love scene is embarrassing when I see it on the screen,” he said. Thus, the love song “Mary” was simply spoken in the film with the subtly of love. After seeing the finished film, Cohan telegrammed Cagney to thank him for his wonderful performance.
5. Cagney was accused of being a communist.
When a former communist pointed a finger at Cagney, it threatened to end his career. Cagney met with the Chairman on the Committee of Un-American Activities to clear up the misunderstanding and was subsequently cleared of charges. The meeting even ended with the Chairman receiving Cagney’s autograph. Cagney and his film producer brother viewed Yankee Doodle Dandy as the way to further communicated where his allegiance lied.