Coming-Of-Age in Wartime:
American Propaganda and Patriotic Nationalism in Yankee Doodle Dandy
“It seems whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation comes along and 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 is still waving over us.”–James Cagney as George M. Cohan, from Yankee Doodle Dandy
“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.” -Captain Jack Young as the voice of “The President,” from Yankee Doodle Dandy
“The fact that slavery existed in this country is certainly something which belongs to the past and which we wish to forget at this time when unity of all races and creeds is all-important.” –OWI review of 1942 script Battle Hymn
I would like to lead off with a myth about the first day of production on the set of the Warner Brothers’ 1942 George M. Cohan biopic and wartime film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Shooting began on December 8, 1941 – the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor – and according to the story, James Cagney led a prayer consoling the cast and crew and made a collective resolution to produce the most inspirational war film possible. Until that day, studios producing war-themed films had been under fire from a faction of American Isolationists in Congress (led by Senator Gerald Nye).1 A Committee on Interstate Commerce was formed, and, on September 9, 1941, began an official investigation of “war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry and of any monopoly in the production, distribution, or exhibition of motion pictures” (Koppes and Black 23). Studio executives staunchly defended their position, arguing that their films were reflecting factual events, and were representative of the spirit of the American majority. Three months later, with Pearl Harbor, the Isolationist cause lost all credibility. The American government quickly realized the efficacy of Hollywood as a vehicle for shaping American morale, and the Office of War Information was given authority to screen and green-light film projects that presented images of heroic, spirited American people from the past and present, both at war and at home, protecting their nation and making small sacrifices for victory.
I will examine Yankee Doodle Dandy and certain aspects of its production history as artifacts of pre-Office of War Information wartime propaganda, and consider the historical scope of the movie and its visual and musical components from the perspective of American nationalism. The nationalist rhetoric and symbolism in Yankee Doodle Dandy runs parallel to a construction of popular American nationalism through a perceived “necessary” unification brought on by needs of wartime morale. An inclusive model of nationalism governs Yankee Doodle Dandy, and within it, many histories are shifted and elided: histories of George M. Cohan and his contribution to American culture, of James Cagney and the Warner Brothers Company, of race and its place in America, and of America itself.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, films dealing with war themes avoided direct reference to any American involvement in the current overseas conflict. The Warner films that had courted trouble with the Interstate Commerce Committee were Confessions of a Nazi Spy from 1939, and the 1941 films Underground and Sergeant York. Confessions and Underground were both, to a degree, Jack Warner’s response to the loss of a friend and overseas employee, who had been beaten to death by Nazis in Berlin. Sergeant York tells the story of a reluctant World War I war hero and refigures the post-World War legacy of horror and despair into sentimental belief that the Great War was a necessary and commendable national cause while metaphorically addressing American isolationism as an inadequate policy. The metaphorical strategy of Yankee Doodle Dandy parallels that of Sergeant York; Yankee Doodle Dandy is deeply invested in showing a unified American spirit, as well as showing what it means to be an American during wartime, and one of its strategies is the de-mythologization of post-World War I anxieties. Yankee Doodle Dandy also uses events and artifacts from the World War I setting to draw analogous constructions to Second World War: the torpedoing of the Lusitania is likened to the Pearl Harbor bombing as the American catalyst to war, and George M. Cohan’s war song “Over There” (1917) is an anthem for both historical and contemporary soldiers. The apparent lesson is that Americans need to understand that war has been necessary to preserve American ideals; the implicit message is that Americans do indeed have an established history as a unified people, and they are deriving their lessons from a history of such justified warfare.
In 1941, a sixty-two year old George M. Cohan was pitching his life story to Hollywood executives. When talks with MGM broke down, William Cagney (brother of James Cagney) brought the idea to Jack Warner.2 The collaboration to follow fulfilled needs all around: Cohan got his everlasting, film-documented fame in a patriotic war film that confirmed that he had made an ineradicable impression upon America, including especially its catalog of patriotic song, the Warners followed up on their implicit commitment to support the wartime effort through film, and James Cagney participated in a film that effaced accusations from Los Angeles politicians that he was a communist.3
James Cagney’s performance as George M. Cohan altered the actor’s image both within the Hollywood community and for the American audience, if briefly. By grafting his portrayal of the patriotic Irish-American song-and-dance man onto his well-established tough-guy persona, Cagney created an alternative mythologized American hero. Clearly invested in accurately rendering Cohan’s style of performance, Cagney imitated Cohan’s declamatory manner of singing and his unique and athletic dance style – all part of the confident “American” attitude that characterized Cohan’s self-presentation. Irish ethnicity is a formidable presence in Cagney’s portrayal of Cohan as well, layered onto the character by the experience of the man playing him, who had grown up in lower-class Irish and Yiddish neighborhoods in the Lower East Side of New York.4 Cagney’s background as a vaudeville performer (he started as a female impersonator) became a part of his own mythology with this film, and Hollywood lauded his efforts by awarding him with an Academy Award.5 Cagney’s public life, a combination of both his biography and his filmography, is an American coming-of-age tale in itself, beginning as a street kid doing vaudeville, eventually becoming the quintessential film gangster — an archetypal “hero” of American lore – yet growing up and out of that role in step with the nation’s shifting attitudes, melding the Irish and the Yiddish and the New Yorker into a rebellious everyman that finally matured into a role of leadership as founder and president of the Screen Actors Guild.6 American anarchist and rebel, immigrant mediator, and finally the ultimate patriot, Cagney’s career trajectory culminates in a homogenization of his prior history that models the myth of America’s development.
The story of George M. Cohan’s family has its own lessons about nation: in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cohan’s life is traced from infancy to 1941, and as he matures, his country matures as well. By the design of the narrative structure of the film and by his own personal mythologies, a parallel is established between Cohan and America itself, based on familial lineage: both were born on the fourth of July, with Cohan claiming a relationship to Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty in song (“A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam”) and staging (with Cohan’s father and mother – played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp – appearing onstage during the “Grand Old Flag” montage as Sam and Liberty).7
Cohan’s wife Mary and sister Josie join the rest of the family at the front of the stage during the performance of “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” The actress playing Josie is Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s younger sister; her presence layers a non-diegetic emphasis on family togetherness onto the film’s diegetic family. Eventually, Cohan will play the President of the United States on Broadway; symbolically stating that, in his own way, the Irish vaudeville kid has grown up to hold patriotic clout as powerful as that of the Commander in Chief.
Young Cohan anthropomorphizes the mythological characteristics of the struggling young American nation: talented and capable, yet unestablished – without home and history, and lacking power in the real world. Growth is negotiated through struggle; Cohan must contend with rejection by established Broadway performers and producers reluctant to move past European conventions, and manage internal family difficulties. The lesson for the people of a nation is that the consequence of forgotten history is fragmentation and vulnerability. In a voice-over, Cagney as Cohan voices these sentiments at the cusp of World War I:
It seems whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation comes along and 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 is still waving over us.
However, part of myth-making (and the unification it can provide) is conveniently forgetting histories as well. In performative contexts, the construction of American-ness is defined immediately by clear understandings of what America is not, and then a broad inclusion of all elements that make up what America is. In this way, Cohan is a perfect choice to define America through cultural war, as his vaudevillian aesthetics are a clear snub to European popular theater styles (and particularly that of operetta), and his own performances are melting pots of American signifiers (such as American vernacular speech, minstrel tunes, and familiar national and regional songs). An understanding of Cohan’s effect on the process of cultural self-identification within the framework of nation is made explicit in the film, and framed in patriotic terms by an actor playing a Franklin Delano Roosevelt according to older conventions associated with portrayals of spiritual leaders (such as God or Christ) – not identified by name and never seen full-face:
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.
The musical centerpiece of the film is a medley and visual montage of the Cohan tune “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”8 The original song is a collection of national signifiers, containing musical quotations of Robert Burns’s (presumably) old Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne” and Daniel Emmett’s minstrel tune — later a Confederate anthem –“Dixie,” and it is further fortified by lyric allusions to the reclaimed Revolutionary War tune “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”9
“You’re a Grand Old Flag”
There’s a feeling comes a-stealing
And it sets my brain a-reeling,
When I’m listening to the music of a military band.
Any tune like “Yankee Doodle”
Simply sets me off my noodle,
It’s that patriotic something that no one can understand.
(“Dixie) “Way down south, in the land of cotton,” Melody untiring, ain’t that inspiring?
(“Marching Thru’ Georgia”) “Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll join the jubilee!”
“And that’s going some, for the Yankees, by gum!”
Red, white, and blue, I am for you.
(“Yankee Doodle Boy”) Honest, you’re a grand old flag.
You’re a Grand Old Flag,
You’re a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of the land I love,
“The home of the free and the brave.”
(“Star Spangled Banner”) Every heart beats true for the red, white, and blue,
And there’s never a boast or brag.
“But should auld acquaintance be forgot,”
(“Auld Lang Syne”) Keep your eye on the Grand Old Flag.
Many of these quotations are martial, evoking the mythology of a nation proudly born of war. Indeed, war imagery was the initial inspiration for Cohan when writing “Grand Old Flag;” he claimed that he overheard a Civil War veteran refer to the stars and stripes as a “grand old rag,” and he used the epithet as the original title and subject of his song, quite markedly inscribing the tradition of the tattered American symbol described in “The Star-Spangled Banner” onto his grand old rag, which, despite rockets and bombs exploding about, is “still there” after the conflict.10
National sentiment is understood as an ineffable experience, stirred and cultivated by symbolic representations of America:
There’s a feeling comes a-stealing and it sets my brain a-reeling,
When I’m listening to the music of a military band;
Any tune like “Yankee Doodle” simply sets me off my noodle,
It’s that patriotic something that no one can understand.
American spirit is associated with an emotional thrill upon recognition of American qualities, or nostalgia for American signifiers. Nationalist spirit is defined as a unifying force, a common experience that is supposed to be deeply rooted within the people of a nation. Cohan’s tunes in Yankee Doodle Dandy are historically nostalgic to prior American experience, and wellsprings of wartime symbols.
Musical and visual staging of the “Grand Old Flag” medley in the film provides a no less unusual assortment of histories, as the filmmakers layer additional musical arrangements and visual relics onto their source. This amalgamation presents an idealistic version of the American model of national inclusiveness, in which past offenses are absorbed by the spirit of unification. The medley opens with Cagney as Cohan singing the verse, uniformed in a Civil War Yankee uniform, surrounded by a men’s chorus similarly arrayed and standing at strict attention in their choral ranks. The first vocal entrance of the uniformed men is a musical snippet of the “Dixie” tune: “Way down south, in the land of cotton,” thrown-off with such staunch confidence that the Southern-associated tune is seamlessly assimilated with the images of the Northern soldiers. Military anachronism surfaces again, with the chorus singing the 1860s Union tune “Johnny Comes Marching Home” over images of Teddy Roosevelt marching with his soldiers of the Spanish-American War.11
Transition from the Civil War imagery is clamorously made with the beginning of a montage that frees itself from the perspective of the theater audience and briefly transports the film audience away from the proscenium. The first of these visuals is a reproduction of the 1876 painting by A.M. Willard, “Spirit of ’76” (a Centennial extrapolation of a Revolutionary War fifer, drummer, and color-bearer) playing a military march of “Yankee Doodle.” Forward motion is a unifying visual theme of the entire montage, with the actors (both military and civilian) tromping forward, unified in movement to the march rhythms of the music; whether facing east or west, all the human components of the scene are seeming to work in tandem effort toward a central goal.12
Following the initial militaristic imagery, we get the first glimpse of civilians – and of an African-American presence.13 A solitary African-American baritone is spotlighted as other black actors dressed in civil-war era slave’s attire file onto the stage, and he sings the chorus from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” stylized in the manner of a black spiritual: “Glory, glory hallelujah, His truth is marching on.” The affect is devout and the soloist seems to be channeling Paul Robeson’s Show Boat persona: the philosophical black worker. Whose truth we are meant to glean from this snippet of the “Battle Hymn” seems to merge God’s — as the song itself indicates — with Lincoln’s — as the “emancipated slaves” stretch their open arms toward the grand stage-reproduction of the Lincoln Memorial statue. A disembodied voice — which the audience is meant to extrapolate as that of Abraham Lincoln — booms from his statue and filters over wordless vocals from the chorus, quoting “himself” from the Gettysburg Address: “…and this government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”14
The Office of War Information was particularly concerned with shaping the morale of African Americans, who would be fighting the war, too. As an Office of War Information script review of a near-contemporary race film put it, “The fact that slavery existed in this country is certainly something which belongs to the past and which we wish to forget at this time when unity of all races and creeds is all-important.”15 Two films with all black casts that targeted the African American demographic with this wartime goal were Twentieth Century Fox’s Stormy Weather (1943), which opens with a flashback to World War I with Cohan’s “Over There” as underscore, and MGM’s Cabin in the Sky(1944), which suggests rural Christian community as a unifying model.16 In this clip from Yankee Doodle Dandy, a problematic myth is invoked and reinforced: the noble, appreciative religiousness of the black slave.
The montage shifts again, and a crowd of working-class men and women and students (dressed in cap and gown, holding diplomas) march over the top horizon of the stage, speaking – not singing – words of solidarity; gesturing toward labor union struggles of the 1930s. The use of speech rather than song and the mass unranked marching evokes the appearance of a strike. In this montage sequence, the women are present at last among the ranks of the workers, dressed as domestics and Red Cross nurses. They do not chant with the men, but rather sing wordless vocals in accompaniment; implicit in this arrangement is the highly propagandized supporting role of women in wartime – diligent unified workers on the homefront. They pause to sing the first lines from the Revolutionary War hymn “My Country ’Tis Of Thee.”
Within the film, the “Grand Old Flag” number is a milestone in the progression of the American character; it is an expression of nationalism that has matured since Cohan’s turn as a braggart jockey in the earlier production number from Little Johnny Jones. In that show, Cohan’s aggressive American qualities are rendered through brashly patriotic vernacular lyrics, athleticism in dance, and the show’s direct challenge to European sensibilities. By the time “Grand Old Flag” appears, Cohan and America have grown up from braggart to big dog, from lonely confidence to assurance in unity. He expresses unity with his family, refraining from extended dance solos while still expressing a role of leadership as he fronts the pageantry of flags and hundreds of extras.17
If Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones is youth and confidence, then his “Grand Old Flag” is an America on the cusp of adulthood; it rallies its World War II audience with patriotic symbol and spirit, but also offers a nationalist promise: that they live in a country with a past that warrants defense and loyalty, and that their country possesses an unbroken unity of people who believe in their nation.
Books and Articles
Altman, Rick. American Film Musicals. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History. Ed. David Culbert. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Hollywood Musicals, the Film Reader. ed. Steven Cohan. London: Routledge, 2002.
Jenkins, Jennifer. “’Say It With Firecrackers:’” Defining the “War Musical” of the 1940s.” American Music, Vol. 19 No. 3 (Autumn 2001): 315-339.
Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
——— The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. New York: The Free Press, 1987.
McLaughlin, Robert L. and Sally E. Parry. We’ll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Tracey, Grant. “Outside/Inside: James Cagney as Ethnic In-between, 1930-1933.” Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. <http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue01/infocus/cagney1.htm>.
Woll, Allen L. The Hollywood Musical Goes to War. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.
Films and Music
All American Patriotic Songbook. Ed. John L. Haag. Hal Leonard, 1996.
Cabin in the Sky. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne. MGM, 1943.
Carousel of American Music: The Fabled 24 September 1940 San Francisco Concerts. Compact Discs. Music & Arts Programs of America, 1997.
Cohan, George M. Song Album No. 1. New York: G.M. Cohan, 1960.
Cohan, George M. Songs of Yesteryear. Florida: Columbia Pictures Publications, 1984.
Sergeant York. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1941.
Stormy Weather. Dir. Andrew L. Stone. Perf. Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway. Twentieth Century Fox, 1943.
Yankee Doodle Dandy. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Perf. James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1942.
The first version of this paper was my final project for Raymond Knapp’s Winter 2004 seminar at UCLA on music and nationalism. I would like to thank my colleagues from that seminar, as well as the organizers and participants at the 2006 Echo Conference Music and the Public Sphere. I wish to extend my deepest thanks and gratitude to Raymond Knapp for his assistance in developing this project and for his many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
- Jack and Harry Warner and Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Films (formerly of Warner’s) were the filmmakers under the heaviest scrutiny from Congress; they were also the most vocal defenders of war-themed films. ↩
- William Cagney reportedly said: “…they should make a movie with Jim playing the damndest patriotic man in the whole world, George M. Cohan” (Woll 45). ↩
- Buron Fitts, Los Angeles District Attorney who was up for re-election in 1940, mounted a campaign to “expose” Hollywood communists. ↩
- Cagney was fluent in Yiddish, having picked it up from the streets as a kid. This ability came in handy as a gag in his 1932 film Taxi, where he plays an Irish taxi-driver dealing with a Yiddish fare. ↩
- Cagney said about his 1942 Oscar win: “Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. Those few words tell as much about me professionally as there is to tell.” The film also received awards for Best Musical Score and Best Sound. ↩
- Cagney was SAG president from 1942-1944. His positive relationship with the actor’s union is ironic, since Cohan foiled his own career by opposing the actor’s union. ↩
- Cohan was actually born on the 3rd of July. ↩
- The tune itself is from George Washington Jr. (1906), but the medley, its orchestration and staging are all unique to the film. ↩
- Words from poet Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 who saw the bombing of Fort McHenry, set to music from 1780’s British men’s club Anacreontic Society. The melody had been popular in the US during the early 1810s and several texts were set to the tune. It was officially recognized as the national anthem by Congress in 1931. ↩
- Detractors protested that “rag” had a disrespectful connotation, and Cohan changed “rag” to “flag.” ↩
- “Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a far more upbeat and victorious – and American – version of the sentimental anti-war Irish air “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.” ↩
- When Cohan and his family reappear toward the end of the number, the trick is revealed as the film audience sees an infinite number of patriotically costumed chorus girls appear onstage walking forward on treadmill-like conveyor belts. ↩
- Early in the film, the Four Cohans (the Cohan family vaudeville act) perform a short dance number in blackface, illustrating part of America’s theatrical history and its problematic relationship to African Americans. The thematic portrayal of unity through music and marching with both soldiers and civilians is revisited at the end of the film, when Cohan leaves the grounds of the White House and joins the ranks of a military parade along with other bystanders, all proudly singing “Over There.” ↩
- The in-film quotation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is inscribed upon the memorial as well. In what may have been intended as another non-diegetic reference, years earlier, Walter Huston played Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s first sound film, Abraham Lincoln (1930). Here, Huston provides the Lincoln voice-over, and as the senior Cohan, Huston also plays Uncle Sam elsewhere in the montage, with a Lincoln-like beard. ↩
- This quotation is from the OWI script review of race film “Battle Hymn,” reported on Aug 20, 1942 (Koppes and Black 142). ↩
- In the 1930s and 1940s, black actors in Hollywood had limited opportunities, usually playing servants and comic characters, or performing in musical numbers that would sometimes be cut out of the film when it was screened in the South. In his discussion of Stormy Weather, Raymond Knapp discusses the cynicism of Hollywood “recruiting” African Americans for the war: “Moreover, the larger point of the film, or at least of the elaborate musical sequences that frame its central narrative, seems wholly cynical: to celebrate black contributions to the earlier war effort in order to ‘support,’ in advance, their contribution in the second” (82). ↩
- The building in the backdrop of the final staging is not the White House, but the Capitol building. Before World War II, community and regional pride were more immediately unifying for Americans than national pride. I would like to thank Graham Raulerson for pointing out the capitol building and Mitchell Morris for his related observations. ↩