Have a “Dandy” July 4th celebration

Published 9:00 am Saturday, July 3, 2021

BY SHERRON WESTERFIELD

Community columnist

Our family’s celebration of summer and Independence Day will begin with the gathering of friends, relatives and a dinner of summer foods, including grilled chicken and watermelon. Pineapple upside cake will round out the calories. And provided the weather permits and “the creek don’t rise,” we will also enjoy sparklers and a July 4th fireworks display.

In keeping with a patriotic frame of mind, we downloaded a 4-star movie to watch Sunday afternoon, as we have done nearly every summer. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Sound Recording, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Actor. Two hours of high-spirited entertainment kept us tapping our toes, nodding our heads, smiling,, and singing along. It was refreshing to watch a good movie with no violence, drugs, sex, or vulgar language.

I’m talking about the classic 1941 black and white film, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” This excellent musical is based loosely on the life and times of the great Irish-American song and dance man, George M. Cohen. (FYI: That’s pronounced “Co-han”, as they emphasize several times in the film, and was originally spelled Keohane.) The star of the show was none other than James Cagney, who became the first actor to receive an Academy Award, which he won in a career that spanned more than three decades.

I’ve seen many old movies starring James Cagney, and in most of them he played the street-smart bad boy or gangster. James Francis Cagney, Jr., the son of Irish immigrants, was born July 17, 1899 in the tough Yorkville section of Manhattan. By the time he was 14 James was known as one of Yorkville’s best young fighters. Later, Cagney drew on that experience to portray bad guys in the movies.

James Cagney bluffed his way into show business when he learned he could make $35 a week in Vaudeville. The green-eyed redhead became a talented dancer known for his stiff-legged energetic style.

When Warner Brothers cast Cagney in the role of the distinguished super-patriot, Cohen and his family strongly objected because of Cagney’s movie gangster fame. But later when, Cohen saw the film, he wept. Portraying Cohen in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a role that Cagney embraced with a passion that shows in his performance.

George Michael Cohen was born on July 3, 1878 and he died in 1942. When he was growing up he thought everyone was celebrating his birthday on July 4th so he continued to celebrate it on that date. His parents were vaudevillians who toured our developing nation with George and his younger sister. Josie (played beautifully in the movie by James Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne.)

The movie (in which brother William Cagney was associate producer) takes the viewer quickly through the years as The Four Cohens sing and dance across four states and western territories. Along the way, George meets his future bride, Agnes Mary Nolan. When their parents grow old and Josie marries, George and Mary strike out on their own writing songs and musicals in New York City and hoping for that “big break.”

They got it. George M. Cohen wrote more than 40 plays and musicals, and he produced, directed, and starred in most of them. His productions were noted for their high spirits, dazzling showmanship, and distinctive American flavor. His songs embody the American spirit. He claimed to be “an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like to see,” and Americans flocked to his Broadway productions.

Among George M. Cohen’s lastingly popular songs is a camp favorite, “Harrigan” (“H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan”) and the often performed, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” But it was “Over There” that made him famous and brought him accolades and honors in later years from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Over There” was written at the beginning of World War I and became one of the most popular American patriotic songs of all time.

Cohen also wrote “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The productions of those songs in the movie are spectacular. I enjoyed the movie so much that I forgot it was not in color!

If you want to enjoy a movie that will make your heart sing and lift your spirits, and one you can watch with your entire family, I wholeheartedly encourage you to purchase or download a copy of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” If that movie were to be shown the night before any election, I think there would be a record voter turnout. ”Yankee Doodle Dandy” will leave your family feeling full of pride, love of country, and possibly even with an overwhelming desire to enlist in our Armed Forces!

Enjoy a safe and happy holiday. And remember, if you drink, don’t drive.