Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Fourth of July

Where do we learn about love? About hate? About selfishness? About generosity? We learn from our parents. We learn from our friends. From our Clergy. But for many people, we learn from the movies we watch.

This July 4th, many Americans will learn about Independence Day and the life of George M. Cohan, a flamboyant Irishman and the personification of American patriotism, from Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1942 film biography of Cohan starring James Cagney. TCM will screen the film twice on July 4th as will the Movie Channel.

Red Wood Coast

Cagney wanted to make the film because his own patriotism was being questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, accusing him of being a Communist. Cagney, a committed liberal who strongly supported workers’ rights, hoped to end such accusations by playing Cohan, an ardent patriot When the film was released, the Committee dropped its accusations.

My grandfather, M.K. (Moe) Jerome played a major role in the making of that film. He taught Cagney to dance in the stiff leg way that Cohan used as well as other members of the cast: Walter Huston, Joan Leslie, and Cagney’s sister, Jeanne. Moe was so active on the set, playing the piano, and coordinating the twelve major Cohan numbers the cast performed, that the film’s producer William Cagney (Jimmy’s brother) dubbed him the movie’s “choreographer.’’

Moe and his lyricist partner, Jack Scholl, also wrote two new songs for the film, “All Aboard For Old New York,’’ and “Good Luck Johnny.’’ People who watched the film had no idea that they weren’t authentic Cohan numbers—until James Cagney revealed the truth. Cagney was so upset that many who worked on the film did not receive the screen credit they deserved. Cohan would not allow any music which was not his from receiving credit.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Not long after the 1943 Oscar ceremonies—in which Cagney won as Best Actorthe only Oscar he ever won in his career, Cagney took out a full page ad in Variety thanking those he felt were ignored. At the top of the list of six men were M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl who, Cagney wrote, “did a masterful job of telling the entire story of ‘little Johnny Jones’ in about 12 minutes of verse.’’ Moe would never forget Cagney’s kindness or Cohan’s selfishness.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was Cagney’s last film at Warner Brothers. He left the studio to form his own production company. Other great roles lay ahead, like White Heat (1949) and Mister Roberts (1955) but none required Moe’s talents. He never worked with Cagney again.

So on this Independence Day, remember the film’s forgotten men overlooked by Cohan.

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VisitGary Mayonline at garymayauthor.com. The Tunesmith is available through bearmanormedia.com.

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