Actor and songwriter George M. Cohan (James Cagney) is impersonating President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the musical show “I'd Rather Be Right”, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, when he is summoned to meet the president at the White House. In response to the president's questions, George tells him the story of his life:

George was born on the Fourth of July, 1878 to Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp) Cohan, a pair of vaudeville actors. A short time later, his sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney) is born and soon the family is touring the country as "The Four Cohans."

The family gets a big break when they are hired to star in “Peck's Bad Boy” . At thirteen, George, the star of the play, is a success, but his self-importance is responsible for losing the Cohans several bookings.

Several years later, George, now a young man, meets aspiring singer Mary (Joan Leslie) when he is playing the part of an old man and she comes backstage to ask his sage advice about breaking into show business. The Cohans and Mary, (who soon learns George's real age), go to New York, where George tries to sell the songs he has written. When he learns that The Four Cohans are losing work because of his reputation for bad behavior, he pretends that his play has been sold so that the others will accept a booking without him.

Later, in a bar, George overhears Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf) talking with Schwab (S.Z. Sakall), a potential backer, and offers him his new musical, “Little Johnny Jones”. Sam and George become partners and produce a number of plays that feature George's popular formula of success stories laced with patriotism.

In the meantime, George proposes to Mary, Josie becomes engaged, and the older Cohans buy a farm and retire. It is the end of The Four Cohans and George takes this opportunity to write “Popularity”, a serious play, however it fails miserably. But news of its failure is wiped out of the papers by the sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans in 1915. When the U.S. enters the war, George tries to enlist, but at thirty-nine, is too old to be a soldier. Unable to fight, George writes the inspirational song "Over There."

After World War I, Cohan writes more shows. After his father, mother and sister pass away, George, feeling his age, dissolves his partnership with Sam so that he and Mary can take a much-needed rest. They travel to Europe and Asia, and end up on the Cohan farm. George pretends to enjoy his life, but he hates being out of the limelight.

After a group of teenagers see George reading Variety and think that the headline "Stix Nix Hix Pix" is a form of jive talk, George realizes how much he still wants to be performing and gladly accepts Sam's offer to star in “I'd Rather be Right”. The president has listened quietly to George's story and now presents him with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his songs "Over There" and "It's a Grand Old Flag." George is the first actor to receive this honor, and he responds as he used to when he was with The Four Cohans, "My Mother thanks you; my Father thanks you; my Sister thanks you; and I thank you." When George leaves the White House, a parade of soldiers and a band march by singing "Over There," and George proudly joins them, marching down the middle of the street.

Oscar
8 Nominations
3 Awards
Best Actor
Best Music
Best Sound

Golden Globes
0 Nominations
0 Awards
Cagney was a fitting choice for the role, as a fellow Irish-American who had been a song-and-dance man himself early in his career. His unique and seemingly odd presentation style, of half-singing and half-reciting the songs, reflected the style that Cohan himself used. His natural dance style and physique were also a good match for Cohan. Newspapers at the time reported that Cagney intended to consciously imitate Cohan's song-and-dance style, but to play the normal part of the acting in his own style. Although director Curtiz was famous for being a taskmaster, he also gave his actors some latitude. Cagney and other players improvised a number of "bits of business," as Cagney called them.

The real George M. Cohan first approached Sam Goldwyn, a personal friend, to do the picture and demanded creative control. But when his choice to play himself, Fred Astaire, turned down the role, Cohan backed out of the project. Jack Warner, however, loved the project, and one of the lot's biggest stars, James Cagney, was looking for a patriotic role to offset the recent bad publicity he'd received (the liberal star had been accused of being a Communist, which he was cleared of). Warner was excited to take on the biography, and after viewing earlier Cagney musicals, Cohan agreed with the casting of Cagney. Cagney, incidentally, had actually auditioned, once, for a Cohan play...and was rejected!

Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp are fantastic as his parents. Richard Whorf was excellent as partner and friend Sam Harris. Jeanne Cagney (James real life sister) is good as Cohan's sister Josie, and Joan Leslie is wonderful as Mary Cohan.

Equally memorable are George Tobias and Chester Clute as Dietz and Goff, while S.Z.Sakall is hysterical as a backer who loves chorus girls. S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall was a character actor well known for playing an amorous, befuddled womanizer. He was long overlooked for an Academy Award in many fine films.

Irene Manning as Fay Templeton is a perfectly snobbish star who tries to come between George and Mary, eventually taking over the title song Mary which was written for his wife in one of George’s productions. Portraying his father, Eddie Foy Jr. is terrific as Cohan's rival and closest friend. Cagney ended up reprising his role as George M. Cohan in the film on Eddie Foy’s life “The Seven Little Foys” with Bob Hope portraying Eddie Foy.
With a handful of song and dance tunes, many composed by Cohan himself, the film boasts many numbers, such as: I Was Born in Virginia, Harrigan, Give My Regards to Broadway, Oh, You Wonderful Girl, Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway, Mary and while many of these songs are Broadway show tunes, the most memorable ones happen to be the patriotic songs, especially Grand Old Flag, Over There, and of course, the title tune Yankee Doodle Dandy.

While Cagney has never been known for his singing voice, he handles the score beautifully as does the rest of the cast. His dance routines are unbelievably meticulous with each step looking effortless.
The whole movie is a rousing, energetic, flag waving musical directed by Michael Curtiz, who directed “Casablanca” that same year. He gave his actors freedom throughout the making of the movie using many improvisations from the actors in the finished cut. One of the best dance sequences shows Cagney's Cohan walking down a marble staircase at the White House when he suddenly starts tapping and improvises all the way to the bottom. Cagney later said he dreamed that up five minutes before the scene was shot: "I didn't consult with the director or anything, I just did it".

As Bosley Crowther, of the N.Y. Times (1942) stated: “Indeed, there is so much in this picture and so many persons that deserve their meed of praise that every one connected with it can stick a feather in his hat and take our word—it's dandy!”