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“My God, What An Act To Follow!”
LOCKED IN A STRANGE, TESTY COLLABORATION lit by the fires of a burning world, George M. Cohan and James Cagney produced a masterpiece of popular history in which everything is true except the facts
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
George M. Cohan was a key figure in the development of the American musical theater. As the movie claims, he was indeed born on the Fourth of July, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island. He and his sister, Josie, grew up in vaudeville, on the road, in hotels and dressing rooms, and as soon as they could dance or sing, they joined the family act. But whereas his parents were relatively happy to be itinerant troupers, George had a larger ambition, and it focused on Broadway. It demanded that he write his own plays and songs and produce the plays and own the theater. By sheer force of ego he pushed the musical comedy toward the written play. He was one of the authors of the period who broke the back of the “Performers’ Rule,” the domination of the theater by stars who would interpolate songs and comic bits into shows as the mood struck them. A Cohan show had a book and stuck to it. Cohan plays featured a headlong pace and a youthful, urbane, but wholesome air that reflected the concerns of the burgeoning American middle class much more than did the existing diet of vaudeville, English “Gaiety,” and Continental operettas. He did not strain for plot or theme; rather, as an initially skeptical actress puts it in Yankee Doodle Dandy , “a young sprout gets rich between eight-thirty and eleven P.M. ”
Cohan’s professional descendants, starting with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, took the musical to places that he himself couldn’t go. As Cohan revived and even recycled his old hits, he gradually lost his audience. The thing he had done so much to create had evolved into an all-encompassing vehicle that approached opera in its musical richness, ballet in its dancing, and social drama in its themes. Cohan was not interested in this type of play. He was still a fine actor, and some of his best performances were in O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! and Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right in the 1930s. But by then his natural distaste for other writers had been supplemented by jealousy, and he sometimes made the rehearsals of I’d Rather Be Right uncomfortable by sarcastically referring to the authors—probably the most successful team on Broadway at the time—as “Gilbert and Sullivan.”
HIS parents were relatively happy with the life of itinerant troupers, but George himself had far lanrer ambitions.
Cohan’s experience in Hollywood had been both unsuccessful and personally unpleasant. He made only one film there, The Phantom President . Despite promises, he had no control of the script and was not allowed to write any of the songs (they were by … Rodgers and Hart). He left believing that a film studio really was a factory, where star actors had little power and famous writers even less.
That certainly was the case at Warner Bros. The executive producer Hal Wallis had near-total creative control there. Wallis was a master chemist of the formulas that made a successful movie, and he used the story, the stars, the look, and the pace as elements to be repeated and varied from picture to picture.
Wallis could not have foreseen how Dandy would get away from him. That it did so was largely due to contract matters beyond his control. Cohan’s contract gave him an unusual say in the picture, and Cagney’s contained an almost unique clause that he had won only through a prolonged personal strike that began in 1936: He was free to leave the studio at the end of any picture. As production began on Dandy , Cagney announced that he would leave the studio after this one. In hopes of enticing him to stay—he was Warner’s biggest male star—the studio gave James and William Cagney what they wanted most: a big budget and creative control.
The film started routinely when Wallis chose a staff screenwriter, Robert Buckner, author of the recently completed Knute Rockne—All American , to prepare the script. Since both Cohan and his wife were in frail health (Cohan was fighting the cancer that would kill him), Buckner made an extended visit to New York in the spring and summer of 1941. While there he visited Cohan from two to five hours daily and accompanied him on his daily constitutional around the Central Park reservoir. Buckner also had the advantage of listening to such Cohan intimates as his director Sam Forrest and his producer and partner Sam Harris and of seeing the great man and his pals re-enact some of the old routines. Buckner made copious notes, but he was not a humorous writer. Nor was he much interested in the song and dance tradition.