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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
Cinema biography was a specialty of Wallis’s: Émile Zola, Louis Pasteur, and Benito Juárez all had received the Wallis treatment. Though these were among the best film biographies of the studio era, they were still ruled by Hollywood formulas: There must be a love story; genius can be eccentric but never offensive; and above all there must be a “rooting interest,” a mountain the main character has to climb, a central failure that humbles him and inspires his ultimate triumph. Buckner faced dramatic problems in all these areas. Cohan’s career was singularly free of any serious setbacks: A published songwriter in his mid-teens, he was managing the family act a few years later and firmly established on Broadway at twenty-six. Thereafter he churned out the hits, performed, produced, owned many theaters, and took immense personal satisfaction from all of it. The few episodes with any dramatic meat on them—the divorce from his first wife, the occasional tirade against a critic, the rabid anti-unionism that was very publicly flaunted in the New York Actors’ Equity strike of 1919—Cohan refused to allow in the script, and these did not really fit the formula anyway. The fact that Cohan was still alive and had script approval prevented the kind of egregious fabrication that had marred the just-completed Warner-Wallis bio of George Custer, They Died With Their Boots On , which managed to insult both Custer and his Indian foes.
WARNER’S finally had an approved script. But when Cagney saw it he refused to do the picture, saying it was dull and humorless.
Finally, Buckner had an inspiration, born of desperation. This revolved around the period in 1906–7 when Cohan’s first marriage and his first non-musical play, Popularity , failed at the same time. In reality Cohan quickly recovered, marrying Agnes Nolan, the love of his life, and producing a couple of frothy and very popular musicals before the year was out. In Buckner’s version, George’s “girl” leaves him because of his high self-opinion and lack of serious romantic intentions. Then Popularity not only fails but fails miserably, and George becomes “the laughingstock of the wise boys of Broadway” and goes into a long career slide. A full ten years later he meets and reconciles with “Agnes,” then writes the song “Over There” and returns to glory. A copy of the script was given to Cohan, and Buckner reported that he was very enthusiastic about it.
Not so enthusiastic, though, that he did not think he could improve on it. Despite his illness and his depression over the July 1941 death of his old friend and partner Sam Harris, Cohan showed his typical speed and mettle by turning out a two-hundred-page screenplay, which he sent to Warner’s in August. Buckner and Wallis had to be dismayed, for it almost completely ignored their Hollywood formula of professional and romantic difficulties. Cohan was making it clear that this story was going to be told his way, and while Buckner had gone to great lengths to honor the old man’s wishes, he had not gone far enough for Cohan. The showman didn’t like the treatment of his parents, the fabrication about his professional failure, and most particularly the treatment of the romantic interest. In Buckner’s version, George meets Agnes on page 43 of the screenplay (or roughly forty-three minutes into the movie). He gives her one of his songs to sing in her act, and their relationship begins as a professional, platonic one, generating no romantic spark until late in the story. Buckner hoped this would placate Cohan. It did not. In his version George and Agnes meet, on page 125, aboard a ship after George has retired, as he is sailing to Europe with his mother!
Time now became a factor because Warner’s option on the Cohan story expired unless a filmable screenplay was produced, and approved by Cohan, by October 11. Wallis, Buckner, and William Cagney, representing his brother, presented a united front in a long, gentle but firm letter to Cohan in which they politely explained the requirements of Hollywood dramatic convention. Buckner redrafted, incorporating many details from Cohan’s script, but keeping his basic structure. Cohan, weakened and uncertain of recovery, gave his approval.
Hal Wallis now had his script and approval to begin filming (though Cohan still retained veto of the final picture, a fact that maintained his influence and worried Warner Bros, right up to the release date). Then Cagney refused to do the picture. He said the script was dull and humorless.
James Cagney was born in New York City in 1899, just as George M. Cohan was about to conquer the city. Both names, Cagney and Cohan, are Americanizations of Irish names: O’Caigne and Keohane. Cohan grew up in the almost genteel vagabondage of a theatrical family, a strong family whose guiding force was his father Jerry’s enduring love of performance. Indeed the theater in all its parts was George’s home, and he was as comfortable in a stage drawing-room set as in his own home, a fact that no doubt contributed to his success. One of his stylistic trademarks as a playwright was to address the audience directly and poke fun at the worn conventions of theater “magic.”
The Cagneys moved a lot too—from tenement to tenement. Cagney’s father, James, Sr., was charming but utterly feckless. He drank sixty shots of rye every day, his namesake later recalled, and he died in the flu epidemic of 1918. His widow, Carolyn, kept the family together and her kids in school through the toughest times.