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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
Cohan and Cagney were opposites in many ways. Cohan’s basic character was exuberant, egotistical, and stubborn. Though one of the leading actors of his day, he led the producers in their 1919 fight against the formation of the first New York actors’ union and remained intransigently anti-union thereafter. In the twenties and thirties he was celebrated more as an actor than a composer or dancer; indeed he was called “the First Actor.” But he was one of the few actors on Broadway who did not belong to Equity. Cohan did not imitate his father by bringing his own children into his shows. He had outgrown a family act, and no offspring could be expected to match his fire. In fact, despite his loyalty to family themes as a playwright and composer, his career prevented much of a family life for himself, and he spent much of his free time at two New York theatrical men’s clubs, the Friars and the Lambs.
Cagney, on the other hand, was very liberal and a forceful president of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild. He had an extremely prickly attitude toward his own producers at Warner Bros., especially Hal Wallis. His autobiography is full of complaints of how “the front office” ruined the good work the actors and creative people were trying to do on a picture. Though a great natural actor, he suffered from pre-performance butterflies. His basic demeanor was reserved and sensitive. He was a poet and painter, an early environmentalist, and an earnest student of the human condition. His close friend Pat O’Brien called him “the faraway fella.” Though he participated in boisterous weekly dinners of Hollywood’s Irish mafia in the 1930s, he was essentially a sober, devoted family man, a frustrated country squire who fled Hollywood whenever possible for one of his farms in the East.
Professionally though, Cagney was Cohan’s godson. Cohan not only had helped create the thriving theatrical industry that had given Cagney a career but also had transformed the role of the “song and dance man,” the job description Cagney claimed as his own. Before Cohan this was a minor act, in the words of Cohan’s biographer John McCabe, “not much above the trained seals or the Swiss bell-ringers.” Cohan broke through the musty traditions of the popular stage to make this character the center of his musical plays. Cagney started as a chorus boy, taking advantage of natural athletic ability and a gift for mimicry to master dance steps quickly. Like Cohan, he took some comfort in the knowledge that if all else failed, he could earn a living in his dancing shoes. “Just a dancer gone wrong,” Pat O’Brien called him.
But Cagney’s entire screen persona also owed something to Cohan. The young male, streetwise, fresh, and above all American, was the character Cohan originated as his own role in his early plays. This newcomer was breezy, self-confident, true to his roots, but determined to make America his own. It was a style that came from the streets, not from theatrical tradition, and after Cohan, it became a kind of stock character in a thousand plays and movies. The version Cagney played in his 1931 breakthrough movie, The Public Enemy , was cynical and dark, the underside of the archetype, but still the same basic creature (compare him to the square, stolid older brother who serves in the war and comes home to a nothing job as a streetcar conductor).
Cagney also inherited a tradition that Jerry Cohan had passed on to his son, George, in a poem. It contains advice for a hopeful songwriter—or anyone setting out to entertain an audience. Many can write songs, it says,
George Cohan also called this magic ingredient “the jingle” or “the dressing”—entertainment value born of a combination of experience and creativity, an utter identification with the audience, and manipulation of it. James Cagney worked as an actor to get the “listen” into every film he made—something extra, something memorable for the audience to take home. It was the thing that made him such a lousy factory worker. And in 1941 he was just about to quit the factory.
William Cagney had been involved in the picture from the start, working with Buckner to placate both Cohan and Wallis. Nevertheless, James read Buckner’s script, he recalled, “with incredulity. There wasn’t a single laugh in it, not the suggestion of a snicker. And this was a script purporting to be about a great American light entertainer, a professional humorist.” But a compromise was still possible. James would agree to do the picture if the script was turned over to Philip and Julius Epstein, the Warner Bros, masters of “dressing,” who had already improved a couple of Cagney films and would shortly go on to serve as coauthors of Casablanca .