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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
Cagney’s biographer the film historian Patrick McGilligan has detailed the changes wrought by the Epsteins. They threw out the contrived period of failure and largely ignored the “struggle against adversity” formula beloved by Wallis. The central feature of early script drafts, the failure of Popularity , was shrunk to a passing incident, and the accompanying character flaw was transformed into a moment of admirable self-appraisal when Cohan dictates a telegram urging the public to please miss the remaining performances. What survived from Buckner’s draft was the next sequence: Cohan and his partner, Sam Harris, walk out of the telegraph office into the news of the sinking of the Lusitania , and George is inspired by the notes of a bugle call to write the tune “Over There,” which he first performs at an Army camp for the troops. This was straight from Cohan’s memory and Buckner’s notes, even to the lighting of the stage by the truck headlights when the power fails.
But the Epsteins also ignored Cohan’s desires by making his romance with the composite sweetheart-wife (now named Mary) an integral part of the picture, beginning on page 23 of the script and striking romantic sparks (still thoroughly innocent and gently comic) right away. Perhaps by way of compensation they also wrote Jerry Cohan’s moving deathbed scene: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you …” (though its emotion came mostly from Cagney’s performance). But the Epsteins’ main contribution was in details, as McGilligan notes: “Scene by scene they added jokes, colloquial dialogue, period references.” When they began writing, the film was already in pre-production. Sets were being built, costumes sewn, and props gathered. They continued writing during the first month of filming, with William Cagney delivering new script pages directly to the sound stage. Under these pressures Cohan was not consulted on script changes.
DAYS after production started, the cast stood around a radio listening to FOR deliver his war message to Congress.
An unexpected strain was added a few days after production started. The actress Rosemary DeCamp, who played his mother, Nellie Cohan, described the cast and crew standing around before shooting started on Monday morning, December 8, 1941, listening to the radio while President Roosevelt delivered the “date which will live in infamy” war message to Congress. A staticky “Star-Spangled Banner” followed, and some of the shaken group rose to their feet. At the end of the broadcast James Cagney added, “I think a prayer goes here… .” Director Michael Curtiz spoke: “Now boys and girls, we have work to do. We have had bad news, but we have a wonderful story to tell the world. So let’s put away sad things and begin.” DeCamp goes on to describe the whole company in a fever of worry and patriotic pride, “as if we were sending a last message from the free world.”
If there had been any sense of cynicism or irony among the filmmakers toward Cohan’s old-fashioned patriotism, it was erased by the news during that worrisome winter, as Allied forces retreated all over the globe. The patriotic elements of the film are presented with utter sincerity, and they remain strong in a very different America more than half a century later. Particularly stirring is the scene recalling the country’s entry into World War I as Cohan/Cagney cautions, “Seems it always happens—whenever we get too high hat and too sophisticated for flag waving, some thug nation decides we’re a push-over, all ready to be black-jacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up mighty anxiously to make sure the flag is still waving over us.”
It was a line Cohan probably never said but surely would have loved, and it summarizes the film’s approach to biography. This movie is certainly not a documentary, yet many efforts were made by many people to ensure that characters, events, and an era were portrayed with accuracy and integrity. On the other hand, as in all biopics, all those involved admitted they were changing facts to juice up the story, simplify the characters, or avoid legal problems. Much of the authenticity is visual and seen in passing or around the edges of the frame. It’s in a brief glimpse of a program, the decoration of a dressing room, snatches of dialogue. Strictly as a biography Dandy is silly. (Cohan’s daughter Georgette said, “That’s the kind of a life Daddy would have liked to have lived.”) As a memoir of a public career, however, and of Cohan’s theatrical world, it’s pretty good. Because Cohan was so well known, and his theatrical world still survived (vaudeville, for example, actually enjoyed something of a comeback in the forties), the people who made the film probably could not appreciate how quickly that world would fade away.