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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
THE MOVIE is no documentary, yet many people worked to ensure that its era was portrayed with accuracy and integrity.
Aside from the stories and demonstrations that Cohan provided to Buckner for the script, some of the showman’s closest associates in the theater were brought to Hollywood to assist in the production. William Collier had first starred on Broadway in the 1890s. In 1914 he had appeared in a Cohan revue in which he wandered in and out of scenes carrying a hatbox said to contain the evening’s plot. Cohan was kidding his own weakness in giving in to the then current rage for revues. Collier was on the Warner’s payroll during rehearsals and the early filming, helping shape, among other sequences, one that showed that turn-of-the-century favorite “Peck’s Bad Boy.” He earned a credit as technical adviser on the film. Still more important was Johnny Boyle, another Broadway veteran who had both danced with Cohan and staged dances for him. He came in at the start of rehearsals and stayed till the final day of shooting, working with Cagney to perfect Cohan’s style and routines.
But the major force at work, once filming began, was James Cagney himself. Wallis and Warner’s conceded him and his brother unprecedented power; that their ideas worked, as Wallis could see from the daily production rushes, no doubt had a lot to do with it.
Cagney might not have had to act the part of a song-and-dance man, but he did have to impersonate Cohan. He had met Cohan briefly only once, at an audition, but he had friends who had worked for the man, and he sought their advice. Spencer Tracy, in particular, had been something of a Cohan protégé and was said to be the Hollywood actor most like Cohan in his style (it was to Tracy that Cohan delivered the epigrammatic advice “Whatever you do, kid, serve it with a little dressing”). Cohan was a flamboyant person who gained renown as an actor— especially late in his career—for his relaxed underplaying. Cagney reversed this, emphasizing the theatrical mannerisms when-Cohan is onstage in some of his most “jingly” roles but otherwise playing the character straight.
Other contributions by Cagney are less definite, but it is certain that he shared much of Cohan’s old-fashioned sensibility about light entertainment. He was in complete agreement with Cohan in hating “gooey” (passionate) love scenes; in fact, the quintessential love scene of his movie career may be the scene in Dandy in which he sings “Mary” for the first time to his future wife, played by Joan Leslie, and serves her coffee while she plays the piano. This was one of the little additions that were not in any script but bear Cagney’s unmistakable stamp. Another is the brief and very funny encounter between Cohan and the actor Eddie Foy in front of the theater. As usual there is truth around the edges of the frame— the street and posters are detailed copies of the real thing—but the dialogue between Cohan and Foy never appeared in any script, and Cagney is clearly delighted by the jousting with Eddie Foy, Jr. (playing his father), which comes right off the vaudeville stage. There is no evidence that Foy ever played any role in Cohan’s life, and in fact all Cohan’s real pals except Harris had been whittled away as the script was refined.
James Cagney and the director Michael Curtiz, each a strong-willed obsessive in his own way, fortunately got along well. But many more people were involved in bringing the story to life. The first dance director for the film, Seymour Felix, feuded with Cagney, according to studio memos. Was the conflict personal, professional, or creative? At any rate Felix was replaced by Leroy Prinz after three weeks of shooting. In a memo during the rehearsal period, William Cagney noted that the choreographer Moe Jerome had been “quite busy rehearsing players and dancers in the proper technique of the period” but was not yet under contract. Jerome and Jack Scholl also wrote a lot of incidental music and several brief tunes that were interpolated into the movie. Cohan’s contract had required that all the music in the film be written by him (a particular problem in scenes of his birth and childhood), but ultimately, popular non-Cohan tunes from John Philip Sousa to “Jeepers, Creepers” were incorporated. Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record” was also used but not credited. Cohan provided “one of my father’s own songs,” for the first appearance of Jerry Cohan (Walter Huston), but the Four Cohans’ signature number, “The Goggles Doll House,” is only glimpsed in montage, as are many of the early numbers.