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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
But the sets, costumes, and props were minutely investigated and brilliantly re-created. The research department put together a huge scrapbook containing stills, programs, and reviews of Cohan plays, photos of every part of a dozen Broadway theaters and of the street itself, and portraits of all the principal figures represented. The scenes in dressing rooms and theatrical offices are mostly pure invention and represent to some degree a transposition of stage business into the “real life” story of the film, but the rooms they take place in are authentic. A stage platform was built on the sound stage and redecorated to represent each of the dozen or so theaters shown in the film, from the gaslit Colony Opera House of 1878 Providence to the thirties Deco Alvin Theater set of I’d Rather Be Right . Leroy Prinz’s staging of “Grand Old Flag,” the visual highlight of the film, utilized a stagewide treadmill to improve the troupe’s marching and a puppet effect to create the illusion of hundreds of marching men with flags in the finale. In his plan Prinz noted that this was not a “[Busby] Berkeley effect” created by the camera but “legitimate stagecraft” that could have been developed at the time and place being portrayed.
CAGNEY was in charge all the way, but he had absorbed the influence of his subject, and the film was Cohan’s redemption.
Even the heavily rigged story does not do too serious violence to the historical world of Cohan, except in a few places. The raucous feuding of Cohan with Rodgers and Hart during the previews of I’d Rather Be Right , an episode still fresh in the minds of the New York theater crowd, is completely papered over. And the idea that Cohan ever really retired is grossly sentimental; the screenwriters’ central problem all along had been that the man had no notable life outside his work. Cohan may have run out of fresh ideas after more than thirty years of writing, but he never stopped trying. The fact that he could, as an actor, still deliver hits for other authors only increased his frustration. His whole life experience fought against the idea of his being only an actor.
The contentedly hammocked retirement portrayed in the film has on it the stamp of Cagney, not Cohan. If Cohan retired anywhere, it was to the Lambs Club or the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, where he held forth, swapping theater stories with his pals and plotting one more project. After cancer surgery in October 1941, he wrote out a longhand version of the “Peck’s Bad Boy” routine and sent it to the studio. It arrived after the scene had been filmed. In the last few months of his life he wrote one last play, The Musical Comedy Man , a barely disguised valedictory that John McCabe calls “a joyous affair” that “allows Cohan to comment on his own theatrical foibles.” It contains a song that is a reworking of one of his early hits and best songs, “Life’s a Very Funny Proposition After All,” from Little Johnny Jones , his Broadway breakthrough of 1904. This one was titled “Life Is Like a Musical Comedy” and includes the lines:
A rough cut of Yankee Doodle Dandy was shipped to New York and shown to Cohan, while Warner Bros, lawyers nervously watched for reaction. His first comment, referring to Cagney, was, “My God, what an act to follow!” As McCabe points out, the film fits its subject absolutely: The pace is relentless, the book is thread-bare and sentimental, and the performance is thrilling.
The film was also a redemption of Cohan. As an author he has faded into the mists of history. He had never made the transition to the classical form of the musical play, though it could not have happened without him. Unfortunately for Cohan it was this classical era that became the one we know today.
Berlin, Kern, the Gershwins, Porter, Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein all went to Hollywood in the 1930s, and their work there is preserved on film. Not so Cohan. He is remembered as a character, a legend, a set of colorful routines and witty cracks, in a play by someone else in which the star actor ran roughshod over the producer, hired his own writer, and inserted his own business. Yet its style and content showed how thoroughly Cohan’s influence had been absorbed by Cagney and almost everyone else who worked on the movie. It was probably the truest collaboration of his career.