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“My God, What An Act To Follow!”

June 2024
22min read

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

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grand jury in 1940 released testimony identifying James Cagney as among a group of “communist members, sympathizers or heavy contributors.”

The charge was not new. Cagney had experienced “professional difficulties” in 1934 when he was linked to a cotton strike in San Joaquin, but he had remained outspokenly liberal and pro-union. Now Cagney and his producer-manager brother William, about to form their own production company with James as the major asset, took the charge very seriously. William asked for an audience with the Red-baiting congressman Martin Dies, who subsequently certified James as a patriotic American. But William was still worried. He suggested to Jack L. Warner, the production head of Warner Bros. Studios, that “we should make a movie with Jim playing the damnedest patriotic man in the country”: George M. Cohan.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because George M. Cohan had not written a hit musical play on Broadway since 1928.

Nor had he made the transition to writing musicals for the movies, and although he was still one of the most famous entertainers in the country, he was dismayed by the musical styles and social themes that were seeping into the theater to which he had devoted his working life. In 1939 a musical revue of Cohan’s career had been staged at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with his approval. The play, Yankee Doodle Boy , by Walter Kerr and Leo Brady, used the thennovel concept of dramatizing the composer’s life through his songs, and Cohan probably had this production in mind when he began approaching Hollywood about a movie biography. In April 1941 he signed a contract with Warner Bros. for a movie using his music, with a script to be approved by him —and specifying that the role of George M. Cohan must be played by James Cagney.

Cohan never met with Cagney at any point during the project, but this was the start of an unusual collaboration between the two, based on the desire of both men to present a show full of the old-fashioned song and dance and comedy they loved. In the process they “stole the show” from Warner Bros. and its executive producer, Hal Wallis, a nearly unprecedented bit of larceny at tightly wound Warner’s. The movie became the biggest hit the studio had ever had.

Nor has it faded away. In nearly continual showings since the 1950s on broadcast, cable, and vidéocassette, Dandy has continued to reach audiences. What accounts for its long life? The first audiences that saw it, in the summer of 1942, were preoccupied with war news (most of it bad), personal sacrifice, and national unity. Much of those audiences had memories of Cohan and the theatrical world of the early century. Today’s audiences have no such references, but they still find something of charm or value in the film. The value may have come from the contributions of the consummate artists of the Warner Bros, production departments: the set and costume designers, choreographers, musical directors, and orchestra. This was a prestige production for Warner’s and the first team was brought in: the director Michael Curtiz and the cinematographer James Wong Howe, with Walter Huston playing a supporting role and the character actors “Cuddles” Sakall and George Tobias stealing scenes.

But most of the movie’s enduring charm has to be attributed to the two song-and-dance men. Cagney had been eager to break out of his hoodlum type-casting. Despite his ten years’ experience on the New York stage, much of it in vaudeville and musicals, he had made only two musical films, and neither was among his best work. As he said, “I didn’t have to pretend to be a song and dance man, I was one.” Cohan had made only one major studio film himself, and it was long forgotten. During the first three decades of the twentieth century he had been “the man who owns Broadway,” the author-song writer-singer-dancer-actor-producer who helped launch the American musical on its way to popular and artistic glory. Despite the evidence of the box office, he still believed that his type of plays and songs had an audience, and virtually none of his work had yet been preserved on film. The care and effort of both men would be rewarded more amply than perhaps even they dared hope. Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar and established forever the breadth of his range as a performer. Cohan, whose plays have almost disappeared from circulation, is best remembered today for the songs in the movie and as the character played by Cagney, the cocky guy with the stiff-legged strut who dances right up the side of the stage.

The movie belongs to the genre known as the “biopic,” a flavorful mating of history and drama, which, like all biography, tells us in some way what one person’s whole life was about or meant. To arrive at such a highly condensed conclusion, even the best movie biographies must distill their meaning out of a mere handful of incidents and relationships. Add in the requirements of a song-and-dance picture, which Dandy also is, and you’re left with a very tiny space in which to reveal the personality of the title character. After all, when Don Ameche plays Alexander Graham Bell, he only has to act as if he’s inventing the telephone, and that takes just a few minutes of screen time. When Cagney plays Cohan, he really has to sing and dance, in long, elaborately choreographed and scored musical numbers.

George M. Cohan was a key figure in the development of the American musical theater. As the movie claims, he was indeed born on the Fourth of July, 1878, in Providence, Rhode Island. He and his sister, Josie, grew up in vaudeville, on the road, in hotels and dressing rooms, and as soon as they could dance or sing, they joined the family act. But whereas his parents were relatively happy to be itinerant troupers, George had a larger ambition, and it focused on Broadway. It demanded that he write his own plays and songs and produce the plays and own the theater. By sheer force of ego he pushed the musical comedy toward the written play. He was one of the authors of the period who broke the back of the “Performers’ Rule,” the domination of the theater by stars who would interpolate songs and comic bits into shows as the mood struck them. A Cohan show had a book and stuck to it. Cohan plays featured a headlong pace and a youthful, urbane, but wholesome air that reflected the concerns of the burgeoning American middle class much more than did the existing diet of vaudeville, English “Gaiety,” and Continental operettas. He did not strain for plot or theme; rather, as an initially skeptical actress puts it in Yankee Doodle Dandy , “a young sprout gets rich between eight-thirty and eleven P.M.

Cohan’s professional descendants, starting with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, took the musical to places that he himself couldn’t go. As Cohan revived and even recycled his old hits, he gradually lost his audience. The thing he had done so much to create had evolved into an all-encompassing vehicle that approached opera in its musical richness, ballet in its dancing, and social drama in its themes. Cohan was not interested in this type of play. He was still a fine actor, and some of his best performances were in O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! and Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right in the 1930s. But by then his natural distaste for other writers had been supplemented by jealousy, and he sometimes made the rehearsals of I’d Rather Be Right uncomfortable by sarcastically referring to the authors—probably the most successful team on Broadway at the time—as “Gilbert and Sullivan.”

HIS parents were relatively happy with the life of itinerant troupers, but George himself had far lanrer ambitions.

Cohan’s experience in Hollywood had been both unsuccessful and personally unpleasant. He made only one film there, The Phantom President . Despite promises, he had no control of the script and was not allowed to write any of the songs (they were by … Rodgers and Hart). He left believing that a film studio really was a factory, where star actors had little power and famous writers even less.

That certainly was the case at Warner Bros. The executive producer Hal Wallis had near-total creative control there. Wallis was a master chemist of the formulas that made a successful movie, and he used the story, the stars, the look, and the pace as elements to be repeated and varied from picture to picture.

Wallis could not have foreseen how Dandy would get away from him. That it did so was largely due to contract matters beyond his control. Cohan’s contract gave him an unusual say in the picture, and Cagney’s contained an almost unique clause that he had won only through a prolonged personal strike that began in 1936: He was free to leave the studio at the end of any picture. As production began on Dandy , Cagney announced that he would leave the studio after this one. In hopes of enticing him to stay—he was Warner’s biggest male star—the studio gave James and William Cagney what they wanted most: a big budget and creative control.

The film started routinely when Wallis chose a staff screenwriter, Robert Buckner, author of the recently completed Knute Rockne—All American , to prepare the script. Since both Cohan and his wife were in frail health (Cohan was fighting the cancer that would kill him), Buckner made an extended visit to New York in the spring and summer of 1941. While there he visited Cohan from two to five hours daily and accompanied him on his daily constitutional around the Central Park reservoir. Buckner also had the advantage of listening to such Cohan intimates as his director Sam Forrest and his producer and partner Sam Harris and of seeing the great man and his pals re-enact some of the old routines. Buckner made copious notes, but he was not a humorous writer. Nor was he much interested in the song and dance tradition.

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.

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,

But high-flown metapboric stuff ,
With literary glisten ,
Creates no jewel smooth or rough ,
Unless it’s got the “listen.”

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 .

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.

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.

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:

Life is make believe and spectacular .
Life will hand you just a few laughs .
A little dialogue, then someone sings .
Just like those Gilbert and Sullivan things
Lights on, lights out-before you know :
Life’s just a great big musical show .

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.

The film made its premiere on May 29, 1942, at a special war-bond benefit. That summer George Cohan, now quite ill and confined to his Fifth Avenue apartment, persuaded his nurse to accompany him on a car trip down Broadway. The theater district had changed. From 1900 to the Great Depression—the years of Cohan’s reign —the Broadway theater had been the most dynamic commercial art form in the city’s most dynamic and glamorous era. On this tour Cohan must have seen the many theaters that had been closed or converted to movie houses. He and his nurse slipped into the Hollywood Theatre to watch a few minutes of Yankee Doodle Dandy , then went home. It was Cohan’s last trip to Broadway. He died a few months later.

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