The only statue that stands, permanently giving a regard to Broadway is of a wise-cracking, patriotic son of Irish immigrants who personified the American stage. His name was George M. Cohan and he owned Broadway.
“I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be on the stage.”
George M. Cohan took his first bow at about age two and never wanted to do anything else for the rest of his life. And he didn’t. Born to an Irish Vaudeville couple, Jerry and Nellie Cohan, George was born in 1878 although not on the Fourth of July as he’d always claim. Cohan never attended school, instead learning the ropes while touring with the family act, The Four Cohans made up of Jerry, Nellie, George and his younger sister Josie. While still in his teens George was running the act, making the deals, writing the material and was the star of the act. This was the school of hard knocks and George was a star pupil.
In front of the audience Cohan was aces, but being a main draw on Vaudeville wasn’t enough. Vaudeville was second-rate as far as he was concerned, he wanted to be on Broadway and the dream came true in 1904 when he starred in a show he wrote, “Little Johnny Jones.”
George M. Cohan forged on to have one of the most memorable careers ever conceived, a talent with an impressive energy that “jumped off the stage” as many would describe. Not necessarily a nice man, Cohan was known to be brash and pushy. Some called him a scoundrel but no one could deny that he would – in essence – change show business, which was his religion. What George M. Cohan did for and on the stage helped define the Great White Way with a style that still reverberates in American musicals to this day.
Cohan’s talent was respected across the country, not only in New York and the story of his life was perfect for the big screen, particularly in 1941 when patriotism was ripe. Cohan had written a play about his life called “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” that was produced for the stage in 1939 and he would use the play to try to sell his story as the basis for a movie.
He approached his friend Samuel Goldwyn with the idea requesting it be offered as a starring vehicle for Fred Astaire but Astaire turned the part down, which led Goldwyn to decline the offer altogether. Cohan returned to New York and in short time was approached by Jack Warner who as head of Warner Bros. had jumped head first into making patriotic material for the big screen – well before Pearl Harbor. Warner Bros. really took the war in Europe to heart and their movies and shorts reflected that. Cohan the man, his story and his music was exactly the kind of material Warner was interested in and the stage was set for YANKEE DOODLE DANDY.
With Jack at the helm, Warner Bros. assembled top-notch talent to tell the screen version of George M. Cohan’s life. Michael Curtiz was chosen to direct, Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph wrote the screenplay (with uncredited input by the Epstein Brothers) from Mr. Buckner’s story and the music and Lyrics were of course Cohan’s. In addition the actors got everything they needed to ensure Cohan’s story was well served. When the film was completed everyone involved was happy with the results, but ever the control freak George M. Cohan demanded final approval. And he got it. If Cohan didn’t like the movie it couldn’t be released.
Well, George M. Cohan didn’t give YANKEE DOODLE DANDY his approval. He told Warner that the only way the movie would pass muster is if his wife Agnes liked it. So a screening was scheduled and Agnes, along with George and several others watched YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and when it was over Agnes looked at her husband and beamed, “Oh, you were so good, Georgie.” High praise indeed except that she had just watched James Cagney, not Georgie. And that’s really all that needs to be said about the actor’s portrayal of the song and dance man.
“He glows with energy”
Jack Warner had James Cagney, another Irish-American and another huge star in mind to play George M. Cohan from the onset and Warner Bros. spent months building up the momentum before the movie was released in May 1942. The movie and the efforts paid off big time. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY became the biggest box office hit in Warner Bros. history to that time. And more than seven decades later it’s still quite the treat.
James Cagney hits a home run each and every time YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is viewed. At least that’s how I feel about it. His performance (or the movie) just doesn’t ever get passé. It’s a tour de force among tour de forces. To say that Cagney was the perfect choice to play George M. Cohan is an understatement and he committed himself one hundred percent to ensure every step, every ounce of energy said Cohan. Cagney resembles Cohan, sounds like him and moves like him. In fact, if you ever get a chance to watch clips of George M. you’ll note that Jimmy was actually a better dancer. Cagney gets to the heart of the entertainer, the business man, the tough guy and the man with a special, soft spot for his family. George and Jimmy were equals where work ethic was concerned as well. Cagney drove himself to the studio every day, arrived early, worked late, was involved in the casting process, at every stage of the script and…well, you name it. This was a labor of love in many ways and his performance reflects that.
Supporting James Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY is a wonderful cast. Joan Leslie is simply lovely as George’s wife, Mary. Walter Huston plays Jerry Cohan, Rosemary DeCamp is his mother Nellie and as sister Josie is Cagney’s sister Jeanne Cagney who’s wonderful as well. Smaller parts are played by such notables as Frances Langford, S. Z. Sakall, George Tobias, Richard Whorf and several others.
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY offers a wonderful sense of the time it depicts and the life of the Vaudeville performer. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the American theater and the mood of the nation. DANDY has equal parts wit, drive and heart, a combination that’s hard to resist. And although there’s all sorts of reasons why this movie should be dated it isn’t – it’s fresh, it’s entertaining, it’s compelling and it’s a delight. If the musical is the most American of film genres, which in my opinion it is, then YANKEE DOODLE DANDY in a sense pays homage to all movie musicals because it lives it, if that makes sense.
DANDY begins with George M. Cohan, already the legend playing President Roosevelt in the musical “I’d Rather be Right.” A hit on opening night Cohan is summoned by the President who presents him with a Congressional Medal of Honor and they begin to talk. In the course of the conversation the President tells Cohan he remembers The Four Cohans, which leads George to recall his life and career. In a flashback we are then taken back to watch his life from the day he was born on through the sixty years that follow.
The visit with the President now done George M. exits the Oval Office and proceeds down the White House steps, a majestic staircase actually. The music to “Yankee Doodle Boy” is playing in the background and begins to swell as Cohan descends the staircase doing a wonderful little tap routine that rivals the best of ’em. The story goes that Cagney thought up the routine right before the scene was shot and performed it with no rehearsal. Yet again I remember my mother saying she loves Jimmy Cagney because he could do it all. And indeed he could. He’s simply wonderful. For his efforts he took home the Oscar for Best Actor.
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY ends as patriotic as it begins. In fact it’s the President telling Cohan that he admires the Irish because they wear their patriotism on their sleeves that gets the story started in the first place. So George leaves the White House and steps into a passing military parade. He falls in line, marching as the chorus sings “Over There” when a young soldier turns to him and asks…
“What’s the matter, old-timer. Don’t you remember this song?” “Seems to me I do,” Cohan replies. “Well, I don’t hear anything” and George begins to sing along with the chorus…a song he wrote…
“Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there –
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware.
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over
Credits roll…and I’ll be damned if audiences didn’t leave the theater in 1942 feeling seven feet tall!
“My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you.”
This is for the Luck of the Irish Blog O’Thon, the ones who wear patriotism on their sleeves. Check out all the fabulous entries at Silver Scenes, the grand host of this fabulous event. And while you’re at it have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
Sources: Broadway: The American Musical, PBS (2004)