Here’s the first of three Broadway biopics. My dad is going to be so proud of me for this one.
In 2017’s National Classic Movie Day post, I mentioned that my family has watched Yankee Doodle Dandy every year on the Fourth of July since the eighties. Well, my dad still does, but the rest of us are kinda “meh,” about it now. That, and I have the DVD, so I’m not confined to Independence Day anymore. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a paen to the Great White Way, showcasing not one but two Broadway veterans, George M. Cohan and James Cagney.
George M. Cohan was and is known as “The Man Who Owns Broadway.” He was a witty, flag-waving dynamo who rivaled only Florenz Ziegfeld, except that instead of glorifying the American girl, patriotism was Cohan’s bag. Among other classics, Cohan gave us “Forty-five Minutes From Broadway,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and “Mary’s A Grand Old Name.” Cohan’s song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” which he sang himself in his musical comedy, Little Johnny Jones, said he was born on the Fourth of July. He wasn’t; in fact, he was born on July third, 1878, but as a proud Irish American, Cohan paid tribute to his beloved United States by celebrating his birth alongside America’s.
Cohan was a mythic figure, and this lent itself to the liberties that were taken with 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. It opens at a performance of the wickedyly satirical musical, I’d Rather Be Right, in which Cohan (James Cagney) portrays Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He goes to his dressing room amid applause and accolades to find a telegram from the real FDR, summoning him to the White House. Cohan is visibly nervous because he thinks FDR is offended at being impersonated, but his wife, Mary (Joan Leslie) reminds him, “They don’t send you a telegram to come and be shot at sunrise.”
When Cohan walks into the Oval Office, he and Roosevelt banter a bit before Cohan begins to tell his life story. So yeah, the bulk of the movie takes place in flashback with Cohan’s narration.
Naturally, he begins at the beginning. Cohan’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston) is a respected but small-time vaudevillian who ducks out of an afternoon matinee to be with his wife, Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who’s across town giving birth. Also naturally, the baby is George, and the joyful new dad presents his son with a tiny American flag.
George (played as a teenager by Douglas Croft) is soon joined by his sister, Josie (played as a girl by Patsy Parsons, then as an adult by Jeannie Cagney), and along with their parents, are billed as the Four Cohans. They’re a great hit with the public, who enjoyed seeing a loving family performing onstage. Josie does very well for herself as a skirt dancer, and George becomes a star early on. By the time he’s the title character in Peck’s Bad Boy, he’s a wee bit arrogant and full of himself. A run-in with a gang of young toughs and a sound spanking from Dad bring him to his senses.
As George gets older, he begins writing songs. A lot of songs. He also meets Mary, who’s fresh out of high school and comes seeking his advice about what to do next. She’s a talented dancer and singer, so George invites her to come perform on his circuit. He trolls her at first, though, because Mary is so nervous she doesn’t realize how young George is. He’s made up old for a play he’s in, so it’s understandable.
George has to troll his songs a little bit as well. He gets one of the acts drunk, and the stage manager puts Mary on in its place. Then George secretly replaces the song she’s supposed to sing, “The Wedding of the Lily and the Rose” with one of his, “The Warmest Baby In the Bunch.” It’s not one of Cohan’s best songs–the verses are embarassingly dated, actually–but the film only uses the chorus. Still, the crowd loves Mary. The stage manager isn’t so happy, though, and fires Mary and the Cohans. The rest of the family goes back on the road while George stays in New York with Mary.
Now that he’s out of work, George shops his shows around to various producers, and none of them are interested. He finally heads to a bar, where he overhears Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) vainly attempting to pitch his new play to a producer named Mr. Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). George being George, he strides up to Sam acting as if some rival producers, Dietz and Goff are interested in his show, Little Johnny Jones. Sam catches on immediately, and the two of them patter about the dancing girls. That catches Schwab’s interest, and he jumps at the chance to back the show.
Little Johnny Jones is the first of many successes for George and Sam, and they become big-time producers themselves. The shows are crowded with life, with amazing lighting effects and composition. George and Mary also get married, of course. The Four Cohans get back together again on Broadway, drawing crowds everywhere they go. The only things that derail George’s triumphant streak are George’s ill-fated drama, Popularity, and the First World War.
George tries to enlist, but at thirty-nine he’s too old to join up. A sergeant tells him, “I’m afraid we have more need of you here than over there.” Hmmm. When George walks out of the recruitment office, three notes of a cadence played by a trumpeter gives him an idea, and he starts whistling. The next thing we see is George sitting at a baby grand on an empty stage lit by one bare bulb, picking out the three notes and noodling a couple of chords.
This, of course, becomes one of Cohan’s evergreen songs, “Over There.” It catches on like wildfire with the servicemen and the public, and will eventually show Cohan how big a legacy he leaves to Broadway, his country, and the world. No matter how much things change, the idea of striding into battle and prevailing over the enemy fills Americans with vigor and fortitude. Here’s the real Cohan singing the song on the radio in 1936:
The sentiments of “Over There” were just as relevant in 1941, when the film was in production. In fact, the cast and crew listened to the radio together on December 8th, 1941 as Franklin Roosevelt declared war. Joan Leslie later said Cagney broke the silence that followed by saying, “I think a prayer goes in here.”
Cagney almost didn’t play George M. Cohan. In fact, he was rather down on the man because during the Actor’s Equity Strike of 1919, George M. sided with the producers. Cohan’s musical, The Royal Vagabond, had been cut down in its prime by the strike, and Cohan himself stepped in to play the lead, promoting some of the chorus members into acting roles. He was such a big name that this move sent ripples throughout Broadway, but Cohan was between the proverbial rock and hard place. He felt for the actors, but as a producer, he had a show to run.
What swayed him was the fact that Cagney’s image needed a shot in the arm. He had been accused of supporting communism by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, and while Cagney managed to clear his name, he needed to do something big and splashy to prove his patriotism. In typical fashion, Cagney threw himself into the role of George M. Cohan, showing up early to master the choreography, and his version of the Cohan walk is dead on. Like Cohan, Cagney half-talked, half-sang songs and was an incredibly physical performer.
In typical biopic fashion, there were changes made to the Cohan story. Mary was Cohan’s second wife, and her full name was Agnes Mary. Cohan’s sister, Josie, was two years older instead of two years younger than George, as portrayed in the film. The film also glosses over how strenuous vaudeville was and how rough the conditions could be when one was trying to make it. Cohan’s one flop, Popularity, came and went in 1906, not in 1915 as shown in the film. I’d Rather Be Right premiered on Broadway in 1935, so there was no rushing to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor–that happened in 1940. All these nips and tucks were done to keep the narrative flowing and point the spotlight to Cohan and his music.
Cohan himself was a technical advisor on Yankee Doodle Dandy, but his health was failing and he couldn’t do much. According to Cohan biographer John McCabe, Cohan did write the last lines Cagney said to FDR at the end of the film:
I wouldn’t worry about this country if I were you. We’ve got this thing licked. Where else in the world today could a plain guy like me come and talk things over with the head man?
Warner Bros. gave Cohan final approval: If he didn’t like the film, they would shelve the whole thing. I think we all know what Cohan’s verdict was. The film was an immense success with both the public and critics, netting Cagney an Oscar. It may have been an idealized version of Cohan’s life, but it was a loving tribute and an electrifying film. One might half expect Cagney to bound straight up the wall and do the Cohan walk on the ceiling–that’s how magnetic he is. It is a wonderful performance by an amazing actor. Honestly, I could write a book about this film. It was released at just the right time in history, bolstering Americans’ flagging morale in the early days of the Second World War and it still gives a lift to all who watch it today.
Like any seasoned performer, Cohan wanted to get a feel of the audience reaction. Legend has it that Cohan sneaked into a Manhattan theater with his nurse just before his death to watch a few minutes of Yankee Doodle Dandy, and was highly gratified at the obvious delight of the filmgoers in Cagney’s portrayal. He died at home, surrounded by family, on November 5, 1942.
Cohan’s plays are no longer produced today, but his songs are still sung, and a statue in Times Square commemorates his life and work. He remains the Man Who Owns Broadway.
More Broadway can be found here. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow…
Yankee Doodle Dandy is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.
McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. New York: Doubleday. 1973.