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Apparently George M. Cohan, American Theatrical Giant and God, was one of
the most difficult men to work with. Cohan did not like taking orders from
others - after all, his productions were of plays or revues or musical
comedies he wrote, composed, staged, directed, and starred in himself. But
when he was asked to do THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT in 1932 he had to be directed
by Norman Taurog and sing the songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. That
these two song writers were as good as he had been in his heyday did not
matter - the only rival composer he liked was Irving Berlin, who waived the
flag as well as George M. himself. Early on he showed his dislike for the
two song writers, which they did not appreciate. He also did not care for
making movies (he had made a couple of silent films of one or two plays, and
several of his plays were made into movies). So THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT would
be one of only two forays into talkies that George M. would
It is not the failure or mediocrity that many critics have considered it to be (including Cohan, and Rodgers and Hart). The tunes demonstrate the inventiveness of the composer and lyricist, who experimented here with their "talk - sing" dialogue in the convention sequence, in the President Picture introduction ("The Country Needs a Man"), and in the snake-oil scene. This is a dry run for the similar scenes in their Hollywood masterpieces LOVE ME TONIGHT and HALLELUJAH, I'M A BUM. The chemistry between Cohan and Claudette Colbert is actually good, as is the balance of the smooth Cohan and the explosive Durante. And there are lots of nice little bits by Durante (his election speech on the radio is marvelous), and one unexpected person: Sidney Toler as Professor Aikenhead. An advisor to the party expecting to run Blair for the Presidency, he is an early expert on spin control. Quickly he developes his own niche in the story - an underplayed, common-sensical sense of humor. He wants to see how loveable a character Blair is...a dubious proposition. He gets an apple, and tells Blair to hand it to a nearby horse. "Why?", asks a suspicious Cohan (here as Blair). Unruffled and smiling, Toler just replies, "Because you can't sell it to him!" Toler should have made more comedies, but when he does appear in comedies (like IT'S IN THE BAG) he has a good sense of timing.
But most intriguing is Cohan himself. This is his one surviving example of acting in a talkie, and he does nicely all considered. But he would not appear in another film where he had to take orders from others (in this case Taurog, a highly successful film director from the early 1930s to the 1950s). In 1935 Cohan financed a filming of his own play GAMBLING - this time being in charge of the whole production. It has not survived, and descriptions of it suggest it has little to offer us. Still, one hopes it will one day reappear, just to see Cohan at his dramatic peak. He made it just after appearing in Eugene O'Neill's AH WILDERNESS (his first appearance in a non-Cohan play), and got some of the best reviews in his career for that. GAMBLING, made just afterwards, should have been of some interest. We may never know.
After GAMBLING Cohan returned to the "legitimate" stage. Ironically it was for his last major role: playing FDR in I'D RATHER BE RIGHT, a musical comedy by Kaufman and Hart, with music by (ironically) Rodgers and Hart. If you see Jimmie Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY he does a scene from I'D RATHER BE RIGHT ("Off the Record!") which had new lyrics for the 1942 film regarding World War II. Cagney's Cohan praises Rodgers and Hart in the film - but in reality he still argued with them. He was forced to make comments against his friend Al Smith in the show, and he really disliked FDR. But the real Cohan was shown YANKEE DOODLE DANDY before he died in November 1942. The old trouper liked it.
Light weight but winning political satire even in its day, the big news
in this well reviewed Rodgers and Hart not-quite-musical (there are
just four main musical sequences - the best known song is "Give Her A
Kiss") was George M. Cohan's first appearance in a talkie - he would
make but one more in 1934 (GAMBLING), three years before Cohan returned
to Broadway with Rodgers & Hart in their 1937 hit I'D RATHER BE RIGHT,
playing a real president - FDR.
Playing the dual role here of a candidate and his more likable double, Cohan more than justified the hype, and ably assisted by the always wonderful Claudette Colbert as the candidate's girlfriend (shades of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA) and Jimmy Durante who almost steals the film as the nice Cohan's manager (catch Durante in MGM's 1934 STUDENT TOUR playing a crew coach named Merman in an in joke!), Cohan makes this a must-see in any year. In an election year like this one, we can only wish the finale were reality rather than a gentle satire of pandering to public perceptions.
The pleasant surprises don't stop with the leads however. Watch the singing portraits of past presidents in the opening for Alan Mowbray as George Washington and later, Sidney (Charlie Chan) Toler's appearance as a political boss - all smiles but as rooted in what "works" as any current campaign manager - is a joy to behold.
If you've seen Jimmy Cagney dancing to an Oscar as Cohan in the World War II YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (a decade after this effort), take a look at Cohan doing the original steps (in black-face, yet in an "on stage" number) and you'll wonder if Cagney didn't study this film specifically.
In the great legacy of film musicals, THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT is probably little more than a footnote, but it's a very enjoyable, important one.
THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT (Paramount, 1932), directed by Norman Taurog,
stars Broadway legend George M. Cohan (l878-1942) playing a dual role
in his talkie debut and, to the best of my knowledge, his only existing
movie. As Theodore K. Blair, he is a serious-minded candidate who hopes
to win the upcoming election as the next president of the United
States. He is in love with Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), who
finds him rather dull. Later Blair's cronies who also find Blair to be
dull and witless, come across a medicine show barker named Peter Varney
who not presents himself in public as likable and full of fun, but
happens to be the spitting image of Blair. In order to boost Blair's
upcoming election win to the White House, they hire the entertainer to
impersonate him, but the plan works out only too well when not only the
public starts to favor Varney, but Felicia also, causing the jealous
Blair to want to do away with this look-alike by hiring some tough
sailors to kidnap Varney and take him unharmed to the Arctic circle.
Aside from this being a double showcase for George M. Cohan, it is Jimmy Durante (in his pre-baldness days) as "Curly" Cooney, Varney's partner and sidekick, who comes off best with his antics. It's possible the public felt the same way back in 1932. In the supporting cast are George Barbier as Jim Ronkson, the political boss; Sidney Toler as Professor Aikenhead; Louise MacIntosh as Senator Sara Scranton; and Jameson Thomas as Jerrido. Look fast in the opening of the story for Charles B. Middleton (the Emperor Ming of the "Flash Gordon" chaptered serials for Universal of the late 1930s) playing a picture frame portrait of Abraham Lincoln, separately along with Alan Mowbray as the George Washington, also in picture frame, coming to life, introducing themselves and bursting into song.
With the music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the songs include: "This Country Needs a Man" (sung in rhyme talk by senators, tour guides and cast members); "Somebody Ought to Wave a Flag" (sung and tap danced by George M. Cohan in black-face); "Ah, Schnooza" (sung by Jimmy Durante); "Give Her a Kiss" (sung by "birds," "frogs" and voices of nature during Cohan's love scene in a motor boat with Colbert); "Convention/ Blair! Blair! Blair!" (sung by politicians and cast members); and "Give Her a Kiss" (sung by an unknown vocalist on a radio). The songs, with some of them being in rhyming dialog, are passable, but one wonders what tunes would have been used had Cohan written the score himself, as he did with his Broadway plays.
Those watching THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT will find this a rare treat in seeing the real George M. Cohan come to life on the screen. It's been out of the TV markets for quite some time now, and one could only hope it could resurface again, especially as an Election Day movie special on any one of the classic cable movie stations.
To learn more about the background, life and legend of George M. Cohan, watch the musical-biography, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (WB, 1942) starring James Cagney in his Academy Award winning performance. While portions of that movie are fictional, it's worthy entertainment. The story to "Yankee Doodle Dandy", however, never mentions of Cohan's association with motion pictures (he appeared in few silent ones), only his show business career on Broadway. After THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT Cohan got to appear in one final feature film in his career, GAMBLING (Fox, 1934), but as of this writing, that movie drama is believed "lost." As for THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT, it's a real curio and highly recommended. (****)
If you saw Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, you've got the wrong idea.
M. Cohan was the smoothest song-and dance-man of them all, not the edgy
fireball that Cagney portrayed. (No knock to Cagney; but he couldn't
repress his natural energies) Watching Cohan, the original, is a
The plot is a fairly funny political satire. A politician with just what it takes to be president, but none of the "good American sex appeal" needed to get elected, finds an exact double: a medicine show charlatan. The medicine show man is hired to pinch hit for campaign purposes. His sidekick (Durante) comes along for the ride. They turn the medicine show into the convention. Durante does one of his famous "I won't talk on the radio" routines. It's, overall, light fare, but thoroughly enjoyable.
This film used to be shown on New York City local TV every four years on Election Night. Now, it seems to be virtually impossible to see. Too bad Universal (which owns the old Paramount films) doesn't dig it out of the vault and put it on Video.
This film is only of historical interest but it does contain one valuable element. In one scene, GEORGE M COHAN, portraying a medicine-show huckster, actually does a soft shoe dance which is brief, but delightful. Cohan was a renowned dancer on stage and in vaudeville. He learned his dancing on the road, from the best vaudeville performers, and he developed a very distinctive dancing style. This film is possibly the only film image we have of Cohan dancing. (There are plenty of records of his singing, which was only passable.) What's interesting about the dance routine is, once you've seen it, you realize what a great job Jimmy Cagney did in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Cagney imitates the George M Cohan style perfectly. See this film and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and compare!
All the actors sparkle here, even Durante (who killed more than one MGM
feature in his day) is a riot. Colbert is dazzling in every scene, even
while bathing a dog. Cohan is fresh and fun, too bad he didn't make any
other talkies. This production wreaks of Paramount, right down to the
Lubitch touches of rhyming dialogue and animals delivering a musical
laced with sexual innuendo. In one instance the camera dissolves from the
back side of a jackass to the keynote speaker of the Presidential
convention; some things never change and it's still fresh!
Will Hays would have had a lot to say about this production if he could have gotten his hands on it.... :)
I saw this movie on PBS in New York many years ago and unfortunately before video tape. I recall reading an article about the way some of the special effects were done. Remember Cohan is playing two roles. There are many scenes in which he is talking and acting with himself. There is a particularly interesting scene on the front porch of an old house. Cohan #1 is in a rocking chair when Cohan #2 approaches him; Cohan #1 gets up to shake hands with Cohan #2- thereby shaking hands with himself. The rocking chair in the background continues to rock. After the hand shake they reverse positions and Cohan #2 walks up and gets into the rocking chair, which has never stopped rocking. Cohan #1 looks on. Done done in split screen? Apparently. but the effects artist died shortly after the film was made and to this day no one knows how he produced the effect. Great line by Colbert's character: "The night's so lovely you could eat it with a spoon".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The presence of the legendary George M. Cohan is enough to spark
interest in this political musical comedy that took potshots at the
Hoover administration just like the Gershwins had done on Broadway the
year before with "Of Thee I Sing". Broadway's song-writing team of
Rodgers and Hart had gone Hollywood and wrote several rhythmic tunes
for this variation of "The Prisoner of Zenda" which had a similar if
more action packed theme of look-alikes in government. Of course, the
American presidency would get similar skewing years later with Dave.
The politician Cohan plays here is a rather unromantic square with designs on a former president's daughter Claudette Colbert. She finds him boring until one day she finds Cohan literally flying over her wall in trendier duds. Actually, he's the spitting image of the presidential wanna-be, a vaudevillian who tours with Mr. Schnozolla himself, Jimmy Durante. Political money-men spot him and get the idea of subbing him for the dull real deal in the campaign. Of course, the phony Cohan gets his own idea of how the country should be run which leads to further complications!
After an interesting opening concerning portraits of former presidents commenting on history through song, the film moves to the present day and it is obvious that the writers are hoping for changes in the upcoming presidential election where F.D.R. took over for what seemed like an eternity. The political Cohen, they state, would be like a continuation of Hoover, and the vaudevillian Cohen more down to earth and promising, filled with Hope. Colbert gets to play a surprisingly calculating young woman who turns the tide on the staid politician, and Durante offers much amusement, especially in his song about his middle facial appendage. But it is Cohen who will obtain the curiosity here, and he does not disappoint.
George M. Cohan who in the first decade of the last century was as the
title of one of his songs and biography The Man Who Owned Broadway was
considered old fashioned by 1932. Still as a performer he had
considerable box office and he responded to the pleas of Jesse L. Lasky
to come over to Paramount to make his sound motion picture debut. But
the songs were to be written by a pair of relative newcomers
It's come down in show business legend how Cohan barely dealt with them while The Phantom President was in production. He thought they were second rate songwriters and truth be told Cohan thought just everyone else was second rate next to him. He had that kind of ego. But he had the talent to back it up and truth be told the songs that Dick and Larry wrote for this film were truly second rate.
The musical format of this film was song patter, no individual numbers that could have been hits were written for The Phantom President. The patter format worked well in Love Me Tonight and Hallelujah I'm A Bum, but many song hits came from Love Me Tonight and Hallelujah I'm A Bum boasted You Are Too Beautiful from that score. Nothing like that comes from The Phantom President. Maybe Cohan could have written a better score, in fact he was given one number to be interpolated.
But The Phantom President is first rate political satire with Cohan playing a double role, a cold fish millionaire who is running for President of the USA and a carnival medicine show man that his political handlers recruit to go out and do the campaign as he's got a personality the voting public will warm up to.
The political end works well, but carnival Cohan starts cutting in on millionaire Cohan's time with Claudette Colbert a former president's daughter and someone who the millionaire thinks would be a great first lady. He takes some drastic action.
The four handlers are well cast also, George Barbier, Louise Mackintosh, Sidney Toler, Julius McVickers are all familiar enough in roles that are suited to all of them. And of course we have Jimmy Durante who is gloriously himself with some interpolated material for him as well in the song Schnozzola.
There are so many performers whose salad days were well before talking motion pictures were invented that we should be grateful that at least we can see something of what Broadway saw with George M. Cohan. And his dancing style; well you can see why James Cagney was cast in the autobiographical Yankee Doodle Dandy.
A populist political satire in the Frank Capra mold.
George M. Cohan's dance is blackface during a medicine show is interesting and the scenes where his two characters appear together are well done.
Jimmy Durante puts in a good performance. Sidney Toler is very good as a political consultant, but doesn't get much screen time, not does the Hawaiian band at the convention.
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