The life of the renowned musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer George M. Cohan.The life of the renowned musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer George M. Cohan.The life of the renowned musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer George M. Cohan.The life of the renowned musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer George M. Cohan.The life of the renowned musical composer, playwright, actor, dancer, and singer George M. Cohan.
- Josie Cohan - As a Girl of 12as Josie Cohan - As a Girl of 12
- (as Patsy Lee Parsons)
The subject of the film, George M. Cohan, was certainly a Broadway legend by the 1930s, having produced, directed, written and starred in a considerable array of successes for over 30 years. Son of vaudevillian parents, born on July 3, 1878 (always a genius of self-promotion, he gave the birthdate as July 4th, to enhance his 'Yankee Doodle' persona), he, and younger sister Josie, joined the parents to become the 'Four Cohans', and were a popular comedy/music act traveling the theater circuits of the late nineteenth century. Managing the family act by age 15 (his father concentrated on material, his mother had no head for business), Cohan throughout his life was prone to childish fits of temper, and was described by contemporaries as brash, headstrong...and undeniably gifted. From his first Broadway success (1904's 'Little Johnny Jones'), he had been determined to leave a legacy that would not be forgotten, and by 60, with his health beginning to decline, he concluded a film biography was the surest way to achieve immortality.
He first approached Sam Goldwyn, a personal friend, to do the picture, but demanded creative control, and when his choice to play himself, Fred Astaire, turned down the role, Cohan backed out of the project. Jack Warner, however, had once 'done a turn' in vaudeville, and one of the lot's biggest stars, James Cagney, was looking for a patriotic role to offset the recent bad publicity he'd received (the liberal star had been accused of being a Communist, which he was cleared of). Warner was more than happy to take on the biography, and after viewing earlier Cagney musicals, Cohan agreed with the selection of leading man (Cagney had actually auditioned, once, for a Cohan play...and was rejected!)
Cohan's colorful life had to be toned down, somewhat, for the screen (he had been married twice, and 'wholesome family films' did NOT portray divorce), so an amalgamation of both wives was created by screenwriter Robert Buckner, and named Mary (to capitalize on one of Cohan's most popular tunes). While the showman fretted that current wife Agnes might be offended, the second Mrs. Cohan was actually pleased (her middle name was Mary, she had started in the chorus line, and so she assumed the character Joan Leslie played WAS her!)
Finally (after the Epstein brothers were called in to add their legendary comic touches to the screenplay), filming began...on December 8, 1941. Cast and crew listened to President Roosevelt's radio address about Pearl Harbor, Cagney led everyone in a prayer, and an unspoken goal was set, to make YANKEE DOODLE DANDY the most patriotic, inspiring film possible. Director Michael Curtiz, one of the WB's finest directors, channeled the fervor, and Cagney jumped into the role of Cohan, heart and soul.
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY exceeded everyone's expectations. For a nation still reeling from Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advances in the Pacific, as well as Hitler's stranglehold of Europe, flag-waving was just the right medicine! The film was a huge hit, and was gratifying to Cohan (it is said that the day he died, November 5, 1942, he took a last stroll on Broadway, then joined the long line waiting to see his film biography, and watched James Cagney's unforgettable performance).
While it is true that the film is a bit dated, it is still a grand entertainment, and is on the AFI's list of the '100 Greatest Films of the Twentieth Century'.
George M. Cohan HAS achieved his immortality!
- Sep 29, 2003