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)
In 1942 when Yankee Doodle Dandy premiered there was a whole generations of people left alive who saw George M. Cohan perform. Watching the film today Cohan is like a figure from antiquity. But Warner Brothers was lucky to have James Cagney with the studio who's dancing style closely paralleled Cohan's. If it is ever run on Turner Classic Movies, make sure you see George M. Cohan's sound film The Phantom President. You will be astonished to see how closely Cagney captured his style. In the same way that Philip Seymour Hoffman captured Truman Capote and Joaquin Phoenix became Johnny Cash.
Cohan's contemporaries are also like names from antiquity. But a century ago when Cohan was just hitting the big time performers like Fay Templeton, Nora Bayes, and Eddie Foy were very big stars and in 1942 plenty of people saw them also. I wish we had some film of them to see how Irene Manning, Frances Langford, and Eddie Foy, Jr. did in their recreations. I'm sure Foy, Jr. did a smashing job with his Dad.
The background stuff is true enough. Cohan was born to a pair of vaudeville performers Jerry and Nellie Cohan played here by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp. Later on a sister was added to the Cohan family and here Josie Cohan is played by Jeanne Cagney. They did do all the towns, big and small, in America. Cagney meets wife Joan Leslie at Shea's Theater in Buffalo, New York and Shea's survives to this day. And his first real success was Little Johnny Jones which score included American classics, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Give My Regards to Broadway.
What's left out is the fact Cohan had two wives. His second wife survived him and died in the early Seventies. As his songs became popular in patriotic/rightwing circles, Cohan's personal politics reflected that. He fought hard and lost in the battle for Actors Equity. Cohan thought a union of players was tantamount to Communism. But such was his standing among performers that Cohan was granted the unique privilege of being allowed to appear on stage without having to join Equity once the union was recognized as the bargaining agent for players.
Cohan is shown in Yankee Doodle Dandy as gracefully having retired when other trends in popular music took over. Far from it, he was a very bitter man and when he did that final comeback in I'd Rather Be Right he fought with Kaufman and Hart over the book and Rodgers and Hart over the songs.
But Yankee Doodle Dandy presents the public musical face of George M. Cohan and does it very well. To this day, some forty years after first seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy on television, I love the recreations of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Give My Regards to Broadway, and You're a Grand Old Flag as they were first seen on stage. Plus some of the snatches of the lesser known Cohan songs as performed by the players portraying the Cohan family and others.
When all is said and done, George M. Cohan was a great force of nature in the American musical theater. And we thank his father, mother, and sister, and George M. himself for what he left us.
- May 29, 2006