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Cohan could not resist the lure of performing. In 1933, he overlooked his instinctive distrust
of Hollywood just long enough to star in his only musical film. The Phantom President
(1933) was the story of a small time song and dance man who agrees to campaign in place of a
lackluster presidential candidate he bears a twin-like resemblance to. Cohan played both
roles, using spilt screen technology in several scenes. Despite a score by
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and the best efforts of co-stars
Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante, The Phantom President was a weak
vehicle, but it offers a precious glimpse of him in action. Although his nasal singing sounds
harsh, his dancing was still slick, and we can experience something of the personality and
physical grace that made him such an audience favorite.
Cohan dispenses fatherly advice in Ah,
Thoroughly disgusted with movie making, Cohan returned to New York where the
illustrious Theater Guild
persuaded him to create the role of Nat Miller, the good natured father in Eugene
O'Neill's nostalgic comedy Ah Wilderness (1933). Many were surprised
to see the old song and dance legend in a play by America's most acclaimed modern dramatist,
but Cohan gave such a moving performance that critics hailed him as never before. He was
suddenly proclaimed "America's first actor." It may have irked Cohan to get
the best reviews of his life in another man's play, but this never showed up onstage or
backstage, where his professional courtesy proved unfailing.
Cohan's behavior was less sterling when he played President Franklin Roosevelt in
the musical I'd Rather Be Right (1937). Former partner Sam
Harris was producing, with a script by playwright Moss Hart and songs
by Rodgers and Hart -- who accepted the project despite their earlier experience
with Cohan in Hollywood. This time around, Cohan treated Rodgers and Hart with open
contempt, even though their score included "Have
You Met Miss Jones?" and the Cohan showstopper "Off the Record."
He was equally annoyed with Moss Hart's book, which had more contemporary
satirical bite than any Cohan script ever aspired to.
Instead of impersonating the wheelchair-bound
FDR, Cohan gave an all-out song and dance performance. No one had ever depicted a
living president in a book musical before, so I'd Rather Be Right opened amid
extraordinary press hoopla. Critics raved, Roosevelt (a longtime fan of the Four Cohans)
expressed his approval, and the show became the hottest ticket on Broadway.
After a profitable New York run, Cohan went out on a grueling national
tour -- no small feat for a man in his sixties.
Cohan as FDR in I'd Rather Be
During the run of I'd Rather Be Right, Cohan occasionally took
liberties with the script and lyrics. Otherwise, his innate professionalism took
precedence over any personal grudges. He rehearsed tirelessly and never missed a
performance, giving his all for nearly two years in a musical that he supposedly hated.
He also took the time to help the students at Catholic University in Washington D.C. to
stage a musical version of his life. The libretto for Yankee Doodle Boy was
written by Walter Kerr, who went on to an illustrious career as a
playwright and theatre critic.
Cohan took one more stab at doing his kind of show by writing, producing and starring
in The Return of the Vagabond (1940), a sequel to his old hit The Tavern.
But audiences were not interested, and after a brief run Cohan
announced yet another retirement. It was widely expected that this one would prove
as brief as the others, but Cohan had been diagnosed
with terminal stomach cancer. He kept the disease a secret, but never performed again.
Cohan visited the White House in 1940, where President Roosevelt presented him
with a Congressional medal honoring him as the creator of "Over There." To this day,
he remains the only American composer to receive such an award. But Cohan was
hardly anxious to receive it. He had kept Roosevelt waiting for more than a year
-- some suggest that FDR's progressive social policies had alienated
the increasingly conservative Cohan.
George M. Cohan and Sam Harris clown for the cameras in the
1930s. Although no longer partners, they remained close friends and (as their wives were
Cohan was understandably shattered when stomach cancer killed Sam Harris in
1941. By the time Warner Brothers approached Cohan with plans for a film
based on his life, he was living in semi-seclusion, doing everything possible to keep his
failing health a private matter. Despite his condition, he took an active role
in planning the film, going so far as to submit a full-length screenplay
which the studio ignored. But Cohan's was pleased when Warners hired Walter
Kerr, whose college libretto formed the official basis of the screenplay.
Cohan approved the choice of former vaudevillian
James Cagney as his cinematic alter ego, and was delighted when longtime friend
(and vaudeville veteran) Walter Huston was cast as
Jerry Cohan. While Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
goes to great lengths to ignore certain aspects of Cohan's life, it
remains a magnificent showcase for several of his finest songs -- and a wildly
entertaining film overall. Cagney's
brilliant performance is his own creation, not an imitation. However, he did
have one of Cohan's old dance assistants on hand to make sure that his dancing
and stage mannerisms invoked something of George's unique style.
Cohan saw Yankee Doodle Dandy become a phenomenal success. Against doctor's
orders, he snuck out of his Fifth Avenue apartment in a wheelchair to catch screenings of the film at
the Hollywood Theatre (later the Mark Hellinger, now a church). After hearing the wartime
audience cheer for his old songs, George M. Cohan had his nurse
take him home.
Cohan defied his painful disease to the last, insisting he would somehow
recover and make another comeback on Broadway. He was even working on a new
musical for himself entitled The Musical Comedy Man. Despite the pain,
and his wife's
ongoing health problems, George's spirits remained
high. When Ward Morehouse asked how Cohan felt looking back on his life in the theater,
the old trouper grinned and characteristically said, "No complaints, kid. No
complaints." He died quietly on the morning of November 5, 1942.
In the early 1960s, a statue of George M. Cohan was erected in the
center of Times Square, at the intersection of Broadway and 47th Street. Crowds
waiting for the TKTS line now snake around the base of that statue every day,
and most pay little if any attention to it. But
the visage of the man who once "owned Broadway" still gazes down the street
he dedicated his life to. In a neighborhood caught in an ongoing vortex of
upheaval, Cohan's monument provides a much-needed visible link with
Joel Grey played the title role in the rollicking
Cohan tribute George M!(1968)
Later that same decade, Cohan's daughter Mary teamed up with librettist
Michael Stewart to create George M! (1968). Part revue, part book musical,
it used an abbreviated retelling of Cohan's life story to showcase dozens
of his songs. An immediate hit, it revived interest in Cohan's work, and gave
the dynamic Joel Grey one of the best starring roles of his career. Since then
other shows have been built around Cohan's catalog of songs -- so far, none of
these often delightful projects has reached Broadway.
Cohan's widow Agnes lived on for several decades in a nursing home, the
nature of her illness
never publicly discussed. It was said that she took great pleasure in TV reruns
of Yankee Doodle Dandy, singing along with George's songs. Forgotten by
the public, she died in 1972 at age 89.
All of George's children have died, and his remaining descendants
pretty much avoid publicity. Although the tomb shared by the Four Cohans in
Woodlawn Cemetery has been in a state of collapse for some years, the family has done
nothing to facilitate repairs.
It is anyone's guess how Cohan would react to the current Broadway landscape. Odds
are that the high-rise hotels, blinding billboards and high-tech musicals would
leave him shaking his head in
bemusement. But upon learning that his songs are still remembered and his name
still far from forgotten, I think it's a safe bet that he'd give that crooked
grin of his and say