Friday, July 1, 2016
GEORGE M. COHAN: THAT YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
As a child, Cohan and his family toured most of the year and spent summer vacations from the vaudeville circuit at his grandmother's home in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, where Cohan befriended baseball player Connie Mack. The family generally gave a performance at the town hall there each summer, and Cohan had a chance to gain some more normal childhood experiences, like riding his bike and playing sandlot baseball. Cohan's memories of those happy summers inspired his 1907 musical 50 Miles from Boston, which is set North Brookfield and contains one of his most famous songs, “Harrigan". As Cohan matured through his teens, he used the quiet summers there to write. When he returned to the town in the cast of Ah, Wilderness! in 1934, he told a reporter, "I've knocked around everywhere, but there's no place like North Brookfield."
Cohan began writing original skits (over 150 of them) and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows while in his teens. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. In 1901 he wrote, directed and produced his first Broadway musical, "The Governor's Son", for The Four Cohans. His first big Broadway hit in 1904 was the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy."
Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 300 original songs noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His major hit songs included "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway," "Mary Is a Grand Old Name," "The Warmest Baby in the Bunch," "Life's a Funny Proposition After All," "I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune," "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got a Band," "The Small Town Gal," "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living, That's All," "That Haunting Melody," "Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye", and America's most popular World War I song "Over There", which was recorded by Enrico Caruso among others. The latter song reached such currency among troops and shipyard workers that a ship was named "Costigan" after Cohan's grandfather, Dennis Costigan. During the christening, "Over There" was played.
From 1904 to 1920, Cohan created and produced over fifty musicals, plays and revues on Broadway together with his friend Sam Harris, including Give My Regards to Broadway and the successful Going Up in 1917, which became a smash hit in London the following year. His shows ran simultaneously in as many as five theatres. One of Cohan's most innovative plays was a dramatization of the mystery Seven Keys to Baldpate in 1913, which baffled some audiences and critics but became a hit. Cohan further adapted it as a film in 1917, and it was adapted for film six more times, as well as for TV and radio. He dropped out of acting for some years after his 1919 dispute with Actors' Equity Association.
Cohan appeared in 1930 in a revival of his tribute to vaudeville and his father, The Song and Dance Man. In 1932, Cohan starred in a dual role as a cold, corrupt politician and his charming, idealistic campaign double in the Hollywood musical film The Phantom President. The film co-starred Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and was released by Paramount Pictures. He appeared in some earlier silent films but he disliked Hollywood production methods and only made one other sound film, Gambling (1934), based on his own 1929 play and shot in New York City. A critic called Gambling a "stodgy adaptation of a definitely dated play directed in obsolete theatrical technique." It is considered a lost film.
Cohan earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of a song-and-dance President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart's musical I'd Rather Be Right (1937). The same year, he reunited with Harris to produce a play called Fulton of Oak Falls, starring Cohan. His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940), featured a young Celeste Holm in the cast.
In 1942, a musical biopic of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was released, and James Cagney's performance in the title role earned the Best Actor Academy Award. The film was privately screened for Cohan as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer; Cohan’s comment on Cagney’s performance was, "My God, what an act to follow!"
Cohan died of cancer at the age of 64 on November 5, 1942, at his Manhattan apartment on Fifth Avenue. Although Cohan is mostly remembered for his songs, he became an early pioneer in the development of the "book musical", using his engaging libretti to bridge the gaps between drama and music. More than three decades before Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, Cohan used dance not merely as razzle-dazzle, but to advance the plot. Cohan's main characters were "average Joes and Janes" that appealed to a wide American audience..