He gave his regards to Broadway (first of two posts) December 15, 2007Posted by Jeff in 1929 through WWII, Dance, George M. Cohan, Movies, Musicals, Theater.
George M. Cohan (1878-1942), the antagonist of my original screenplay Equity, was too sick with cancer to attend the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the movie based on his life starring James Cagney. But a few days later, in a scene reminiscent of the worst excesses of that wonderful movie, they got him in a wheelchair and sneaked him into the back of a Times Square movie theater so he could see it with a real audience.
Cohan’s verdict: “Nice movie. I wonder who it’s about?” He died less than six months later.
We shouldn’t expect biographical movies to be totally faithful to the facts, especially when their subjects have script approval (as did Cohan). But in this case, what was left out was at least as interesting as what was left in.
Let’s start with what was accurate:
The first two big numbers, from Little Johnny Jones, are exact replicas of the original staging, right down to the onstage horses in “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (the song’s real title), and the ocean liner and fireworks in “Give My Regards To Broadway.”
Cagney’s singing and dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy are copied from Cohan’s distinctive style. Fifty years before Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Cohan talked his way through his songs. He had no faith in his own singing voice, which may explain why he never recorded any of his most famous numbers. People speak of Cagney’s rubber-marionette dancing style as if it’s his, but in fact it’s Cohan’s.
Yankee Doodle Dandy represents Cohan as he wanted the world to remember him. Cagney/Cohan kept faith with his family after he got successful, whereas the real thing would dole out work to them only rarely. The real Cohan and his father were distant; Cagney’s performance in Walter Huston’s death scene is so over-the-top as to be almost unwatchable. Cagney/Cohan has a lifelong attachment to Mary (Joan Leslie); Reality/Cohan married twice, and had a bad divorce from wife #1, Ethel Levey.