Although he always maintained that he was “born on the Fourth of July”, George M. Cohan was actually born today, July 3rd, 132 years ago. The American public was happy to forgive him for stretching the truth, because the “father” of American musical theater was “the whole darn country squeezed into one pair of pants.”
His time is remote to us now, so it’s difficult to truly grasp just what George M. Cohan once meant to America. You could say he was the early 20th Century’s Bruce Springsteen.
Since the late 1940’s, each year on Independence Day, television stations around the country have shown Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cohan’s musical biography starring James Cagney, and continuing that tradition, it will air tomorrow at 5:30 PM Eastern (2:30 PM Pacific) on Turner Classic Movies.
I four or five years old when I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy the first time, and I’ve seen it nearly every Fourth of July since, and many other times as well. It’s hokey, corny, a propaganda piece (made in 1943 at the height of World War Two), the standard Hollywood movie bio pic, and yet, it transcends all that and for me, holds up after repeated viewings.
It might have something to do with Cohan’s songs, which are wonderful, even though the sentient they express doesn’t always fit that well with today’s sensibilities. It might also have something to do with Cagney’s performance, which is flawless, or that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who just the year before had directed a little film called Casablanca.
Cohan himself appeared in only five films, three of them silent. You can watch a scene from The Phantom President on YouTube here. Unfortunately, part of it is in blackface, but if you can get past that it offers a rare look at the singing and dancing style of one of the masters, and you see Cohan do some of the same steps that Cagney imitates perfectly in this classic clip: