25 December 2012 | AlsExGal
Sure they took liberties with the facts, but the outcome is delightful
The amazing piece of timing here is when Warner Bros. began work on this biography of entertainer George M. Cohan, WWII had not yet broken out. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred the day before shooting began. When the film opened people on the home front badly needed some morale boosting, and this film gave it to them. It's just a joyous musical costume piece from start to finish with nice comic touches balanced with some sentimental moments (supposedly Walter Huston's deathbed scene had even taskmaster director Michael Curtiz crying). There's nothing in the way of real conflict or even much heavy in the way of romance between Cohan and his fictitious film wife "Mary", who was modeled after Cohan's actual second wife in some ways. Cohan was actually married twice. Oddly enough, it was Cohan who said he wanted as little romance in the film as possible.
The more I learn about Cohan the more I realize that Cagney was perfect to play him - both Irish Americans, both about the same size and build, and George Cohan's style of dancing and singing were about the same as Cagney's. It's hard to believe that Fred Astaire was Cohan's first choice to play himself. Astaire was a great talent, but I don't think he could have conveyed the combination of mischief, optimism and energy that was Cohan the way that Cagney ultimately did. Several people criticize Cagney's dancing here, but that eccentric style was Cohan's, who always considered himself more of an overall entertainer than a dancer in the first place.
If you're "date conscious" as I am, there are some matters of plot that might bother you. Cohan was born on July 2 or 3, not July 4. Cohan's mother outlived his father by eleven years and Cohan's father was not "very old" when he died as is said in the film - at least by today's standards. When Cohan's father died in 1917, he was only 69. Cohan's sister did die young - she was only 39, dying in 1916, plus she was not his little sister. Instead Josie was a year older than George. The film has Josie marrying when she would have been close to forty, when she actually married at the beginning of the 20th century and thus was the one to break up the four Cohans, not George. Also, Cohan received his Congressional Medal in 1936, not as WWII began as shown in the film. However the plot device of having George M. recount his life story to FDR, receiving his Congressional medal in the Oval Office, and then dance joyously down the White House stairs and into the streets joining a group of marching soldiers in a chorus of "Over There" was probably a great way to bridge Cohan's patriotic past with what was then an uncertain time that certainly needed a dose of his optimism.
The one thing that I did find a little odd - and one thing isn't much in a two plus hour long movie - is that it is hard to spot the actual point in the film where Mary becomes George's wife. There is quite a bit of domesticity shown before the two were married. Mary is cooking for George, staying in his apartment alone waiting for him to come home from the show, and acting very much like they are already married. The only way you know they are not is that George very subtly pops the question to the point that I'm surprised even Mary knew what he was asking! I know this doesn't seem like much in today's world, but considering that they were trying to paint Cohan in the most positive light possible and that the living arrangements might be misunderstood, I am surprised that the censors of that time never raised the issue.
At any rate, I highly recommend this one. You'll have a great time, at least in part because you can see that Cagney is having a great time. He always said this film was his favorite, and it shows in his performance.