30 August 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
A very dandy Yankee Doodle
'George M!' is a fine example of a 'chamber musical' ... meaning, a musical stripped down to its barest essentials: a minimal cast on a bare stage, with only the most cursory props and no special costumes.
The official screen biography of George M. Cohan was the great musical 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', starring James Cagney. But that movie wilfully contradicted the facts of Cohan's life, with Cohan's active approval. 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' contains absolutely no mention of George M. Cohan's disastrous first marriage, nor of his children, nor of the disastrous Equity strike (in which a striker fired a bullet through the window of Cohan's home), and the movie asserts (untruthfully) that Cohan never appeared in any films. Cohan is depicted as an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and 'a good Democrat'; in reality, Cohan was a Republican who despised FDR. 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' is a slam-bang first-rate fictional entertainment, but as a biography of Cohan it's wildly inaccurate.
In 1968-69, the dynamically talented Joel Grey starred on Broadway in 'George M!' ... a musical biography of Cohan which -- unlike the Cagney movie -- made a creditable effort to tell the real life-story of George M. Cohan. Joel Grey was an excellent choice to play Cohan, who (during his peak performing years) was a small lithe man. (If forced at gunpoint to choose between Joel Grey and James Cagney, I would say that Cagney is the better choice to play Cohan, but Grey is a very close second.) Bernadette Peters co-starred in the Broadway cast of 'George M!' as Josie Cohan, George's sister and his partner in his stage act.
When I sought out this 1970 TV special 'George M!', I assumed that it was a film version of the Broadway stage show. This turns out not to be the case. This low-budget TV special is basically an excuse to perform some of George M. Cohan's most famous songs, in a chamber-musical format that offers almost no real information about Cohan's life or his work habits. Fortunately, Joel Grey is in fine form here in some splendid first-rate song-and-dance routines. Bernadette Peters is on hand too, but technically they aren't playing George and Josie Cohan.
The premise of 'George M!' (TV version) is that a small group of modern-day performers have got together in a rehearsal studio to celebrate George M. Cohan's life and work. Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters and the other cast members are apparently playing themselves, with Austin Pendleton serving as a stage manager/director. The results are highly enjoyable.
One scene provides an interesting comparison between this TV show, the movie 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', and the career of the real George M. Cohan. In 1904, Cohan starred in his self-written musical 'Little Johnny Jones' at the Liberty Theatre in New York City. The climactic scene (containing the hit song 'Give My Regards to Broadway') takes place on the docks at Southampton, England. Cohan plays Johnny, an American jockey who has been framed for deliberately losing the Derby, and who must remain in England rather than go home to America in disgrace. As Johnny stands on the dock, he watches an ocean liner passing on the horizon. (Remember, this is a stage play.) Suddenly a skyrocket is fired from the ship's deck, signalling Johnny that a detective aboard the ship has found evidence clearing Johnny's name.
When Cohan did this play in 1904, a very complicated stage effect was required to create the impression of an ocean liner in the distance, firing off a skyrocket. When Cagney starred in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' in Hollywood in the 1940s, an even more complicated movie-effect was used to re-enact this moment from Cohan's career. But in this vastly simplified chamber musical version 'George M!', the whole complicated effect is omitted altogether. Instead, at the key moment, we have Austin Pendleton crossing the bare stage and shouting 'Skyrocket!' ... giving Joel Grey the cue to go into his dance. And, really: Joel Grey dancing on a bare stage is far more magical and entertaining than some million-dollar pyrotechnic effect.
It's regrettable that this 'George M!' isn't really a film version of the 1968 Broadway show. But it's an absolute delight on its own terms. I'll rate this TV special 10 points out of 10. Top marks to all!