6 July 2006 | theowinthrop
More of the Great George M - "Warts and all"
It does not have the pizazz and style of the mighty 1942 Curtiz - Cagney musical biography, but this television version of George M. Cohan's life (based on a 1968 stage hit that starred Joel Gray - here reprising his role as Cohan) fills in some of the background a bit more than what Cohan sought to bury when approving the 1942 film.
To begin with, Cohan's relationship with his first wife, the Jewish singer and actress Ethel Leavey (Anita Gillette) is brought in finally. Marriage to Cohan would have been a trial unless (like his second wife Mary) you were self-deprecating. Ethel had career plans of her own, and George kept pushing them aside. HE was the superstar in the family, followed by his father, mother, and sister...thank you! After four years the marriage collapsed.
Gone to are some of the fun moments of the movie - Minor Watson had played Albee, the vaudeville producer with a chain (circuit) of theaters who approached the Cohans to sign with him in the film of 1942. A young, egotistical George smashes the deal by making demands that only a star of twenty or thirty years standing could demand. Here Jesse White played the role, and made it a little harder and cynical. It's not as amusing, but White's disgust with this young, pretentious squirt is interesting - as is a subsequent accidental meeting with him where he sneers at George's lack of success (before 1903).
His ego plays more of a role. In 1919 Actor's Equity finally got it's act together and confronted wealthy producers and actor managers like the Schuberts, Klaw and Erlanger (Cohan's associates), Cohan, Charles Coburn, and David Belasco for better contracts for employees of the various theaters (including the dancers, chorus singers, stage hands, orchestras, and players). Cohan helped found a rival group (Actor's Fidelity) which was nicknamed "Fido" by the Actor's Equity for being a lapdog union. The Actor's Equity strike was led by Ed Wynn, Marie Dressler, Francis Wilson (a leading performer of the day), and other stars. It finally won the strike, and from then on Actor's Equity contracts were required on Broadway - except for Cohan. He was the only hold out in the end. They made an exception for him due to his reputation as a stage artist and his personal generosity in charity work. He never signed an Equity contract.
It's refreshing seeing hints of his bad side - including his warfare against Rodgers and Hart (and Kaufman and Hart) as FDR in I'D RATHER BE RIGHT. The script points out the famous fight he had about jokes at the expense of Cohan's real-life friend Al Smith (he had to say them). He had little use for the score (aside from Irving Berlin, Cohan never thought highly of the leading Broadway composers of the age). To be fair, I'D RATHER BE RIGHT left only one standard - "Have You Met Miss Jones". The rest (like the songs for OF THEE I SING and LET 'EM EAT CAKE) are mostly for moving the plot. It was a below par score for Rodgers and Hart. But if it had been the score of THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE or ON YOUR TOES or PAL JOEY, Cohan would still have been critical.
This is done as a bunch of actors celebrating a great stage star and phenomenon of the past. Like OUR TOWN it is a bare stage. But Gray gives a riveting performance, as does Jack Cassidy as Jerry Cohan (his retirement shown to be based on physical exhaustion and finally disgust with his son's demands for his physical support on stage). It was a good production generally speaking, concluding with Gray singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as a summation and apologia for the life of it's creator. I wish they would revive this or put it on DVD.