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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Yankee Doodle Man In Talkie Debut


The Phantom President Seeks 1932 Vote


Getting George M. Cohan for talkies was heady stuff. He had starred in, produced, or otherwise ram-rodded 140 plays, written 500 songs, "all hits," said breathless press, and made a million off Over There, America's anthem of the Great War. Cohan swept into Paramount with a multi-pic contract, was figured to do everything save perk the coffee and sweep off stages, a miracle-making jack of all talents. Cohan summit on Broadway was passed, but who knew but what he could recharge his battery with movies? Cohan didn't look the screen star type, but fast feet and quicker patter seemed a recipe for films arrived lately at sound. Jolson after all came of a same source, but 1932 wasn't 1927-28, and musicals had besides gone dim at turnstiles, as had Jolson. Would anyone remember Cohan minus Cagney's later immortalization of him? I admit to watching The Phantom President for compare of real and reel Cohan, thoughts fixed on how close Jim approximated George M. Turns out dance styling of Yankee Doodle Dandy took many leafs from Cohan book, or at least Cohan as he might have been at peak of athleticism on stage. Both Cohan and Cagney walk the stage walls, or bounce off them, one of Yankee Doodle's big takeaways. Age-wise there was difference --- about ten years when Cohan and Cagney did their respective turns, GMC at 53 for The Phantom President, JC a decade younger when he did Yankee Doodle Dandy.






Cohan enacts a dual role in The Phantom President, but still gets crowded off by Jimmy Durante, the "Schnozzle" riding a crest of freak popularity fed by Paramount here, also Metro in a series Durante stole from Buster Keaton. Most view him now as an irritant, at least to primacy we'd give Cohan/Keaton, but ads reveal Jimmy driving ticket sales thanks to freshness he brought to comedy drunk on non-stop talk. Did Durante exhaust 1932 patronage as he does us? Maybe not, for again, he was something brand new to farcing, like a joke or a song that catches fire and burns bright until listeners tire of it. Durante would last, without even having to vary his routine, but by time of reemergence as character or comic support, handlers and a public, if not Jimmy, realized he was best in small dosage. Cohan's double role has a disadvantage for one half being a stick in mud, while the other is live wire we expect (and prefer) of this entertainer. Their switching identities is put off beyond our expectation, and patience; since this is how all twin plots proceed, why not get on with it? Most filmgoers had never seen Cohan live, and so paid admissions on faith that he was B'way's brightest light that would lay them in aisles. The fact he doesn't can be laid on the double act where gentleman George saps energy off fun-lover Cohan of stage repute. If anything slows down The Phantom President, it is focus on his staid side --- audiences couldn't be blamed for wondering if this was the real Cohan.






Cohan by most accounts was a pill on the set, irked that he didn't write songs assigned to Rodgers and Hart, them representing progress way past tunes George M. long ago composed. President's director Norman Taurog told interviewing Leonard Maltin that he "liked" Cohan, but the star "felt hampered ... because he didn't know this (movie) business." Emphasis on Durante "just killed" Cohan, said Taurog, but the director kept a lid on the disparate personalities by not siding with either, and getting along with both. The Phantom President was an election year release, so traded on news related to real-life campaigns. Patronage could plug in candidates to either side of Cohan's dual act --- was stuffy George M. a take on Hoover, his buoyant half reflective of challenger Roosevelt? Cohan as faux "Theodore K. Blair" (he's really medicine show performer "Doc" Varney) says that presidential bids should be conducted like musical comedy, a quote many at the time would have seen as prophetic, especially with radio increasingly a device used to promote candidates.






The Phantom President broke the Paramount Theatre's attendance for an opener week in October 1932, but this was Broadway, where George M. Cohan's name still loomed large among legit-goers. For stix-dwellers, it was Durante who'd sell the show, ads weighted his way to such extent that I wonder if Cohan complained, assuming he noticed. Billing was small comfort: Sure, Cohan came first per contract, Claudette Colbert as lead lady second, then Durante, but art belonged to Jimmy, his face and "schnozzle" so dominant as to make him seem the sole star on view. Trouble then for The Phantom President was Cohan being much less known to middle-America, let alone the Southeast, and what he exhibited on screen didn't excite much interest. It was like repeat of what Paramount experienced with their "Famous Players In Famous Plays" policy back in the teens, stage names overpaid to work magic in films, only film customers didn't find them so magical. Also an anchor was most engagements of The Phantom President playing off after Election Day, excitement and suspense of the vote dissipated and folks back to normal routine. The Phantom President took $520K in domestic rentals, not a disaster, but also not enough to encourage more Para ventures for Cohan. Goes w/o saying, I suppose, that there is no authorized DVD or streaming, and probably won't be so long as we're on this side of the Veil, but bootlegs exist, a few OK given patient search and locate (HOLD EVERYTHING! Universal Vault has just released The Phantom President on DVD). A good movie and greater curiosity for those who'd like seeing what the real Yankee Doodle Dandy was like.

8 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

If only they would release those Warner Oland FU MANCHU films!

9:44 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Saw this on an afternoon airing back in the late sixties. Even as a kid I could dope out the similarities with Cagney... when George M. was dancing. During the rest of the thing, I thought he more closely reminded me of a 50ish - 60ish Bing Crosby. On a bad day. Very laid back. Irritating or not, Durante seemed way more interesting. And that was it for decades. Then, just a couple of months ago I stumbled upon it on Youtube (kinda crappy copy, but watchable.) I was pretty keen for 45 minutes or so but, alas, never quite finished it. I suppose I will give 'er another chance some day.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

Just caught this at Cinevent in Columbus. It's merit is strictly as a curio piece. GMC looked bored by it all and not enough Colbert. Jimmy pulled out all the stops. Expected him to talk about Mrs. Calabash and The Big W.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

I also saw this at Cinevent, and had much the same opinion as Jerry. It seemed soooo long, none of my friends with me cared much for it. But Durante was fun, and Colbert was delightful, and simply not around long enough.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

George M. Cohan and Eddie Foy share the peculiar distinction of being performers remembered not as themselves but as James Cagney and Bob Hope. Certainly other stars got biopics, but those of the film era at least got late-show exposure so people knew the originals. Today, it's probably easier to see the real Al Jolson than to catch Larry Parks's performance.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

https://ok.ru/video/273241868963

3:55 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

For a movie where Cohan is supposed to be the star (and gets an extra-special pre-title credit), Durante sure gets the lion-share of the ad space.

For what it's worth, here's the piece I wrote about "Phantom President" last year. I think I liked it more than most viewers today do:
http://theolfisheye.blogspot.com/2017/03/movie-of-day-phantom-president-1932.html

9:21 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I find that on radio, where perhaps he's not quite as overbearing without the visual aspect, Durante always makes me smile. He had a long-running radio series of his own (accompanied towards the end by the seductive "Hot Breath Houlihan" -- I wonder how many M*A*S*H fans know the origins of Loretta Swift's Hot Lips Houlihan?), and was a frequent guest on shows such as Command Performance and Mail Call. His was an old schtick, I suppose, but he carries it with such warmth and charm and personality that I can't help but enjoy myself.

4:27 PM  

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