For anyone who's ever seen James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (and who hasn't?), it's always a little startling late in the film to watch him sing and dance in a sequence depicting Cohan when he starred on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers & Larry Hart musical I'd Rather Be Right. Startling, because today's movie audiences are well aware that the character Cohan was playing—President Franklin Roosevelt—was a paraplegic. After all, the statue at the entrance to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. has him seated in his wheelchair.
The Franklin Roosevelt statue, designed by Lawrence Halprin, in Washington, D.C.
But this is now and that was then. While he was President, Roosevelt's disability was something he was keen on concealing, and had done so throughout his political life. He was aided by a world press with little interest in "outing" the President of the United States as someone who couldn't walk, something impossible to imagine today. In fact, of all the film footage of Roosevelt, one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, there is only six seconds that show him walking. The ploy, developed by Roosevelt himself, involved wearing heavy iron braces, then his using a cane and leaning hard on the arm of someone very strong so that he could pull off the stunt. This ploy, or his "splendid deception," as it came to be known after the fact, was due to the polio that had robbed Roosevelt of the use of his legs. But most Americans were unaware of that. It was thought it was merely difficult for him to get around, or that he might be "lame," a term now well retired.
Which is why to movie audiences in 1942, the year Yankee Doodle Dandy came out, it wasn't all that strange to see Roosevelt, then in the ninth year of his twelve-year presidency, moving about like that. The same went for audiences five years earlier when I'd Rather Be Right opened at the Alvin Theatre—now the Neil Simon—exactly 80 years ago tonight. Even with FDR as a character, it only had an interest in being a frothy musical comedy, nothing like the stinging political satire Of Thee I Sing, which had opened six years earlier and was the first musical to nab the Pulitzer Prize. That award-winning book was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and it was Kaufman who enlisted his old playwriting partner Moss Hart for I'd Rather Be Right. They created a story that begins innocently enough in Central Park, where a young couple become involved with the President, who they casually meet one evening when he happens to be out all by himself for a stroll. You see, the boy is unemployed and wants to marry his girl, and they need Roosevelt to fix the economy so he can get a job!
I know, it's insane.
George M. Cohan as the President of the United States in I'd Rather be Right (1937).
George M. Cohan had once been the dominant force on Broadway for nearly three decades in the early part of the century. Not only did he write the book, music and lyrics to all his shows, but he often performed the starring role as well. He also took credit for staging many of them—and he was not modest or nice about any of it. Possessed as he was of an outsized ego, he often did things that would have made a more "human" human being blush. By the time of I'd Rather Be Right in 1937, Cohan had been in near semi-retirement, which was NOT by his personal choice. The old fashioned stylings of the plays and musicals he wrote fell out of favor, and no one was willing to hire him to write or star in their shows, because ... well, why would they? Since he had always been the boss, every producer, director, playwright and composer-lyricist team in town knew what they’d be in for with Cohan on board. A collaborator, he was not.
And on I'd Rather Be Right, by all accounts, Cohan stayed true to form. He already bared ill will towards Rodgers and Hart, who had written the score to the 1932 film he starred in called The Phantom President. He hated the team on sight, mainly because he was angry that he had been put out to pasture in favor of the more literate and sophisticated Broadway fare that Rodgers & Hart helped to create. It had been nine years since a Broadway musical of his had been produced, so he spent his time on the picture belittling and calling them "Gilbert & Sullivan" behind their backs. Or in front of their backs, for all we know.
But Cohan was perfect casting for Roosevelt, and it provided a comeback of sorts, that Sam H. Harris, the wily producer of I'd Rather Be Right, was correct to exploit. The critics enjoyed the show, even though it was very mild as satire, and very low-echelon Rodgers & Hart. It did produce one standard, the delightful "Have You Met Miss Jones?", but no other songs of any distinction. As the theatre historian Ethan Mordden wittily rote in his book Sing For Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s, "The show isn't Boy Meets Girl. It's Boy Meets President and Asks Him To Balance the Budget." If you would like to see what is really the only glimpse of what the show might have looked like in its staging, here's Cagney performing as FDR with Rodgers & Hart's "Off the Record":
I'd Rather Be Right was a crowd pleaser, playing for 290 performances, which was a long run in its day. But that wasn't enough for Cohan. He had to prove to everyone that he could still do it all. So two years after his final performance as Roosevelt, he returned to Broadway in The Return of the Vagabond, a melodrama he wrote, produced and starred in.
It ran one week.
McKay Morris as the Governor and George M. Cohan as the Vagabond
in The Return of the Vagabond (1940).
After that, Cohan retired for good, and passed away two years later, five months after Yankee Doodle Dandy premiered. This meant that not only did he live to see his story become the number one grossing movie in America, but still being able-bodied (though in failing health), he got to serve as a consultant on the film. In that capacity, Cohan stated in print that he was pleased with Jimmy Cagney’s performance (though we’ll never know what he REALLY thought). Cohan had personally expressed his wishes earlier that Fred Astaire play him in the film. All of which prompts my personal guess that even with Cagney winning the Oscar for playing him, George M. Cohan would (just as soon) rather been right.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.