Like most people what I knew about George M. Cohan derived from watching Jimmy Cagney in in the Warner biography Yankee Doodle Dandy. I was aware that he had made fitful attempts at being a movie star, which were totally overshadowed by his phenomenal status on Broadway and as a recording star notching up hit tunes that had been inescapable in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Well there is a surprise coda to that career in Cohan’s first talkie and virtual swansong 1932's The Phantom President which proves to be a surprisingly lively and inventive entry in Paramount's Love Me Tonight, Million Dollar Legs, Duck Soup cycle.
Things kick off nicely with the crowd entering White White House and chanting the Rogers and Hart lyrics before we get comments by the framed portraits of former presidents - Robert Middleton’s Lincoln and Alan Mowbray’s Washington included, a device anticipating the Sacha Guitry Le diable boîteux incidentally.
|George M Cohan, Claudette Colbert, The Phantom President|
Party bosses Sidney Toler, George Barbier, Louise Mackintosh and Julius McVicker have a problem with their Presidential candidate Cohan. “Mr. Blair has no flair.” Meanwhile balding sixtyish George is proposing to spunky young Claudette Colbert, the daughter of the former President who still lives in The Mansion.
The bosses are distracted by the Medicine Show where George number two performs in blackface, doing his famous dance up the wall in a half-hearted fashion that the thirty years younger Cagney will outclass shortly. An on form Jimmy Durante accompanies George at the piano and, when our hero comes back without make up, the politicos spot the resemblance. “What charming rascality. Just one word - personality.” They hatch a plot to substitute the look alike.
George and Jimmy in their speaker van are chased by cycle cops, meaning that to escape them George’s double swings over the fence, coincidentally the enthusiasm Claudette said he should show to win her, and we’re into The Prisoner of Zenda and - yes folks - the germ of the Kevin Kline Dave.
The bosses send mountebank George on a vote catching tour and we get a convention with singing delegations - blacks from Harlem, cowboys, miners, Eskimos - which captivates the nation. “His lively performance - that man could reform us.” After being thrown out, Jimmy gets tickets from delegates entering the door where his hat covers the word “Men” and makes it in on the third attempt becoming campaign manager
Politician George’s nose is put out of joint and he hires heavies (starts with close up of a blackjack) to Shanghai entertainer George to a safe place in the Arctic Circle. Claudette takes a dim view of that and fingers politician George in his place, last seen on the ice listening to the presidential address accompanied by a seal, after Medicine Show man George has swung the team into running him.
Everyone is right on their game. Over age and in a strange medium, Cohan manages to suggest the charm which got him his status. Durante does his Schnozola number and has gags like the false mustache which comes away with his cigar. Colbert, totally at ease among people still nervous with speaking on screen, charms everyone in sight. One time opera singer Toler (cutting paper dolls during his conversations) is likewise unexpectedly effective. We've even got Maurice Elvey leading man Jameson Thomas on form as the Presidential butler.
The effects work is exceptional with George one walking behind George two in one shot.
Not hard to see the hand of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart (who old style showman Cohan detested) in all this but it's surprising to find Norman Taurog's name on such a stylish piece of work. I've only glimpsed his silent two-reelers and, knowing his machine made later work, had been amazed to find he was the youngest best director Oscar winner (Skippy) till Damien Chazelle showed up. Still We’re Not Dressing or even Presenting Lily Mars were agreeable departures from his standard product. I guess we'll never know who to thank here - Paramount, Cohan, the writers or the director.
This one can be glimpsed in murky Youtube clips like this and there are a few ancient bootlegs about.