Blog Archive

30 July 2018

George M. Cohan: a Peek at a Hugely Influential Artist

Recently a very fine movie version of Eugene O'Neill's family comedy, Ah!Wilderness was shown on TCM. The all-star cast included Lionel Barrymore, Fay Bainter, Eric Linden, Wallace Beery, Aline McMahon, and Mickey Rooney. It's a lovely movie and well worth seeing. But there's more to the story.

O'Neill had been known as a very serious playwright since 1920, when his first professionally produced play, Beyond the Horizon, won a Pulitzer Prize. Since then he had written The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra, all great plays, but none of them exactly laugh-fests. So observers were astonished when his next work turned out to be Ah!Wilderness, a generally gentle family comedy about a teenage boy's formative years in a small Connecticut town. The family is guided by a loving and tolerant father, Nat Miller. This character holds the play together, much as the father holds the family together.
The play was to be produced by the avant-garde Theater Guild. The Theater Guild was a group theater, whose founding members included Lee Strasburg, Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets, and Franchot Tone. They didn't believe in stardom, and no one's name went above the title. But upon reading O'Neill's latest play, it occurred to the board that one particular actor should star in their production. That man was George M. Cohan.
Today, all we know about Cohan is his life as delineated in the great movie biography, Yankee Doodle Dandy. This is one of the great biographies, largely true, and a delight to watch. However, it can't really show us Cohan's importance. To us, Cohan is a household name because of the movie; to viewers at the time, he had been a household name for decades before the movie was ever thought of. He really had been "the man who owned Broadway," an innovator and iconoclast as playwright and composer. Not only that, his abilities as a performer, a singer, dancer, and actor, were revered.
So we can't really appreciate the stir of curiosity and surprise that went through the theater world when they heard that the semi-retired Cohan was going to star in a play by the ultra-modern Eugene O'Neill.
But that's what happened. Such a perceived mismatch could have been a disaster, and I'm sure nerves were taut on opening night. But not for long. The play, the production, and the performances, especially Cohan's, got a rapturous reception. Cohan took twelve curtain calls.
Reading the reviews gives us an idea of how Cohan was seen.
This is what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (an excellent source for theatrical coverage over many decades) said:

"It is a rich and mellow performance, delightful in its ease and honesty and plainness. He could not fit better into the play if he had written it himself for himself, nor play it more conscientiously, nor perhaps have more respect for it."

Those are words applied to a deeply respected actor, not just a flashy song and dance man (not that there's anything wrong with that).
This whole piece was inspired by my discovery of this lovely photo, showing the great Gene Lockhart as the tragic Uncle Sid, and the great George M. Cohan as his genial brother-in-law, Nat Miller, in the original 1933 production of Ah! Wilderness, by Eugene O'Neill: