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 Paramountwith 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 ofYankee Doodle Dandytook 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 Presidentwas 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 Paramountexperienced 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.