The Fay Templeton number of “So, Long Mary” in the “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” scene is an excellent parody of small town American ambition for something bigger and better, and yet clinging to what is simple and familiar. Any song that can come up with a rhyme for “Schenectady” has my vote.
But in the “Grand Old Flag” number staged as part of Cohan’s “George Washington, Junior” musical, the film revs up to a colossal orgy of patriotic flag waving. The red, white and blue never looked so impressive in black and white. We have a chorus in Union Civil War uniforms, an appearance by the Boy Scouts, a tableau featuring Betsy Ross, the Spirit of ’76, and an African-American man singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while slaves file past him and they pay tribute to a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. There is a poignant dignity in this last scene, without the hoopla of what came before, a helpless but earnest nod to a point on our timeline we cannot now change. It is unlike the cringe-worthy scene at the beginning of the film, when Cagney is led up the stairs at the White House by the black butler, played by Clinton Rosewood, who says he saw Cohan’s act many years ago when his then employer, President Theodore Roosevelt, or Mister Teddy as the butler calls him, gave him tickets for seats “in the gallery.”
There is perhaps at least one generation of young Americans who do not know that there was a time, particularly in certain parts of this nation, where African Americans were not allowed in theaters except in the segregated balcony seating, including when this film was made. This remark in the film may pass right by them unnoticed. More noticeable is the brief scene of the Four Cohans in blackface. It, too, is cringe-worthy and foolish, but to leave it out would be a lie. It is a realistic image of a long ago style of entertainment in American theater, which in this film is reviewed with remarkable detail.
Going back to the “Grand Old Flag” number, we are then presented with a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike leading a platoon of Spanish-American War soldiers, and a flock of workers, nurses, farmers, and an assortment of the Common Man gathering around some men about to load a cannon. If we did not figure it out before, we now know this movie is really about World War II. Released in 1942, this film gives us only a brief escape into the nostalgic past of American theater, but deftly slaps us back to consciousness. There is a war on outside the movie house, and when Walter Huston emerges in the final moments of the number dressed as Uncle Sam and Rosemary DeCamp as the Statue of Liberty, and there are more flags than we can count, we know that something more is expected of us. And it is not even the finale yet.
In the film World War I intrudes upon the life of George M. Cohan. He writes “Over There,” which became the anthem for American involvement in that war, and later in the film when he finishes telling his life story to FDR, the President gives him the medal for writing “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag.” The faux FDR tells him “A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film seems to expect the audience to give back something, too, now that we are at war, and the movie is over, and it is left to each of us to find the way to do it.
Just as important a message, and just as poignant, is when the two doctors confer outside the dying Cohan, Sr.’s room, reminiscing about the Four Cohans’ career. “I can’t help thinking a theatrical era is dying in there,” one says to the other. Their diagnosis is on the state of the theatre, and not the patient. Today there is a statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square. Mr. Cohan died five months after this film was released. He was ambitious, and he was flag waving, and he gave back something.