George M. Cohan

Cohan


Providence, in case you didn’t know, is the birthplace of vaudeville legend George M. Cohan.  He never really lived here; his parents were entertainers and happened to be here in Providence when he was born, on the third of July, 1878.  (Not the fourth of July, please note.  Please get that song out of your head.)

 

 

It’s amazing how prolific he was: he performed, composed, wrote shows.  We still know his songs: “Give My Regards To Broadway.”  “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  “Mary Is A Grand Old Name.”  “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”  “Over There.”

 

 

There is a perfectly hideous statue of George down in Fox Point, a block away from George M. Cohan Boulevard.  It’s just the top half of him, from the waist up; he’s got his hat in his hand, and is (I think) supposed to be singing.  Why did the sculptor lop him off at the waist?  And why does he have that horrible grin on his face?

 

 

Much better is the living monument that James Cagney created for him.  In 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and later when he reprised the role in 1955’s “The Seven Little Foys,” Cagney is a delight.  He is tough and funny and energetic, and he dances like a demon.

 

 

Funny what we know about people.  George M. Cohan was enormously famous in his time; then he became – what? – just a name.  Then he was revived by someone great like Cagney, who transformed the image brilliantly.  (I hope the real George M. was only half as entertaining as Cagney’s portrayal of him.  The story goes that Cohan, dying of cancer, saw Cagney’s performance in the 1942 movie, and said, “What an act to follow!)

 

 

Few now living probably remember Cohan as a performer.  Many of us know his songs.  Many of us have also seen Cagney as Cohan.

 

 

So what do we really know of him?

 

 

I ask myself this question a lot lately.  I think about what remains of us after we’re gone, and how we remember people who have died, and how those people are remembered after we’ve died.

 

 

It fades, children.  You end up with grotesque statues and strangely twisted stories.

 

 

But sometimes it flickers to life: you hear a good song, and see a good performance, and think: this guy must have been terrific.

 

 

Something inside me rejoiced when, recently, I watched “The Seven Little Foys,” with Cagney dancing down the table in his wonderful eccentric way.

 

 

Maybe good things, and important things, survive after all.

 

 

Let’s hope so.

 


 

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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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