I 've seen "Yankee Doodle Dandy" starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan many times over the years, but I'd never noticed a reference to Broadway impresarios George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart until I viewed the film again on July 4.
Kaufman and Hart wrote the book for the musical "I'd Rather Be Right," for which Cohan came out of retirement to play Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the film relates.
Along with Cagney's captivating performances of Cohan's Broadway songs and a strong supporting cast, I love "Yankee Doodle Dandy" for its New York theater lore, including an appearance by Eddie Foy Jr., like Cohan a member of a famed vaudeville family.
Yet I'd missed the Kaufman/Hart reference all these years. It turns out that the musical numbers for "I'd Rather Be Right" were written by Richard D. Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the team that penned many of the classics of "the American Songbook." Lorenz and Moss Hart were not related.
Kaufman, one of the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, mainly collaborated with writers like Moss Hart on Broadway shows. One of their best known plays is "The Man Who Came to Dinner," based on the New Yorker critic and radio personality Alexander Woolcott, another Algonquin member, along with Dorothy Parker and others.
The Mary Astor Affair
A grumpy pessimist and misogynist, Kaufman was also quite the ladies man. Vanity Fair magazine recently published excerpts from Edward Sorel's book detailing Kaufman's notorious affair with the actress Mary Astor, as detailed in Astor's diary.
The diary played a central role in Astor's sensational divorce trial in the 1930s. The diary was not admitted as evidence, but lawyers were able to refer to it. The scandalous Hollywood case resulted in Astor losing custody of her young daughter, but didn't seriously harm her acting career.
The husky-voiced Astor played the villain Ruth Wonderly/ Bridgid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon." Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart, has an ill-fated fling with Bridgid in the movie before seinding her up the river, as they say in film noir.
Moss Hart's "Act One"
Moss Hart is remembered by theater buffs for his classic memoir, "Act One," the basis of James Lapine's play produced on Broadway in 2014. Alas, Hart's memoir is among those oft-praised books that leave me wondering what all the fuss is about. Hart was also married to Kitty Carlisle, who after an acting career that included an appearance with the Marx Brothers in "A Night at the Opera," gained national fame as a star panelist on the TV game show "To Tell the Truth."
Rodgers-Hart vs. Rodgers and Hammerstein
Rodgers-Hart gained huge Broadway success with songs like "We'll Have Manhattan," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "I Could Write a Book" and "The Lady Is a Tramp." After Hart's premature death, Rodgers achieved even greater fame in his partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II, writing the classic shows "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "The Sound of Music" and "South Pacific." Rodgers composed the music and Hart/Hammerstein added the lyrics.
Many musical buffs consider Rodgers-Hart more artistically authentic than Rodgers-Hammerstein. I used to be among this school, but over the years have come to appreciate Rodgers and Hammerstein despite some of their songs' cloying sentimentality. Hart was looser in his rhymes, which Stephen Sondheim criticized, but had a gift for memorable phrases and a better feeling for the popular vernacular. Hammerstein was more formal, and some of his rhymes strike me as forced, but songs like "Surrey With the Fringe on the Top" match or better Hart.
The Bogart Connection
"Yankee Doodle's"cast featured some wonderful actors. The Bogart connection is maintained by S.Z. Sakall and Walter Huston. After playing an early investor in a Cohan show in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Sakall stole a scene or two in "Casablanca." Huston played Cohan's vaudeville trouper dad, then won an Academy Award for "The Treasure of the Sierre Madre," in which Bogey gives a memorable performance as the paranoid bad guy Fred C. Dobbs. And, Joan Leslie, Cohan's wife, Mary, appears with Bogart in "High Sierra."
More Bogart ties: Walter's son, John Huston, directed him in "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and other films.
Another "Yankee" alum gained later fame. George Tobias, who plays a theater agent in "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"generated laughs as Abner Kravitz, the neighbor on the TV hit "Bewitched" who always shook his his head at his wife Gladys' hysteria over seeing strange things at the Stephens home.