Saturday, July 23, 2005

Don't Print It -- It's Strictly Off the Record

I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy the other day, and I noticed that while the movie is structured around Cohan's triumphant stage comeback spoofing F.D.R. in I'd Rather Be Right, it omits any indication of the fact that the songs from that show were not by Cohan but by Rodgers and Hart. I guess Cohan wouldn't have wanted it to be widely publicized that the last big number in the picture, "Off the Record," is not by him but by two younger (and, frankly, better) songwriters.

The song itself, where Roosevelt says all the things that he won't let reporters actually print, was simplified considerably for the movie, with some new and not-very-good wartime-uplift lyrics that may or may not be Hart's ("Who cares, as long as we can take the ax out of the Axis") and dropping the more overtly political jokes. My favorite of the "missing" verses is the opening refrain about F.D.R.'s political advisor, James Farley -- who was sort of like a non-evil version of Karl Rove:

When I was only governor, and just a good-time Charlie,
A certain party came to me - he said his name was Farley.
Don't print it - it's strictly off the record.
He sat right down and talked to me till I was in a stupor,
And ended up by selling me the works of Fenimore Cooper.
Don't print it - it's strictly off the record.
I said, "you're quite a salesman; you've been sent here by the fates.
If you can sell these dreary books, which ev'rybody hates,
Then maybe you can sell me to the whole United States!"
But that's off the record.

Since F.D.R. wasn't governor when he started working with Farley, the whole thing is inaccurate, but any song that insults Fenimore Cooper is okay with me.

I'd Rather Be Right itself was a very odd show, one of those incredibly huge productions mounted on Broadway in the '30s by Cohan's former producing partner, Sam Harris. Broadway economics then allowed for massive casts, and Harris, usually in collaboration with writer-director George S. Kaufman, was one of several people who took it to an extreme with plays that may have had more people onstage than in the audience. I'd Rather Be Right had a cast that included F.D.R.'s whole cabinet, the whole Supreme court, a group of women who object to the President's suggestion that they cut down on makeup usage for conservation purposes ("I regret that I have only one life to give for my permanent wave!"), a singing chorus, a dancing chorus, and so on.

It's sort of a shame, in a way, that the era when Broadway commanded the ability to field such big casts was also an era when there wasn't much interesting American play writing going on. (Ironically, even though New York based writers looked down on Hollywood, the writing done for Hollywood movies in the '30s holds up much better than most of the work being done for New York plays in the same period; New York theatre at this time was hobbled by a weird combination of crass commercialism and Popular Front crudity.) By the time American play writing got more interesting, theatrical economics no longer allowed for huge, ambitious plays with huge casts, with rare exceptions (Follies is one of those exceptions, and it lost a bundle). Even something like Angels in America doesn't have anywhere near the scope and scale of Harris and Kaufman's awful but ambitious The American Way did; it's the difference between a play that finds ways to look big and a play that really is big. I wonder what some of today's better playwrights might do with almost no restrictions on the size of the cast or the scope of the production.

Oh, and while this post has veered way off-topic, I can't mention The American Way without noting that it has my favorite bad line in theatre history. In a scene set in 1914, Fredric March rushes in and tells the other characters he has terrible news: "Austria-Hungary has declared war on Serbia!" Classic stuff.

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