George M. Cohan IS “The Phantom President”

September 23, 1932 was the release date of an important if currently obscure movie comedy called The Phantom President.

Why is it important? Well, for one thing, it’s the only opportunity we have to both see and hear George M. Cohan in performance. Cohan was the biggest man in theatre of his time: producer, director, theater owner, playwright, songwriter, actor, singer, and dancer. This meant that he was accustomed to being as big a boss as the Hollywood studio moguls were. But he hadn’t gotten in on the ground floor in the movie business, and that industry had now eclipsed live entertainment: it finished vaudeville and almost put Broadway out of business. He’d made three silent films (of his own scripts) back in the teens, but now here he was in his first talkie, almost like an audition. Being just another actor in a production he neither wrote, produced, or directed was alien to him at this point, although he would soon enjoy success doing that on stage the following year in Ah. Wilderness! But the concept was new and unprecedented at this stage. The Phantom President even had songs by other songwriters (Rodgers and Hart), an immense indignity for a man who had written a dozen of the most popular songs of all time. And he clearly didn’t like the experience of being in this film, because he never attempted to repeat it. In 1934, he self-produced a movie of his script The Gambler, and later destroyed it. By 1942 he was dead. So this is your one chance to see and hear Cohan, even if he is a bit long in the tooth.

The other reason the film is important is hinted at by the title. No, it’s not about a ghost or masked supervillain. It’s political. It’s one of those satires on the evergreen topic of American politicking and how it’s a phony grift and all show biz. You see the relevance? That era was much like ours: a time of economic, social and political crisis. A Depression was on. There was a resurgence of political extremism, of both the left and right, both in America and in Europe. The Phantom President has a lot in common with many movies of the time: off the top of my head, there’s Gabriel Over the White House with Walter Huston, Hallelujah I’m a Bum with Al Jolson, and there was even Rufus Jones for President with a pint-sized Sammy Davis Jr, all in 1933. Broadway had shows like Of Thee I Sing (1931) and I’d Rather Be Right (1937), the latter of which reconciled Cohan with Rodgers and Hart.

In The Phantom President we get double our money when it comes to Cohan, however. He plays a lackluster Presidential candidate named Theodore Blair, a man so weak at politicking he can’t even convince a horse to eat an apple out of his hand. Fortunately, he has a double, a medicine show huckster named Doc Varney. Medicine Show Huckster?! Is that timely now or is that timely? Naturally Doc Varney IS entertaining and that’s where you get to see a bit of the fabled Cohan exuberance bust out, even if it does come at the cost of a bit of blackface. Cohan was an interesting choice for this role. What was Cohan if not Irish American? So it’s hard not to connect this casting to the 1928 candidacy of Al Smith, who also happened to be a friend of Cohan’s. Yet we would not get an actual Irish President until John Kennedy, three decades later. The character Cohan plays here is a WASP, but there does seem to be a bit of fantasy wish-fulfillment going on here.

Anyway, you’ve seen stories: the medicine show guy is hired to be a stand-in for the actual guy at all public appearances (presaging such things as that Ivan Reitman comedy Dave with Kevin Kline). In the end there will be dilemmas of conscience on the part of both men, helped along by dream visions of George Washington (Alan Mowbray) and Abraham Lincoln (Charles Middleton). Also in the cast are Claudette Colbert as the love interest, Sidney Toler as an adviser, and Jimmy Durante as the campaign manager. I can imagine the latter being another tough pill for Cohan to swallow. Being 54 years old and having to compete with Durante in screen exuberance sounds like a tough climb. Ask Buster Keaton, who had just had to go through that three times!


One reason The Phantom President is not the classic one may assume it ought to be, is that it was directed by Norman Taurog who, Skippy Oscar notwithstanding, was something of a comedy hack. There was potential insight, wisdom, and profundity in a premise like the one baked into this movie, but not in that guy’s hand. Capra might have done something with it.

Anyway, a decade later, there’s a scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) where it’s remarked that he’d never made a movie. Cohan had script approval on that picture, and he made no effort to change the line. That’s what he thought of this movie. But now it is an important record of a time and a man. (BTW, there is one other extant Cohan movie, though it’s a silent. It’s the 1917 version of his Seven Keys to Baldpate).