Gary May’s “The Tunesmith” Honors the Legacy of M.K. Jerome

Gary May's grandfather, M.K. Jerome, composed music for films like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." May works to preserve his legacy in a new book.

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There are many figures in American history who deserve more attention than they receive. M.K. Jerome, known as Moe, is among them. Gary May, an author and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware, wants to set the record straight. His new book, The Tunesmith: The Musical Journey of M.K. Jerome, aims to do just that. Moe is significant to May as one of the greatest songwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age and—more importantly—as his grandfather.

May isn’t the first to try to get Jerome the credit he deserves. In The Tunesmith, May tells the story of how actor and patriot James Cagney spoke out on Jerome’s behalf. Cagney was a prolific actor and, over the 15 films he worked on with Jerome, they formed a good rapport. Says May, “Moe’s warm working relationship with James Cagney may explain, in part, his involvement in Cagney’s film, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the musical biography of George M. Cohan, ‘Broadway’s favorite son’ and the personification of American patriotism. It was Jerome that Cagney asked to play piano and work with him as they rehearsed the 12 Cohan numbers they would perform in the movie.”

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This patriotic film earned Cagney an Academy Award for Best Actor, something toward which Jerome’s work played a significant role.

“Moe had already worked on what would become one of the most important parts of the film—dramatizing Cohan’s 1904 play, Little Johnny Jones,” May explains. “The first filmed version of the play in the sound era was one of his earliest projects when he came to Warner Brothers in 1929. He was already familiar with the story and the songs. And, indeed, that became his task along with Jack Scholl—condense a story that ran 105 minutes in its 1929 version into a sequence only one-tenth as long. It was a critical moment in the movie since it contains its two greatest songs, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘Give My Regards to Broadway.’”

Unfortunately, Jerome’s hard work on this important piece of American film history went uncredited by Warner Brothers, and he was not alone. This did not sit well with Cagney, according to May.

“He was not entirely happy with his success,” May says. “It bothered him that so many people who had worked on the film were unrecognized, often uncredited. So, not long after the Oscar ceremony in March 1943, Cagney took the extraordinary step of taking out a full-page ad in Variety thanking those he believed were slighted.”

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Among the six men he named was Moe. Cagney wrote that Moe “did a masterful job of telling the entire story of ‘Little Johnny Jones’ in about 12 minutes of verse.”

“Moe would never forget Cagney’s kindness and generosity,” May adds.

Cagney wanted the people who worked on Yankee Doodle Dandy with him to get the recognition they still deserve. May’s The Tunesmith takes up that torch, telling this and many more of M.K. Jerome’s stories. Jerome’s work may still be uncredited by Warner Brothers, but through both Cagney and May’s efforts, his impact on the era’s films will not be forgotten.

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