For many reasons, 1776 has held a special place in my heart. My school, Our Lady of the Wayside Junior High, took my whole 6th grade class on a field trip to see it at a real movie theater when I was 11. Imagine -- a movie musical about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin and their struggle for independence! More exciting than another afternoon with the nuns, let me tell you.
While we watched the new 4K Blu-ray disc, my wife revealed that this movie was her junior high field trip as well. She went to public school. I am guessing they took the two schools to see the movie on different days, so that after the screening the two groups of kids wouldn’t get into fistfights in the parking lot over the separation of church and state.
Before the film was even finished, there was a screening at the White House and then POTUS/Felon in Chief Richard Nixon found the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number insulting to conservatives (because, of course, it is.) Nixon pressured producer Jack Warner to cut it. After the film’s original triumphant premiere at Radio City Musical Hall, Warner decided the film was still too long and cut some more. All of this material has been restored to the film.
The Plot In Brief: John Adams (William Daniels) is fed up with the Continental Congress because all they do is argue and never get anything done. The Congress is fed up with John Adams, who is obnoxious and disliked. Adams believes the 13 colonies should break free from England and establish a new nation; he and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) convince Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (Ron Holgate) to finally push the proposal through.
You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out, babies.
The performances of Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin and John Cullum as Edward Rutledge stand out. The Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s denied the world any movie performances by Howard Da Silva for more than a decade. This is a particular tragedy, as Da Silva was that rare actor that could play both heavy drama and musical comedy. He retreated to the Broadway stage, where he won a Tony Award for Fiorello! and was then cast as Franklin in the stage version of 1776. I had always wondered why he was not on the original cast recording, which I would check out of my public library regularly as a teen. I later discovered that Da Silva suffered a heart attack shortly after opening night; his understudy, Rex Everheart, is featured on the record. Da Silva’s performance in the movie speaks to the 1200 or so times he performed the show on stage; every laugh, inflection, and nuance is there. He is a very funny Franklin, but never a buffoon; he retains the essential respect I am sure the real Franklin inspired.
Cullum is still acting today; he memorably portrayed cigarette magnate Lee Garner, Sr. on the first two seasons of Mad Men, appeared in a few episodes of 30 Rock, and recently had a featured role in The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt on Netflix.
My quibbles with 1776 are few. I realize this movie is not everyone’s cup of (Boston) tea (Party). The film features virtually the entire original Broadway cast, which is largely a good thing, except when a few performers forget to take their performances down a notch for the intimacy of the camera. I was always delighted at the way lyricist Howard Sherman turned John and Abigail Adams’ actual letters to each other into songs; on the commentary, director Peter Hunt explains that, because the letters were so intimate, he decided to show the two in close physical proximity as they sang—unfortunately, this leaves the two performers bellowing at each from inches away, as in a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald operetta. The effect is ludicrous and ruins some potentially moving moments. The song is still great.
There, I freely admit it -- I am a pussy for the USA.
P.S. This Saturday, America celebrates its Independence Day, and this is a perfect opportunity for all of my readers to declare their independence... from mediocre poetry. Mayapple Press has just published my wife’s first full-length book of poetry, Alloy. Hooray for freedom of the press!