I did some short movie reviews while writing my TCMFF posts, but this will be the first full-on movie review I've ever done. I'd call this more of a recap with a dash of actual review thrown in. There might be some spoilers, but the biggest one is probably that Congress ends up voting for independence, and I'm pretty sure none of us are in the dark about that.
I'm going to see Hamilton in November at the Pantages Theatre in L.A. I'm looking forward to it, but I decided to dip my toes in the historical musical genre a few months early and watch 1776. I love both musicals and history, so I figured I couldn't lose. William Daniels (who plays John Adams in the film and originated the role on Broadway) was a guest programmer on TCM in April, and this is one of the films he chose. At first I thought it was kind of precious that he chose a film in which he himself starred, but the man knew what he was doing. It's fantastic.
1776 from 1972 is the film version of the Broadway play 1776 from 1969. Got that? Jack Warner brought it to the screen (his final producing credit), Peter Stone wrote both the play and the screenplay, and most of the original Broadway cast did the film, too.
The film opens with John Adams (Daniels) standing in the belfry next to the Liberty Bell, looking as dignified in a pulled-back ponytail as he ever did as mustached teacher/principal Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. The congressional custodian and all-around gofer, Andrew McNair (William Duell), comes up to tell him to get back down to Congress, as he's needed to help decide an issue concerning uniforms. Congress is hard put to agree on anything, proving that nothing has changed in the last two hundred years. Adams walks into the room, announcing that "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a congress." We are only five minutes into the film and I'm already totally on board with this guy. Adams starts complaining about all the taxes England is putting onto the colonies and laments the fact that Congress refuses to consider independence. The others respond by telling him to "Sit Down, John." To be fair, he has a valid argument about seeking independency. I mean, look at how it turned out in the end.
|Here we catch our first glimpse of zany Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) and swoon-worthy Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard). Give yourself a minute to appreciate their outfits. (gif: fandomfox.blogspot.com)|
Having been refused once again, Adams storms outside and asks God if He placed a curse on North America ("Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve"). He admits that grappling with a flood, famine, locusts, or an earthquake would have been difficult, but we got Congress instead, and "good God, sir, was that fair?" I have the same question in 2017.
Adams' wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) shows up in a daydream sequence. She asks him to come home because all the children are sick. If she really wants him to come home, she might want to adjust her strategy a bit. He reminds her that she was supposed to make saltpeter for gunpowder, but she hasn't done so because he forgot how to tell her to make it, and what's more, she's not going to make it until he sends her some pins. Ah, love. They proclaim their devotion to each other ("Till Then") and sign off by saying "Saltpeter, John," and "Pins, Abigail." These two really can't let it go.
The next scene opens on Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) posing for a portrait, dressed in purple and looking as serene as the Mona Lisa. Adams complains that Congress is being two-faced about independence. Franklin advises Adams to give up the fight for independence, as no one listens to him because he is obnoxious and disliked. He proposes that another colony in Congress broach the subject of independence. Adams asks whom Franklin has in mind, and Franklin responds, "I don't know. I really haven't given it much thought." Enter Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate), who rides up on a horse and says, "You sent for me, Benjamin?"
Lee agrees to their plan and rides off to get the Virginia legislature's authorization to support independence–as soon as he "stops off in Stratford long enough to refresh the missus--and then straight to the matter!" I can't describe how perfectly he delivers that line, but it's gold. Lee is sure he will get the legislature's support, as he is part of "The Lees of Old Virginia." This is a fun song, and I discovered that there are more words that end in "-ly" than I knew were in existence. Ron Holgate exudes an incredible amount of energy and happiness (and the man can belt out a tune!), and it's impossible not to get a lot of enjoyment out of watching this scene. I almost didn't even notice that Daniels and Da Silva were in it too.
|I dare you not to enjoy this scene. (gif: dead bishop-blog.tumblr.com)|
Fast-forward to June 7, 1776. The delegates convene once more, and no one makes a fancier entrance than Benjamin Franklin, who comes in some sort of wheelless rickshaw carried by two men--ostensibly because he has the gout, but I think he really just has a diva complex. Dr. Lyman Hall (Jonathan Moore), the delegate from Georgia, stares at this ridiculousness (as was I), leading Franklin to ask, "Well, what are you staring at? Haven't you ever seen a great man before?" I guess when you write pithy sayings that people will still be quoting hundreds of years later, you're allowed to think yourself pretty important. Adams comes in, over-loud as usual, and Franklin tells him, "Your voice is hurting my foot." (See? Diva complex.)
Richard Henry Lee arrives fresh from Virginia with the resolution for independence. They vote to approve a debate over said resolution. John Dickinson (Donald Madden), resident mean dude and Pennsylvania delegate staunchly opposed to independence, moves that the vote for independence must be unanimous. John Hancock (David Ford) agrees, and John Adams moves for a postponement of the vote, in order that a declaration of independence can be written. A committee is formed to write it, consisting of Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins), and Robert Livingston (John Myhers). A reluctant Thomas Jefferson joins the committee and even more reluctantly agrees to write the declaration. What follows next is one of my favorite scenes. The five sing "But, Mr. Adams", and Adams and Jefferson quarrel over whether Jefferson will write the declaration or not while the other three delegates sing and dance in the hall and down the stairs. I just hope the Founding Fathers really were this much fun.
|At this point I was falling off my couch from laughing so hard. (gif: fandomfox.blogspot.com)|
Jefferson starts the task of writing out the declaration of independence, but has writer's block. He instead spends his time playing the violin and pining for his wife, Martha. Adams sends for her; she arrives, and all is well. Young Blythe Danner plays Martha Jefferson, and has a nice turn singing "He Plays the Violin" while waltzing around with Adams and Franklin the next morning, since her husband is still sleeping for, ahem, reasons.
Back at Congress, Adams goes about trying to persuade everyone to vote "yes" for independence. A courier arrives with bad news from General Washington. Adams, Franklin, and Samuel Chase (Patrick Hines) head off to New Brunswick to see if things are indeed as bad as Washington claims.
I won't lie, it was around this point in the film that my interest started to wane. Adams and Franklin return and talk to Jefferson about the budding new country ("The Egg"). Franklin thinks the turkey should be the national bird, which I thought was a bit of fiction added to the film for laughs until Stephen told me it was indeed true.
It is now June 28th, and changes are being suggested to the declaration. Several days pass and Jefferson agrees to most of the changes to his work, which angers Adams. A stalemate is reached when they come to the small problem of the slavery clause; the southern colonies, led by Edward Rutledge (John Cullum, who powerfully sings a spellbinding "Molasses to Rum"), will not vote for independence if the clause remains in the document. Adams is most insistent that the clause remain; however, with independence at stake, Jefferson crosses out the offending clause. The resolution for independence passes on July 4th. John Hancock signs the declaration first, and boldly. The rest of the delegates line up to sign it, the Liberty Bell tolling in the background. It seems (based on what I've read on Wikipedia) that not everyone actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, but hey, you've gotta have a solid ending.
The decision to bring most of the Broadway cast to the film was a good one. They each give a real personality to their characters, and they have strong singing voices, even though I thought Daniels' songs were slightly out of his range at times. The energy you see in a live performance was certainly brought to the film by the talented cast, but for me, this 168-minute film started lagging in the second half. It got a little more serious and factual and a little less fun. But it's a great film, and I have kept it on my DVR, if that means anything. 1776 got mediocre reviews upon its release (Roger Ebert, I'm looking at you), which kind of disturbs me, as it shows that people don't know a good thing when they see it. Check it out for yourself: you'll get a few catchy songs stuck in your head, appreciate the costumes, and learn a bit of (somewhat fictionalized) history. It's not a bad way to get in the celebratory mood for our day of independence coming up next month.