Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A boxoffice dud when it came out, 1776 weaves perfectly fine musical entertainment
from the First Continental Congress's efforts to form a declaration of independence. The successful play
transformed famous historical characters like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin into living, breathing
people modern audiences could relate to, which was no small accomplishment. There's an attempt to
mildly associate the revolutionary founding fathers with the radicals of the late '60s, which
didn't go over well with President Nixon, and helped get
the original film cut by 25 minutes. This DVD restores the whole show.
In a sweltering summer in Philadelphia, the First Continental Congress is
stalemated on the issue of independence. General Washington has been fighting the English for
losing, and the Southern states are nowhere near as interested in breaking from England
as is the embattled New England area. Firebrand John Adams (William Daniels) of Massachusetts is
'obnoxious and disliked', so he and the genial Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva) talk Richard
Henry Lee of Virginia into introducing the issue. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) is tasked with
drafting the declaration, but he pines for his new wife Martha (Blythe Danner), as does Adams
for his sturdy Boston housewife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff). With time running out, the issue of
slavery seems to foredoom the declaration's ever being adopted - the South has successfully
mandated that any vote for independence be unanimous.
Making entertainment out of two months' worth of debates and parliamentary procedures in a meeting
hall doesn't sound very promising, but 1776 is bright, witty, and affectionately satirical. Writer
Peter Stone (Charade, Skin Game) has a definite liberal bias that characterizes
hothead John Adams as a corrosive and sour activist branded with the very negative (for 1969
and thereafter) words agitator and radical. He also included a tune called Cool, Cool
Considerate Men where the smug, rich Southerners congratulate themselves for being conservatives
who let others take risks, that's an obvious swipe at the Republican Party of the late 1960s. The liner
notes and the commentary repeat the story that then-President Richard Nixon objected to the song both
in the play and in a Patton-like White House screening, and asked buddy Jack Warner to remove
1776 was only partially censored by Nixon, because 25 minutes in all were dropped
between the film's premiere and its theatrical run, where even at 142 minutes it seemed a bit long. 1
All the songs in 1776 are excellent - with the possible exception of the grating The Lees
of Old Virgina (remembered as a show-stopper on stage), but that's a matter of taste. The conscience
of the Congress, mulling over petty details while the soldier volunteers of the Continental Army
fight and die, is very well stated in the song, Mama, Look Sharp, sung by Washington's courier.
There are some fine performances here. William Daniels is the stuffiest 'agitator'
imaginable, but keeps John Adams the central force of the show. His letter-conversations with his
Abigail are touching for their insights into his character, and their duet 'Til Then is so
powerfully plaintive, it regularly got applause in the movie house - after each of its reprises.
Daniels was a well-known actor (The Graduate, TV's Captain Nice) whose first film
was the liberal anti-nuke cautionary drama Ladybug, Ladybug. Howard Da Silva was a great
character actor (The Lost Weekend, They Live by Night) who was the first Jud Fry in
the original Oklahoma! Broadway show, but was blacklisted before the H.U.A.C. after a vicious
attack by Robert Taylor, and disappeared from screens for ten years. In that context, it's strange
to see him playing the jovial father of independence for the country that scorned him; when he says
his most cutting lines ("Treason is a word invented by the winners as an excuse for hanging the
losers") there's not a hint of bitterness. Writer Stone has fun with mild references to Franklin's
gout, which doesn't prevent the elder statesman from prancing about or keeping appointments with
the ladies. Da Silva brings the show to life whenever it threatens to become monotonous.
Young Ken Howard, who had just finished a pair of Otto Preminger films, is appropriately reserved
and thoughtful as Jefferson. Fresh Blythe Danner provides a highlight with her He Plays the
Violin song, which threatens to become a serious dance number but chickens out with a few waltz
turns. She, however, is adorable.
The large cast of delegates is uniformly fine and composed mostly of Broadway actors who didn't have
extensive film careers. You can spot William Hansen from Fail-Safe and John Myhers from
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and several faces from early seasons of
the Dark Shadows soap opera, but many are talented one-time visitors to the big screen.
Clearly, the very set-bound and talky 1776 was a challenge for the filmmakers. Efforts to
open up the show go little further than the street in front of the Congress, and the vaseline-dissolved
dream duets. The direction in the dialogue scenes is good, but the film seems afraid to embrace
its musical numbers, which are simply recorded straight. Musical Entertainment as a
staple had withered to nothing in the Hollywood of 1972, and there's a reticence to let the camera
become as emotional as the performers. The trailers, in fact, stressed the witty dialogue over the
songs, as if out of embarassment.
The least appealing aspect of the picture is its color design, which is pretty non-existent. The
prints in 1972 looked worse than the disc - drab greyed greens and blues, again suggesting that
were made self-conscious by the period decor and costumes. For a show with some really joyous music,
1776 looks almost as bloodless as UA's hideously designed Man of La Mancha from the
same year. The early '70s were disaster years for Columbia, what with their turkey supreme Lost
Horizon, and there's something about the look of this upbeat movie that doesn't entirely escape
the aura of doom that surrounded the studio at that time.
Columbia's DVD of 1776 is a very peppy-looking transfer that restores the show to
premiere length fairly seamlessly, and has colors much better than the original theatrical prints.
Grain is kept to a minimum and overall the resolution is fine, especially considering that much of
the film is in wide shots with dozens of men milling about the congress hall.
A commentary track features director Hunt and writer Stone, who eagerly recount the circumstances around the
crippling cutting of the picture by Jack Warner, making it sound like Nixon personally dictated the
losing of the one musical number. They proudly cover the success of the Broadway version, and fill in
lots of detail on most of the actors we see.
Several amusing screen tests for the stage actors are a welcome addition (but why they tested familiar
film face William Daniels is a mystery). The disc has some very helpful but unattributed liner notes,
and reproductions of the dreary original theatrical posters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Director Hunt and writer Stone, screen tests, trailer
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: June 23, 2002
1. Savant was an usher at the National theater
in Westwood when 1776opened, cut at 142 minutes; this DVD restores the premiere version at 166,
satisfying on disc but back then would have made an already long film tough sledding. In the early
90s, a Pioneer/Columbia laserdisc produced by Joe Caporiccio did a restoration job on the picture
using b&w workprint to fill in the missing scenes and shots. It was a distracting disc for ordinary
viewers but a wonderment of editing, as the b&w slugs showed how cleverly pieces of scenes and
reaction shots were excised to streamline the piece, in some cases (according to Stone and Hunt on
the commentary) eliminating 'controversial' snippets of dialog.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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