Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1776 has had a pretty tough time of it over the years. It was finished at just under three hours, but lost close to forty minutes by the time of its 1972 premiere. Pieces have been replaced over the years, with a laserdisc in the 1990s reportedly stitching the whole thing together -- I remember big pieces of that disc being in B&W. This new Blu-ray remasters the show at a 4K resolution, pulling out colors it never seemed to have before. Two cuts are offered, one only two minutes longer than the other, at two hours and 47 minutes.
A box office dud when new, 1776 weaves perfectly fine musical entertainment from the effort of the Second Continental Congress to draft a declaration of independence. The successful play transformed famous historical characters like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin into living, breathing people to whom modern audiences could relate, which was no small accomplishment. The revolutionary founding fathers are mildly associated with the radicals of the late '60s, which didn't go over well with President Nixon, who reportedly suggested changes that cut the original film cut by 25 minutes.
The movie does not try to hide its theatrical origins. In a sweltering Philadelphia summer, the First Continental Congress is stalemated on the issue of independence. General Washington has for months been losing his fight with the English, 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 missus Abigail (Virginia Vestoff). With time running out, the issue of slavery is likely to foredoom the declaration's ever being adopted -- the South has successfully mandated that any vote for independence must 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 sour but charismatic activist branded with the decidedly negative (for 1969 and thereafter) words agitator and radical. Stone also included a tune called "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" where the smug, rich Southerners congratulate themselves for letting others take all the risks. It's an obvious swipe at the Republican conservatives of the late 1960s. The liner notes and the commentary repeat the story that when President Richard Nixon saw the film in a Patton- like White House screening, he objected to the song and asked his buddy Jack Warner to remove it.
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. The songs in 1776 are excellent -- with the possible exception of the grating "The Lees of Old Virgina." It is often remembered as a showstopper on stage. 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. Great character actor Howard Da Silva (The Lost Weekend, They Live by Night) was the first Jud Fry in the original Oklahoma! Broadway show, but was blacklisted after Robert Taylor's vicious attack before the H.U.A.C.. He disappeared from screens for ten years. In that context, it is strange to see Da Silva playing a jovial founder of 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 rushing to appointments with the ladies. Da Silva keeps the show awake whenever it threatens to become monotonous.
William Daniels' John Adams is the stuffiest 'agitator' imaginable, but he's also central force of the show -- he's the conscience of liberty, and it's his fervor that moves the entire push for independence. Adams' romantic letter-conversations with his far-off bride Abigail are touching for their insight into his character. Their powerfully plaintive duet "'Til Then" regularly garnered applause in the movie house -- after each reprise. The well-known actor Daniels' (The Graduate, TV's Captain Nice) first film was the liberal anti-nuke cautionary drama Ladybug Ladybug.
Young Ken Howard, who had just finished a pair of Otto Preminger films, is appropriately reserved and thoughtful as Jefferson. The talented, fresh Blythe Danner provides a highlight with her "He Plays the Violin" song. It
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 composed of fine Broadway actors without 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 others are talented one-time visitors to the big screen.
Clearly, the set-bound and talky 1776 was a filmmaker's challenge. 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 is 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 the camera work doesn't always keep up with the emotions of the performers. The trailers, in fact, stressed the witty dialogue over the songs or drama.
The least appealing aspect of the picture is its color design. For a show with such joyous music, 1776 once looked almost as bloodless as UA's hideous Man of La Mancha of the same year. The early '70s were disaster years for Columbia, what with their turkey supreme Lost Horizon. This Blu-ray for the first time gives the film a cheerful look to match its upbeat theme, shaking free of the aura of doom that surrounded the studio at that time.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of 1776 is a happy surprise. If you already like the movie, you'll be knocked out -- it has never looked this good: none of the old images I've assembled for this review do the new disc justice. 1 The prints in 1972 were terrible, drab shades of greyed greens and blues, again suggesting that the period decor and costumes made the filmmakers self-conscious. With the new transfer all the colors look natural and attractive, and the extra detail adds interest to every scene. Much of the film is in wide shots, and we can now see all the faces clearly. The heavy optical scenes -- all those oil dissolves back to Abigail back in Boston -- are still a little mushy, but we're surprised how much more vivid the whole experience is.
The 165-minute 'Directors Cut' carries two commentaries, an older one with director Peter Hunt and writer Peter stone, and a new commentary with Hunt and actors William Daniels & Ken Howard. Hunt dominates; the first time he asks Daniels if he remembers something, the actor just says that he doesn't. Hunt likewise adds some comments to an alternate cut of a music number, that now includes some verses not heard before. The selection of screen tests is now much larger.
I admit to not being conversant with what content is present in which cuts; one would have to do a major comparison to straighten all that out. I was an usher at the National Theater in Westwood when 1776 opened. Now we're told that that premiere had been cut to 142 minutes, but I have no clear memory of that screening. They say that the "Cool Cool Conservative Men" number was cut, but I do remember seeing all the rich delegates roll away in their carriages.
From my one screening of this disc's 167-minute 'Extended Cut,' all I noticed is dialog where Adams and Franklin joke about going somewhere to 'go whoring'-- which may be the oft-mentioned 'offensive' dialogue. There is so much repetition in the film, they could add or subtract some of George Washington's dispatch readings, and I wouldn't know.
If anything this longer version -- with its 'deleted and alternate' scenes on the side -- shows us that it wasn't a good idea to film the entire play and then try to cut it into shape after the fact. The extra length doesn't bother me personally, simply because it looks so much better.
Some teasers and trailers are included as well. I wish someone could have added a 'master guide' explaining what scenes are and aren't in each version, as was done for the Sony BD of Close Encounters of the Third Kind about eight years ago. That extra cleared up a lot of confusion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: 2 commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2015
1. It's tough to find suitable images sometimes -- the second picture from the top, with William Daniels and Virginia Vestoff, doesn't look correct to me for either costumes or color. It looks like a photo from a stage version, or a teleplay. And I'm not actually sure if it's Ms. Vestoff. So if it's not from the film, mea culpa.
Note: photo corrected with help from correspondent Greg Pascua (5.19.15), who adds, "1776 was indeed a flop, but from November 8th 1972 through early January 1973 the film played to sold-out audiences at Radio City Music Hall. It was a big hit in Manhattan and Columbia Pictures thought they had a blockbuster on their hands -- but the rest of the county didn't." -- Greg Pasqua.
→ A response from correspondent Alan Gomberg 5.18.15:
Hi, Glenn. Yes, that second image from the top in your 1776 review is from the stage production, and that is Virginia Vestoff.
I think that in the version of the film released in 1972, the image of the conservatives leaving Congress was retained, although "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" was cut. There were some very odd choices made in the cutting.
I saw the stage production a few months after it opened, on July 3, 1969.
Howard Da Silva at one point was among those considered as a possible director of the stage production. He gave them a lot of trouble, threatening to quit more than once when his part was cut down. He also had a heart attack a day or two before the Broadway opening. He somehow managed to perform on opening night anyway, then he went to the hospital. This is why he was not on the original Broadway cast recording. Best, Alan Gomberg
2. Correspondent Joe Dante sent in this link to a pertinent L.A. Times article from 2001, written by Ferdinand Lewis, the Heated Debate About 'Cool' Cut. The whole story regarding Nixon and "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men" is explained. (5.18.15)
3. From the helpful, knowledgeable Joe Baltake 5.19.15:
Glenn -- Enjoyed your capsule on the new Blu-ray of 1776. I don't know if you're aware of this but here goes... The most complete version of 1776 is the Laser Disc which runs 180 minutes and includes an overture (which seamlessly blends into the opening credits), different opening credits than what's on the VHS and DVD versions of the film, an intermission break followed by an entre'acte, and exit music. Plus one number, "Cool, Considerate Men," that was cut from the release version of the film (and, of course, isn't on the VHS). The film was originally slated as a roadshow but when Radio City Music Hall expressed interest in it, to assure its run there, Jack Warner eliminated the overture, the intermission, the entre'acte, the exit music and "Cool, Considerate Men," bringing the film down to 142 minutes (which met the Music Hall's running time requirements). He also had new titles filmed and shortened some of the numbers. The director Peter Hunt supervised the Laser Disc/roadshow restoration. I was always shocked that the DVD (at 168 minutes, billed as "the director's cut") is essentially the truncated release version with "Cool, Considerate Men" added and the shortened numbers extended to their original lengths. I was hoping the Blu-ray would be the definitive Laser Disc version. Too bad. -- Joe
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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