by Sam Juliano
Note: This review, first published at WitD on July 5, 2009 is re-printed today to honor and acknowledge tomorrow’s 4th of July holiday stateside.
Back in 1972, upon the release of the film version of 1776 Vincent Canby put things in their proper perspective when he opined: “The music is resolutely unmemorable. The lyrics sound as if they’d been written by someone high on root beer, and the book is familiar history, compressed here, stretched there – that has been gagged up and paced to Broadway’s not inspiring standards. Yet Peter H. Hunt’s screen version of 1776, a musical play I somehow didn’t see during its three-year Broadway run, insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it. This reaction, I suspect, represents a clear triumph of emotional associations over material.” Others, like Rex Reed were not so hospitable, likening the film and the show it was based on as “a history lesson for the mentally retarded.” The roll-out for the movie was most extravagant as it premiered at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall near the very end of that cultural landmark’s status as a movie house, before its advent as an exclusive concert venue. (As a 17 year-old I saw the film during its run here, and vividly remember being assaulted by a Bob Dylan-The Kinks-John Lennon loving friend who accompanied me to the screening with a few others, and who vociferously objected to some of the film’s cornball song lyrics, telling me at the end of the film: “You’re dead Juliano!).
1776 is a musical treatment of our nation’s defining historical coda, and its two-fold aim is to inform its high-profile independence-seeking adherents, while simultaneously chronicling the electrifying drama that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the numerous obstacles that preceded it. The famed document of course, penned by Thomas Jefferson for the Second Continental Congress is one of the world’s treasure, and the wrangling that both and inspired and compromised it is the real subject of Stone’s theatrical work. Back in the 70’s before the artistic rehearsal that now has plays regularly being based on films, it was fashionable for critics and jaded audiences to dismiss film adaptations of Broadway as some sort of violation of form. Yet, while there can be no doubt that the theatrical intimacy that characterized many stage works could never be rendered full justice on film without the regular cry of staginess, there can likewise be little question that film can allow for the “opening up” that can eliminate the claustrophobia evident in drama mainly played out in meeting halls. Such is certainly the case with 1776, a project that literally calls out for alluring Colonial era settings to compliment the defining garb of the period. Director Hunt makes fine, if modest use of ornate gardens, town squares and the exterior environs of Independence Hall, while not losing focus of the show’s prime focus, which of course is the drive to create a new nation. Hunt provides some attractive saturated fantasy sequences in which John and Abigail Adams meet and sing of their eternal love and familial commitments, and a delightfully cornball scene in which Ben Franklin and John Adams join Martha Jefferson for a dance in her garden as she sings her love for Tom. (“He plays the Violin.”) Harry Stadling’s widescreen cinematography makes excellent use of sepia-tone filters and muted color as a deft replication of time and place, yet there is also a sweeping visual panorama that makes full use of the rectangular compositions, and the placement of characters within a frame.
But Hunt is best of all when he retains the stage effects of the show, like the tolling of bells as the delegates’s names are read off one by one and the various roll calls that necessitate further politicking to clear the way for a successful final resolution. He plays it safe when it comes to the filming of the shows songs, written by Sherman Edwards, allowing the impassioned lyricism or campy humor that invariably embellished the narrative in this film. Two of the best songs, “Molasses to Rum” and “Is Anybody There?” are rousing operatic pieces that (more than any of the film’s drama) convey their protagonist’s stake and philosophies in the movement, and the historical events that inspired their resolve. When John Adams bemoans in that latter song that he is all alone, one is moved when he laments “Does anybody see what I see?” Both of these melodious showstoppers are filmed in darkness in unlit congressional chambers to enhance their intimacy and the singular voice of their speakers.
Two minor characters are misfires of sorts. One is a New York delegate, Lewis Morris, who continues to abstain in the absence of advice from his state delegation (at one time is is nearly struck by a fly swatter from an exasperated John Hancock) and the other is an eternally-inebriated Rode Island delegate who is always in a nearby tavern when a crucial vote is being taken). However, cancer-stricken Cesar Romney, as a dying Delaware delegate, who is carried to Independence Hall on a stretcher to cast his vote, is a nice touch.
Not all the songs in this film are effective, but there’s no denying that there is much camp appeal in the lyrics and the manner in which they are choreographed. One song, “The Lees of Virginia” crooned by Richard Henry Lee (Ronald Colgate) as he gallops into an estate garden where John Adams and Benjamin Franklin are gathered in conversation, makes gleefully playful use of the suffix “Lee” in words like “certainly-Lee,” “immediate-Lee,” and “short-Lee” among the repetitious alliteration. It’s rather a festive rollick, but some other attempts at broad humor have caused embarrassed some, as when the men debate who will write the document in a shameless ditty titled “But Mr. Adams” where the Massachusetts delegate is derides by his colleagues: “Mr. Adams, damn you Mr. Adams-you’re obnoxious and disliked, that cannot be denied….” Yet again, as asserted earlier, this is all part of this disarming film’s special brand of musical joy, which attempts to inject some brevity, by embellishing well-established character traits of its protagonists into the austere unfolding of vital events that will shape the formation of a new nation. One of the most beautiful songs in the score “Yours Yours Yours” allows Abigail to ask John from afar: “Write to me with sentimental effusion-let me revel in romantic illusion” to which the colonist romantically recollects: “Do you still smell of vanilla and spring air?” and “Is my favorite lover’s pillow firm and fair?” While Edwards clearly tried to illustrate that way from home the overbearing Adams was a domestic lover to rank with the best of them, he deliberately stressed the more conservative lovemaking mores that made Jefferson a far different kind of love partner than Adams. As Adams, Williams Daniels who reprises his stage performance here is irresistible in the film’s showcase role, as a freedom-fighter with only one mission, whose own ornery inflexibility is the cause’s secret weapon. That unabashed scene-stealer Howard da Silva plays Benjamin Franklin as a flirting womanizer, who only speaks when he has some major political revelation to share or to impart some one-lines to diffuse the growing tensions in the congressional chambers.
Some of the lines however, are a bit over the top as when he tells a courier (who has informed him of his son’s incarceration by the British) that the location is “a nice place. Why the long face.” But again it does appear that Stone’s original book purposely overplayed humor throughout the work, and it’s use seems to enhance the emotional center of the narrative by way of humanizing it’s larger-than-life figures. Both John Madden as British sympathizer and Pennsylvanian John Dickinson and David Ford as bastion-of-neutrality John Hancock gives vivid portrayals with the former urging his colleagues “Hast thou forsaken the Magna Carta, the Battle of Hastings and the nation that bore you?” Both women, Blythe Danner and Virginia Vestoff as Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams show the kind of constraints that wives of the revolution had to endure, but they are still little more than bland portraits of the historical personages they were based on. Both of course have one big song number apiece. Sadly, one of the original stage play’s most trenchantly-written numbers “Cool Considerate Men” was excised from the film, and can only be seen in the now out-of-print Pioneer Special Editions laserdisc, which also showcased the film’s magnificent multi channel stereo, which is absent from the Columbia DVD of the film.
The film version of 1776 isn’t remotely any kind of a musical milestone, but in spirit and the way it treats one of our nation’s most celebrated chapters, it’s both a film of emotional resonance and a faithfully exuberant transcription of its heralded stage source.