Friday, April 11, 2014



I have been sprung from my hellish captivity in my boudoir. The last few days were an absolutely appalling experience as I had licked the last few stray crumbs from my Doritos bags, finished off the edible Lesterene cosmetic products and was seriously eyeing a rather luscious looking pair of Manolo Blahniks with an eye towards recreating a classic moment from The Gold Rush. Just before passing out on the floor, entombed in a plaster hip cast forever, there was a loud sound from the landing and a dozen Beverly Hills rescue workers piled in, scooped me up and carried me off to Cedars Sinai for evaluation and treatment.

Apparently I owe my good fortune to Calista Flockhart. She was walking down the road from her house to the grocery at the bottom of the hill for her daily rice cake and bottle of Dasani when she happened to notice my makeshift banner with its Jungle Red legend. She persuaded the Korean grocer to call the authorities who arrived to investigate, finding me in my piteous state and a very dead Herbert Scrawcrunch floating in the pool. (I knew that Doreen was no good.) The news cameras were all there as I was carried down the stairs, ready for my close-up, and out the doors to a waiting ambulance. According to my doctors, no permanent damage has been inflicted by my ordeal and I should be able to return home soon. In the meantime, I am entertaining visitors and celebrating my reconnection with society.

In celebration of my hard won freedom, I decided to watch the new DVD release of 1776; (I managed to grab my laptop and a few DVDs as I was carried, semi-conscious out of my boudoir). It seemed fitting as I am declaring my independence from the tyranny of the Scrawcrunch regime. The founding fathers engaged in a variety of song and dance numbers may be a bit disconcerting for those who wish to believe Franklin, Jefferson, Adams et al. were demigods but for those who like their history with a dollop of humor, the film remains great fun.

1776 is a faithful adaptation of the stage success of the same title which played on Broadway during the late 1960s. The show opened at the height of the Vietnam era and succeeded as a reminder of America's core principles at a time of social strife. Certain moments in the show betray its sixties origins (Mama, Look Sharp springs immediately to mind) but on the whole, it remains a fun, and somewhat irreverent look at the process by which the Second Continental Congress arrived at the Declaration of Independence. The show was the brainchild of Sherman Edwards, a school teacher and pianist/composer who had a dream of musicalizing the signing of the Declaration. Over the years, he wrote more than twenty numbers for his proposed piece (only ten made the finished play) but was unable to marshal them into a coherent whole. Enter book writer Peter Stone, who, together with Edwards, took his material and made it into a cohesive musical which eventually took Broadway by storm.

Movie executive Jack Warner saw the original production of the show on Broadway and was so taken with it, that he was determined to present a faithful film version of it to the American public. He hired most of the original cast, the original creators (including writer Stone and director Peter Hunt) and the film was made at Columbia Studios in 1971, for release in early 1972. 1776 was one of the last big budget studio adaptations of Broadway shows as another film musical, Cabaret, released several months later, completely altered audiences perceptions of what a film musical should and could be. After Cabaret, the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept ordinary folk, especially historical figures, singing and dancing, passed and the film musical mutated to other forms.

The film made by Hunt and Stone ran 2 and 3/4 hours and encompassed the whole show. On studio orders, half an hour was edited out between its sneak preview and initial premiere, tightening up sequences and losing one whole number (Cool, Cool Conservative Men). There is speculation that the cutting of this number actually came on orders from the White House as Nixon despised its affectionately satirical portrait of right wing thought and politics. The film remained at 2 1/4 hours until a recent restoration of the missing footage which has been reissued on DVD.

For those unfamiliar with American history, 1776 is the story of that summer in Philadelphia where the Second Continental Congress, building on the Revolutionary War provoked by Britain, debated and declared the United States an independent and new nation, culminating with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and its signing on July 4th. It's told through the eyes of John Adams (William Daniels), the fiery congressman from Massachusetts who, to the dismay of his colleagues, bullies, cajoles, and blusters the resolution on independence through the politics of the time. He is aided in his quest by Benjamin Franklin (Howard DaSilva), America's first celebrity and the words of the quiet Virginian, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard). To win the political game, Adams and Franklin have to persuade a much louder Virginian, Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) that he's capable of original thought; use Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha (Blythe Danner) as an unwitting ally; and, as the clock ticks down, compromise their ideals on slavery to gain the assistance of a powerful Southern politician (John Cullum). Throughout it all, Adams keeps up a dialogue with his wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff), back in Massachusetts.

The film is visually grand in its widescreen presentation. With sets that meticulously recreate Independence Hall and its period environs. There is also great attention to detail in costumes and make-up so all of the familiar figures seem to have just stepped out of one of the more famous paintings of the era. The inclusion of nearly all of the dialogue and scenes from the stage version make portions of the film awfully chatty and it occasionally seems to drag. Fortunately, there are enough bon mots, especially from Franklin to carry it through the slow spots.

The performances are fine (most of the cast being veterans of the Broadway run). The best of the bunch is Howard DaSilva as the wily Ben Franklin who creates a complicated man of quick wit, preening as he basks in his celebrity and self created myth, but underneath a cold and calculating politician. William Daniels' Adams walks a fine line. For the film to work, we must sympathize with the man as he's our way into the story, but we must also understand the general antipathy in which he is held by his colleagues. He has to both exasperate and ingratiate, no mean feat. Daniels manages to capture the balance (aided, no doubt by his Broadway experience) and it's a pleasure to see the nuances of his portrayal for those only familiar with him from his work on Saint Elsewhere. The cast is full of performers who went on to their greatest fame with television roles. Ken Howard (The White Shadow), John Cullum (Northern Exposure), James Noble (Benson) and it's a pleasure to be reminded of what great actors they all are. Blythe Danner, who replaced the original Martha, Betty Buckley, is winsome in her scenes, but isn't given that much to do. Virginia Vestoff, as Abigail, is much more interesting and it's a shame she died young of cancer.

The DVD contains a good transfer of the film. The quality of the restored cut sequences is a bit less than the rest of the film but the transitions aren't that jarring. The sound is great. There is a full commentary track with Peter Stone and Peter Hunt discussing both the Broadway production and the making of the film. There are the usual teaser/trailer and cast/crew notes.

Horse leaping. Drunk Rhode Islander. Cancer of the Jaw. Comic custodian. Semi-comic dispatch rider. Turkey singing. Congressional minuet. Compromised ideals. Liberty Bell ringing.

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