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Yankee Doodle Dandy Case File #192: 1776 

As indelibly documented in Neal Gabler’s essential 1988 history of early Hollywood, An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood, the Eastern European immigrant rag merchants and peddlers who helped create the American film industry were a ferociously patriotic bunch. Why wouldn’t they be? The United States treated them with unimaginable benevolence. Many of them fled Poland and Russia at the musket-point of Cossacks. In the United States, they dominated the most glamorous industry known to man. They ruled over a glitzy realm populated by some of the most beautiful, desired, talented people in the world. Money, power, women: nothing was beyond their grasp. 

These Jews didn’t just invent Hollywood: They played a huge role in determining how we see ourselves as Americans. The films of Warner Brothers, MGM, and Paramount told us who we were and what we believed in. These immigrants embraced the American ethos with the zeal of converts. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was one of the main engines behind the wildly popular Andy Hardy series of vehicles for Mickey Rooney. The franchise’s wholesome, all-American vision spoke to Mayer’s deepest desires and aspirations. He believed in it. He made a fortune selling Americans’ idealized visions of themselves and their aspirations.

These titans of industry recreated themselves in the image of the country they adored. They anglicized their names, voted Republican, and often ran like hell from their hardscrabble roots and complicated ethnic and religious backgrounds. In the ultimate display of shameless, flag-waving revisionism, Mayer pretended to have been born on the Fourth of July rather than a week or so later, as most historians maintain.

Mayer and his onetime protégé Irving Thalberg represented the image that Jews wanted to project: kindly, paternalistic, efficient, wildly successful, and American above all else. Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner, on the other hand, represented an image American Jewish immigrants wanted to hide from the world. In a business full of greedy, vulgar, sex-crazed, foul-mouthed, obnoxious bullies, Jack Warner nevertheless stood out for being an especially greedy, vulgar, foul-mouthed, obnoxious bully. Warner was just lucky to have the even-more-feral-and-obnoxious Harry Cohn (of Columbia Pictures) to make him look, if not classier, then less egregiously terrible by comparison.

Warner’s peers at least had the decency and good grace to pretend that they cared about things beyond money, sex and power. Jack had no time for such pretensions. He was notorious for his voracious appetites for money, gambling, and especially the starlets he treated as his own personal harem. Jack’s abrasive manner earned him many enemies. Samuel Goldwyn is famously quoted as saying that the reason Warner’s funeral was so well-attended was because people wanted to make sure he was really dead. MGM and Warner Brothers reflected their founders’ personalities: MGM was aspirational and classy. Warner Brothers was coarse and rude. It was Jimmy Cagney and Bugs Bunny. And it was a supremely despised vulgarian named Jack Warner. 

By the early ’70s, Jack Warner was one of the last of a dying breed of moguls who had transformed the industry in their youth. He was also an anachronism. He didn’t work for Warner Brothers: He was one of the Warner Brothers. The projects Jack Warner spearheaded reflected his outdated tastes: He tried to get Bonnie And Clyde shelved, and produced a disastrous adaptation of Camelot.

After leaving Warner Brothers, Jack pursued an ambitious project that doubled as a valentine to his beloved homeland: a hit Broadway musical about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Depending on your point of view, 1776 was either a dramatic, can’t-miss proposition, or the most perversely non-commercial movie imaginable. From one perspective, you have the riveting tale of a group of misfits and malcontents who risked death and disgrace while forming the cornerstone of the greatest country on Earth. From another perspective, it’s the story of long-dead old men in wigs arguing about politics in a sweltering room for nearly three hours, pausing intermittently to sing (after a fashion) and sashay about. The “dancing” here is so anemic and half-assed, it’s more fancified walking. 1776’s choreography leaves much to be desired, though given the advanced age of the cast, perhaps that’s for the best. 

As if all that weren’t box-office poison enough, the hero and protagonist of this tale of endless voting, speechifying, and compromises isn’t George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, but rather a divisive figure constantly referred to, in the film’s sharpest gag, as “obnoxious and disliked”: John Adams. In an equally perverse move, we never actually see George Washington. His presence is felt solely through a long series of missives from the front that make him seem like a half-crazed, drunken whoremonger who shouldn’t be leading a Cub Scout troop, let alone an army or nation. 

Depending on the scene and the moment, 1776 is either a loving celebration of the squirmy humanity of the great but flawed men who created a nation out of hunger, idealism, and a desperate yearning to breathe free, or it’s a secretly subversive critique of nationalism that depicts the birth of a nation as a series of compromises from men improvising madly in the moment. 

Before 1776 was released, Jack Warner showed it to a cinephile friend of his who felt one of the songs was critical of him and his actions—even though the film was set 200 years in the past—and “suggested” cutting it. The friend happened to be Richard Nixon, who took personal offense over the number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” Warner removed the scene without going through the bothersome formality of telling the film’s director. In his mind, this was his baby, and if his friend the president thought something wasn’t kosher, he wasn’t about to doubt that judgment. (With Nixon, who possibly could?) In a paranoid frenzy worthy of his chum, Warner wanted the number not just edited out, but physically destroyed. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the 161-minute director’s cut of the film faithfully restores the missing number. 

The cut didn’t make much of a difference. 1776 flopped in theaters and underwhelmed critics before discovering a rich second life in the schoolrooms of history teachers. It consequently hasn’t enjoyed a cult audience so much as a captive audience: I, for one, first experienced 1776 in middle-school Social Studies. I suspect the same is true for many, many viewers. Whether Warner liked it or not, 1776 was received as a singing, dancing history lesson and a babysitter for bored teachers, not as a musical extravaganza.

1776 gets off to a singularly unpromising start. Warner retained almost all of the creative team behind the Tony-winning Broadway smash: director Peter Hunt, writer Peter Stone, and most of the cast members. In the early going, however, he also retains the tone of the original musical. That means that with the exception of William Daniels’ flashy but beautifully modulated turn as John Adams, the performances are generally pitched to the rafters. They’re defiantly stagy when not egregiously over-the-top, like this turn from Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, a useful idiot from Virginia whom Adams and Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva) manipulate into doing their bidding. Incidentally, Holgate won a Tony for Best Supporting Actor for his stage performance, though as is generally the case with Tonys, he seems to have won for Most Acting. Daniels easily could have beaten Holgate in the Supporting Actor category, but in a move of arrogant dickishness befitting the many arrogant dicks he played, he held out for a Best Actor nomination he was ineligible for because his name wasn’t above the title in the show’s billing. Oh Broadway, you are full of stupid rules. 

And to think, Adams is the one with the reputation for being obnoxious and disliked! The first half hour of 1776 groans under the weight of having to introduce an abundance of characters and conflicts while still finding time for the occasional forgettable ditty. In the rough early going, director Peter Hunt all but nails the camera to the ground so he can recreate his stage hit as faithfully and uncreatively as possible. The tone is initially theatrical and cartoonish, sitcom-broad and full of shameless mugging.

Da Silva does much of the shameless mugging as a Benjamin Franklin who’s portrayed as both a great man and a pompous boob. Da Silva plays the American icon as a preening narcissist convinced that every word coming out of his mouth will be preserved for posterity and instantly transformed into an aphorism. (Perhaps because just about every word that came out of Franklin’s mouth was preserved for posterity and instantly transformed into an aphorism.)

I began to warm to Da Silva’s performance during a brief monologue where he argues to John Dickinson, the Continental Congress’ chief opponent to independence, “We’ve spawned a new race here, Mr. Dickinson. Rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined. We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.”

It’s a monologue that speaks movingly to one of the central questions of the play and the film. What does it mean to be an American? How do we define ourselves? By what we believe in, or what we don’t believe? If we’re going to risk our lives and our children’s lives to assert our autonomy, then we better have a clear sense of why that autonomy is worth preserving at such a high cost. 

1776 almost seems intent on scaring audiences away in its first act. As Daniels’ Adams grouses, the Continental Congress has been meeting for a year without accomplishing much. Everyone is fed up, irritable, and in a desperate hurry to go home and fuck their wives and/or mistresses, and they broadcast their boredom and inertia. If the characters in a film are distracted and exhausted by the tedium of each other’s company, then why should we be excited about the prospect of spending nearly three hours with them? When the custodian tears off a calendar page reading “June 6th,” it feels more like a threat than a promise—viewers know they’re going to have to endure nearly a month of this before July 4 liberates a burgeoning nation and the audience alike. 

It’s more than a little perverse to begin a marathon musical with all the characters profoundly exhausted. It’s even more perverse to ground it in a lead character so obnoxious that the very first song, “Sit Down, John,” is devoted to the entire Congress telling Daniels’ Adams to shut the fuck up, sit his ass down, and stop being such a goddamned headache. Yet there’s a method to the filmmaker’s madness. 1776 didn’t win me over so much as it wore me out, though as with the similarly patriotic The Postman, it’s hard to know how much of that is Stockholm Syndrome. If you don’t develop at least a grudging fondness for a film, 161 minutes can be a veritable eternity.

1776 begins in a state of exhaustion. The would-be revolutionaries are demoralized and listless. It falls upon Adams to resurrect their fighting spirit. In that respect, 1776 sometimes recalls 12 Angry Men. Only this time, the protagonist isn’t fighting a mere jury against impossible odds for the sake of what’s right: He’s fighting an entire congress for the right to form a new nation. 

In 1776, Adams attempts to forge a country through stubbornness, willpower, and guile alone. I’ve liked Daniels in everything I’ve seen him in, from The Graduate, where he plays Dustin Hoffman’s dad, to St. Elsewhere, but this might be his greatest triumph. Adams shares the aristocratic condescension of all Daniels’ other characters, only this time, it’s for the noblest possible cause. He is, as characters are kind enough to point out, obnoxious and disliked, but he’s being an asshole for liberty and democracy. That makes all the difference. 

Daniels has such a great voice that he stole an iconic TV show without ever appearing in it: He was the deliciously condescending voice of KITT on Knight Rider. I’ve come to suspect that the equally condescending voices found on most GPS are all an elaborate homage to Daniels’ pioneering work talking down to dumb-ass drivers in the 1980s.

1776 both embodies and subverts the Great Man theory of history. Adams is unmistakably the driving force behind getting the Congressional Congress to vote for a bill declaring independence from Great Britain, but he achieves his goals largely through manipulation, compromises, and when the situation calls for it, coercion, trickery, and pimpery. 

Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) ends up writing the Declaration Of Independence, for example, not because he’s the best man for the job—though he obviously proved to be—but because no one else wanted the gig, and Adams was too obnoxious and disliked to be a viable candidate. And Jefferson can’t concentrate on the task at hand or overcome a crippling case of writer’s block until his old buddies Adams and Franklin bring his wife Martha (Blythe Danner, five months pregnant at the time with Gwyneth Paltrow, and ridiculously beautiful) to visit so he can get laid. There’s even a double-entendre-riddled song, “He Plays The Violin,” devoted to Jefferson’s sexual prowess.

For a film shown in middle-school classrooms, 1776 is surprisingly smutty. Jefferson isn’t the only one desperately yearning for the sensual touch of home; Adams similarly yearns for the beloved wife he left on his Massachusetts estate. There’s something ingratiatingly humanizing about the notion of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as men so hopelessly in love and lust with their wives that the problems of the nascent nation sometimes seem inconsequential by comparison. Is there anything more human than loneliness and the desperate yearning for the intense human connection of sex?

Think of 1776 as a comic-book-style origin story, only for the United States. In its superior, simultaneously melancholy and triumphant third act, 1776 tackles the peculiar institution of slavery and how it made a mockery of Jefferson’s noble words about inalienable rights. In “Molasses To Rum,” the most powerful musical sequence in the film, Southerner Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) viciously mocks the hypocrisy of a North that casts withering judgment on slave-holding states while profiting financially from them.

Nothing embodies the pragmatism endemic to the creation and passing of the Declaration Of Independence like the sequence chronicling the final vote. In it, Pennsylvania representative James Wilson (Emory Bass) sputters that unlike the other members of the Continental Congress, he doesn’t long for fame or historical importance. But if he votes against ratifying the Declaration Of Independence, he’ll forever be remembered as the man who kept a new nation from forming. So he votes for the measure more out of cowardice than anything else. This disgusts John Dickinson (Donald Madden), who sneers, “Is that how new nations are formed? By a nonentity trying to preserve the anonymity he so richly deserves?”

To tardily answer his question, yes. Sometimes new nations are formed because great men like Adams and Franklin won’t accept no for an answer, and sometimes they’re formed because weak people want to go along with a crowd. 1776’s acknowledgment of the blood that went into the forming of a great nation—the blood of soldiers, leaders, and slaves cruelly excluded from the loving protection of the Declaration Of Independence and Constitution—makes 1776 something more than a dependable babysitter for exhausted history teachers.  

1776 is a profoundly flawed but oddly moving film about a glorious but profoundly flawed country. In its own clumsy, tonally awkward, and often musically deficient way, 1776 captures something ineffable, moving, and real about our country in its embryonic stage, and the strange, stubborn, but brilliant men who brought it into existence.  

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success? Secret Success