Pop Culture Homework Assignment #7: 1776

I'm a big fan of musicals, but there seems to be a murky cutoff point in time between shows I generally like and shows I generally dislike. I really enjoy modern shows like Avenue Q and Wicked, and my admiration extends back to a lot of shows until we get to about 1975, or specifically, shows produced before A Chorus Line. Camelot? Bleh. Carousel? Bleh. Oklahoma? Bleh. Still, I at least gave those shows a chance. When it came to the 1969 show 1776, all that I knew about it was that it existed. Oh, and that it presumably dealt with the founding fathers, of course. I'd see it mentioned in pieces discussing shows of the era, but it somehow always got relegated to the back burner of my mind.

Until now! While hanging out with my friend Kyle the other night, we decided to watch the film version of the musical, released in 1972. How weird of them to make this movie in '72, with the bicentennial a mere four years away. What, they couldn't sit on it a little longer? As promised, it's a dramatization of the process of getting the Declaration of Independence written and signed, though the events are partially fictionalized. It focuses on John Adams as its protagonist. The role is taken on by original cast member William Daniels, who you'll know as KITT, Dr. Mark Craig, or Mr. Feeny, depending on what age group you're in. The only other actor you're likely to recognize is Blythe Danner as a Martha Jefferson who's wholly interested in banging her husband as much as possible.

This was a supremely weird movie. Given that it's a musical, there are obscenely long stretches of time with no songs whatsoever. Normally that would be a complaint, but since the music in 1776 solidly fits into that pre-1975 bleh period, I wound up being okay with it. These songs are not good, though "But, Mr. Adams" is a pleasant exception. The acting is mostly overwrought and hammy, although I must admit that Howard Da Silva made a highly entertaining Benjamin Franklin. You'd think that a movie with below-average acting and below-average music would mean that I didn't like it, and yet I found myself pretty riveted. In looking up information about the film, I ran across this review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, which sums it up better than I ever could:

"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 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. [It] is far from being a landmark of musical cinema, but it is the first film in my memory that comes close to treating seriously a magnificent chapter in the American history."

Yeah, that. Perhaps it was that achievement in directing that got 1776 nominated for a Golden Globe; it wound up deservedly losing to Cabaret. While I doubt I'd ever describe this film as "good", I'm guessing that I'll look back on it rather fondly, even given all its flaws. Maybe now that it's been completed as a homework assignment, it can slide over into the Guilty Pleasure category.

1776: C+


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