I hereby resolve to try and see more of my favorite movies in actual theaters, projected up onto big screens with others around to
laugh and applaud. Between the VHS, Laserdisc and DVD versions — all of which I own — I know 1776 backwards and forwards. But I'd
never before seen it like I saw it last night at the Egyptian Theater up in Hollywood...on a for-real movie screen with an appreciative audience. At
home, you can pause a film and go to the toilet, and you don't have to pay eight bucks for parking...but those are about the only advantages that
come to mind at the moment. The trade-off is that you miss the joy of laughing and applauding with others, and of seeing little details. Having never
before viewed the film on a real screen, I'd never seen all the subtle reactions and little facial tics via which William Daniels fleshed out his
starring role as John Adams. And even watching the Letterbox version at home on a large-screen TV, I hadn't noticed all the little bits of business
and character support contributed by everyone in the corners of the frame. It really was a different, even more wonderful movie last night.
The print we saw was the new, restored "director's cut" approved by director Peter Hunt — who, with choreographer Onna White,
answered questions after. As you may know, this film has undergone some savagery over the years. Upon its original release in 1972, producer Jack L.
Warner took it upon himself to cut the most political number, "Cool Conservative Men." This was done — and I once found it hard to believe but
it seems to be true — at the behest of then-president Richard M. Nixon. Nixon had seen the stage version of 1776 when it was performed
live at the White House — the first musical ever done in full there, by the way. He hated that number (and also, to a lesser extent, an
anti-war song called "Mama Look Sharp"). A few years later when the film was made, producer Jack L. Warner screened it for Nixon who prevailed upon
him to excise "Cool Conservative Men" — a song that made the right-wing faction of the Continental Congress out to be shallow and selfish.
Without consulting anyone else, Warner cut the number and announced that, to prevent anyone from second-guessing and arguing the point, he'd had the
negative of that scene destroyed. We'll never know if that cut contributed to the film's unimpressive box office but it probably didn't help.
As Peter Hunt explained in the post-screening discussion last evening, this movie was produced by Warner after he was no longer
producing for Warner Brothers. Had it still been his studio, the negative presumably would have been destroyed as he'd ordered. But this movie was
done for Columbia and apparently someone there felt Warner's word was not that of God, so they squirreled away the negative. For years, it was
thought lost. When Pioneer was looking to release the film on Laserdisc a few years back, they did some searching and came across a mediocre but
watchable print of that number and some other excised footage. To the cheers of film buffs everywhere, they released a "restored" version and we
suddenly had a much better 1776 to watch.
This incarnation was not perfect, however, and it displeased Peter Hunt. In restoring that number and some other footage Warner had
trimmed, they also put back some footage that he [Hunt] had cut, such as the last part of the "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve" song. A few years later,
someone at Sony (successors-in-interest to Columbia) found the original negative, and Hunt was invited to supervise a definitive cut. That's the
version that's out on DVD — click here to order a
copy if you don't have one. And that's the version we saw tonight. He said it's basically what he originally intended to have released to theaters in
It's a stunning film, really it is. Some of the lyrics are awkward and clumsily rhymed...and for a musical, it sometimes goes
surprisingly long without anyone bursting into song. But the latter is not necessarily bad and the former is easily forgiven — both, because
the story is so compelling and well-told. It is, of course, the story of the writing, voting-on and adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
About halfway-through, you actually forget the real history and sit there thinking, "Boy, they're never going to get that thing signed." The
audience loved it. They cheered every name in the opening credits except Jack L. Warner's, and laughed a lot. There was even meaningful applause when
Ben Franklin said the line...
Those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
The stage and screen versions of 1776 were done during the Vietnam War. How amazing — and in some ways, sad — that
it's all still so relevant today.