Hey, Happy Almost 4th of July!
I expect lots of us in the US are heading out this long weekend to enjoy life, be at liberty from work, and happily pursue some deep Independence Day discounts! There will be picnicking and barbecuing, parades and band concerts, and whether it’s an orchestrated extravaganza or an unsanctioned display from neighborhood kids, you can bet there will be fireworks!
I’ve celebrated my country’s birth by participating in all of the above on one 4th or another. (Firework-wise, I’m counting the time I ran around a motel pool with a sparkler – whether or not it was it legal, it definitely felt very daring!) But there’s one activity I faithfully perform every Independence Day:
I watch a movie.
This particular one is so dear to me, I wish everyone would check it out – but it can be kind of a hard sell. I might lose a few takers just by declaring it’s an adaptation of a Broadway musical from the 70’s. And the cinematic slope gets slipperier when I explain that it chronicles the rocky Continental Congressional road toward the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
That log line won’t hook everyone – and you know, it’s their unalienable right not to be hooked. But after decades of treating myself to a screening every year, I hold these truths to be self-evident: that it’s a gem and a joy of a movie that offers so much more than people might expect! And beyond being delightful and affecting entertainment, it always moves me to some serious thought about the state of our Union, both as it was forming and as it is now – about what’s changed since those Revolutionary days and, perhaps, what hasn’t changed enough.
The movie is 1776.
What’s changed for sure are the viewing options for keeping up my long-standing family tradition! Back in the day, and having missed it on Broadway and in theaters, the folks and I discovered the film the only other way you once could – we caught it on television. With edits. And commercials. And no earlier or later than the time listed in TV Guide.
It wasn’t too long though before we were able to buy this wondrous machine called a VCR that could record shows off the tv and play tapes of films like 1776; so we could – get this – watch whenever we wanted! This was so exciting that I ran over and plopped myself onto the stiff wooden chair next to where our phone was plugged into the wall so I could dial my friends and tell them all about it!
Now, of course, I can keep the 1776 streak going by popping my DVD copy in the player or streaming the film online. In the wake of Covid though, I don’t take anything for granted. Mum and I carry on the tradition these days – but it was in jeopardy during the lockdown when I wasn’t allowed to visit her place. TCM came to the rescue though by including the film in their July 4th lineup! So Mum and I got on our phones (cordless ones!) – no earlier or later than the time listed in TV Guide – and shared the broadcast (with no edits or commercials!) from our separate homes.
Every year, I get to refresh my memory of how marvelous the 1776 cast is all the way across the board! At the risk of naming everyone, I’ll just mention that: there’s a deliciously witty performance by Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin; Ken Howard is stoic and dreamy as Thomas Jefferson; Blythe Danner is radiant as his wife, Martha; there’s the smooth and searing voice of John Cullum as Edward Rutledge; there’s Virginia Vestoff’s poignantly patient Abigail Adams; and there’s the brilliant anchoring performance by William Daniels as John Adams, a man who while longing to be with his beloved wife and dearest friend is, by turns, funny (in a prickly sorta way), obnoxious (and disliked!), browbeating, doubting, and anything he needs to be to manifest his dream of American Independency.
That dream required the agreement of all 13 Colonies. And through a dynamic mix of fact, fiction, humor, drama and music, 1776 shows us how they got there – through the heated debates, the clashes of personality, the wheeling and the dealing. And even as we marvel that 13 clocks ever managed to strike at once in declaring independence and war, we’re soberly reminded of the fateful compromises made along the way, and of the heavy price to be paid for generations to come.
Storytelling styles and sensibilities also change over time – and different ages create their own touchstones, sometimes from the same inspirations. Both 1776 and Hamilton cover the Revolution, but with decidedly different vibes – still, I truly adore both productions! (While there’s the line “Sit down, John” in Hamilton, there’s an entire song with that sentiment in 1776!)
I got to thinking about these touchstones after coming across this fountain the other day:
I first noticed it several years back in its old home on a studio lot where I worked as an extra. Some fellow background people thought they recognized it too – and they drifted over for a closer look to discover they were right! It’s the fountain, seen at night, that the cast of the hit show Friends cavorts around (and in) during the opening credits of every episode.
I was right too. But what I pictured was a fountain in the light of day. One bedecked with lily pads where the comically confident Richard Henry Lee of old Virginia (Ron Holgate) musically assures a bemused Adams and Franklin he’ll get them a proposal that the Colonies become independent!
These days, I see the fountain in its new home on the Warner Bros. main lot – and a couch has been installed in front so tour trams have no doubt it’s ”the Friends Fountain”. All well and good. But I lean a little on the side of calling it the ”1776 Fountain.” And when I’m lucky to get to wander past, I’m happily reminded of a cherished film, and of all the times I’ve shared that film with the dearest of people.
Because I am as I ever was, and ever shall be – a great, great fan.
Cheers and Happy 4th!
P.S. TCM is once again including 1776 in its July 4th lineup! You can catch or record it at 11:30am (PT).
And to go in-depth about the movie and its making, check out a fantastic two-part podcast from the guys over at the Cine-Files: