It’s 1776, and John Adams (played by William Daniels) wants the American colonies to declare independence from the British. Sadly, Adams is obnoxious and disliked by his fellow Congressmen, most of which aren’t willing to secede. Working with Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and a smattering of other supporters, Adams attempts to get the Deceleration of Independence written, approved, and to do the impossible and be the first colonies in history to split from their mother country.
You want to know two good films centering around a document or something getting passed? Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln (2012), about the passing of the 16th amendment, and the comedy-drama, musical 1776, a 1972 film based on the smash hit 1969 Tony Award winning Broadway show.
Practically every sentence of this film is uproarious. Here are some highlights:
1. John Dickinson (representative from Pennsylvania): “What’s so terrible about being called an Englishman? The English don’t seem to mind.”
Benjamin Franklin: “Nor would I, were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He’s thankful for the honor, but he’d much rather have restored what’s rightfully his.”
2. Adams and Franklin are standing outside Thomas Jefferson’s home as Jefferson and his newly arrived wife make love inside.
John Adams: “This is positively indecent!”
Franklin: “Oh, John, they’re young and they’re in love.”
Adams: “Not them, Franklin. Us! Standing out here, waiting for them to… I mean, what will people think?”
Franklin: “Don’t worry, John. The history books will clean it up.”
Adams: “It doesn’t matter. I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”
Franklin: “I like it.”
3. And quite possibly my favorite exchange in the whole film. This takes place right after Lewis Morris, the representative from New York, abstains on a decision one too many times.
Lewis Morris: *As John Hancock is about to swat a fly* “Mr. Secretary, New York abstains, courteously.”
*Hancock raises his fly swatter at Morris, then draws back*
John Hancock (secretary of Congress): “Mr. Morris.”
*pause, then shouts*
Hancock: What in Hell goes on in New York?!
Morris: “I’m sorry Mr. President, but the simple fact is that our legislature has never sent us explicit instructions on anything!”
*slams fly swatter onto his desk*
Hancock: “That’s impossible!”
Morris: “Mr. President, have you ever been present at a meeting of the New York legislature?”
*Hancock shakes his head “No”*
Morris: “They speak very fast and very loud, and nobody listens to anybody else, with the result that nothing ever gets done.”
*turns to the Congress as he returns to his seat*
Morris: “I beg the Congress’s pardon.”
Hancock: “My sympathies, Mr. Morris.”
1776 will probably always be remembered for its comedy more than anything else, but the film gets VERY dark at certain junctures (particularly at the end). Songs like “Molasses to Rum” (led by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, one of the congressmen most vehemently against independence), “Momma Look Sharp” (sung by a young boy who takes messages back and forth between Congress and the field), and “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” (another song led by those against independence, primarily the southern colonies) don’t have a laugh in them and can be poignant and, in some cases, unnervingly dark.
I enjoy any film with the balls to say, “No, we can be serious here,” especially one with a great deal of comedy. And in a film like this, you need dramatic moments. I believe (I could be misremembering) Franklin has a line to effect of letting people know what they’re fighting for. The somber scenes lend an importance to everything else. They let us understand why this fight for independence is so vital for Adams and others. Editing out such moments would be robbing the film of its heart.
But not everything is as grim as all that. Fun numbers like “The Lees of Old Virginia,” “But, Mr. Adams,” “He Plays the Violin,” and “The Egg” speak to the characters, are comedic (“He Plays the Violin” and the sequence surrounding it being one big dirty joke), and are incredibly catchy.
I had the pleasure to watch 1776 again on July 4. It’s consistently gotten better each time I’ve watched it. My third viewing last week was no different. It holds up as a hilarious retelling of the founding of the United States. Every song is catchy and perfect, the solemn moments all work, and despite any historical inaccuracies, it reminds me why I love American history.