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1776: Director's Cut (Blu-ray Review)

15 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$19.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, John Cullum, Ken Howard, Blythe Danner.

Because it hit theaters just as I was making the single most life-altering city-to-city move of my life, I never saw the screen version of 1776 at the time, even though its “Dick Nixon Connection” would have made it a must-see at any cost had I known about it at the time. So there goes the crucial frame of personal reference with which to gauge — at least fully — the litany of surgeries this somewhat underappreciated flop of the Tony winner by Sherman Edwards (who also wrote the music) and Peter Stone has endured over he years.

If memory serves, the deluxe-for-its-day old Columbia Tri-Star laserdisc release shoehorned in some overture music and an intermission to give the impression that the movie had been originally road-shown (which it wasn’t). And as a result, I think that cut was even longer than even the “extended” 167-minute one on this Blu-ray, which, truth to tell, is only a sliver longer than what I take to be the “official” version that’s included here as well. So now let’s complicate the issue. Nowhere to be found, though with good reason, is the truncated 142-minute botch that played many or most theaters and for which then President Nixon, of all probable Tories, was an apparent catalyst (more on this later). In other words, this intimate epic about history comes with a compelling production history that still confuses the hell out of me. Yet the bottom line is that Sony’s presumed Blu-ray “big one” of the year — this is 4K, happy to say — rewards the work put into it.

Jack L. Warner’s final at-bat in his short-lived career as an independent producer barely tries to hide its stage origins, and the direction by Peter H. Hunt (his screen debut) doesn’t exactly redefine “fluid.” Ordinarily, this kind of thing is a deal-breaker, at least for me, but Stone’s script bulges with Founding Fathers wit, and lead William Daniels seems to relish — even beyond the expected norm — playing John Adams as the resident pain-in the-behind of the First Continental Congress during what looks to have been a particularly sweltering early Philly summer without benefit, natch, of T-shirts or flip-flops. Like Rear Window and a few other movies, this is one of the definitive portrayals of so-called life before (or without benefit of) air conditioning.

With almost daily reports coming in by courier about the combat failures of General Washington’s ragtag troops against invading British, it’s firebrand Adams, gout-ridden Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva in magnificent makeup) and a somewhat cooler Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) who are pushing for some kind of declaration of independence (before the capital letters materialized) as the prospect of nooses capture the cautious imaginations of several yea-or-nay colleagues. As in, say, 12 Angry Men (another good movie about life without A.C.), the rest of the story deals with incrementally swaying the colony naysayers (predominantly but not exclusively Southern) when there is no unified country — nor, for that matter, real army or navy — of which to speak. As portrayed, Adams and Jefferson are under added personal strain because they’re pining for their wives, though Jefferson, at least, gets to enjoy a conjugal visit (and this is literally what it is) by his. She’s attractively played by Blythe Danner, who’s currently winning accolades for I’ll See You in My Dreams more than 40 years later.

Though Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography got the movie’s only Oscar nomination, I recall — from the laserdisc that the colors looked kind of anemic for a production this hefty. So though 1776 in any rendering is never going to be as resplendent as, say, Harry Sr.’s musicals (My Fair Lady and Barbra Streisand’s first three big-screen outings), Grover Crisp and the folks at Sony have done a really nice job with the material at hand. There’s a pair of commentaries: one carry-over with Hunt with the now deceased Stone — plus a new one with Hunt, Daniels and Howard. And screen tests, as well.

The so-called “Director’s Cut” is the one originally intended to play theaters all along — or at least Hunt thought so. But as the story goes, movie enthusiast Richard Nixon — who claimed a year later on the first AFI Life Achievement Award telecast to have seen “all” of John Ford’s movies, good trick — encouraged producer Warner to remove the "Cool, Considerate Men" number, in which smugly landed Southerners congratulate themselves on their political conservatism and tendency to let others do the political heavy lifting. By a fair margin, it’s the highlight of the movie and rallies the narrative at a point in which the pacing threatens to sag. But Warner had veered Rightward himself near the end of his life and probably didn’t even need Nixon as his artistic advisor.

In a jolting coincidence, the very day I watched this Blu-ray, a Facebook friend put up a link to the logs of Nixon’s White House movie viewing from 1969 through what Woodward and Bernstein termed “The Final Days.” It is what Jackie Gleason called “a good group,” and I’d be particularly curious to have heard Nixon’s reactions to Donovan’s Reef (6-19-71); Under the Yum Yum Tree (11-5-71) and The Carpetbaggers (5-12-72), to name three. Some flabbergasted Facebook commentator, reacting to the list, mistakenly thought a Nixon screening of Burt Lancaster in Scorpio had instead been one of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. But life just isn’t that giving.

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