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1776: Director's Cut Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

1776 (1972) movie poster 1776

Theatrical Release: November 9, 1972 / Running Time: 165 Minutes (director's cut), 168 Minutes (extended) / Rating: Not Rated (Theatrical Cut: G, Restored Director's Cut: PG)

Director: Peter H. Hunt / Writers: Peter Stone (book & screenplay); Sherman Edwards (conception, music & lyrics)

Cast: William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), Donald Madden (John Dickinson), John Cullum (Edward Rutledge), Roy Poole (Stephen Hopkins), David Ford (John Hancock), Ron Holgate (Richard Henry Lee), Ray Middleton (Thomas McKean), William Hansen (Caesar Rodney), Blythe Danner (Martha Jefferson), Virginia Vestoff (Abigail Adams), Emory Bass (James Wilson), Ralston Hill (Charles Thomson), Howard Caine (Lewis Morris), Patrick Hines (Samuel Chase), William Duell (Andrew McNair), Daniel Keyes (Josiah Bartlett), Leo Leyden (George Read), Stephen Nathan (Courier), Jonathan Moore (Lyman Hall), James Noble (John Witherspoon), John Myhers (Robert Livingston), Rex Robbins (Roger Sherman), Charles Rule (Joseph Hewes)

Songs: "Sit Down, John", "Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve", "Till Then", "The Lees of Old Virginia", "But, Mr. Adams", "Yours, Yours, Yours", "He Plays the Violin", "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men", "Mama Look Sharp", "The Egg", "Molasses to Rum", "Compliments", "Is Anybody There?"

Buy 1776 from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

Having attended high school in New York City, I saw a bunch of Broadway plays during those four years. They ranged from the strange and short-lived to the adequate yet forgettable. The best of the bunch was a revival of 1776,
a musical about the signing of America's Declaration of Independence. Originally produced in 1969, this play by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It would run for 1,217 performances in three theaters over the course of three years. Just nine months after closing at the Majestic Theatre in 1972, the musical returned as a major motion picture.

The film version of 1776 retained a good number of original Broadway cast members, actors for the most part unfamiliar to those primarily versed in cinema. Two of the more famous holdovers were William Daniels, subsequently known for the TV series "St. Elsewhere", "Boy Meets World", and (vocally) "Knight Rider", as John Adams; and potentially recognizable veteran Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson. Joining anew for the film version was Blythe Danner, then pregnant with her future movie star daughter Gwyneth Paltrow, as Martha Jefferson.

The Broadway musical, a form highly celebrated in Hollywood for decades, was on the decline in the 1970s. 1776 drew mixed reviews from film critics and only did moderate business at the box office. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography and a Golden Globe nod in the Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) category. It was also named one of 1972's top ten films by the National Board of Review.

Both the musical and this film adaptation have failed to grow significantly in prestige or popularity over the years, but the movie remains a big enough deal for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment to have recently treated it to a rare catalogue Blu-ray release with a bit of fanfare just ahead the Fourth of July.

Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and John Adams (William Daniels) lead the push for independence in the 1972 musical "1776."

Far from a dry history lesson, 1776 is downright playful, as much a comedy as a drama in its first half. It thoroughly humanizes America's founding fathers, bewigged statesmen with lacy collars and puffy sleeves. Boston's Adams, we're repeatedly told, is "obnoxious and disliked", an agitator whose grandiose arguments make "Sit Down, John" the first song of the show. Rhode Island's Stephen Hopkins (Roy Poole) is an old drunk for whom it's never too early for rum. Violin-playing Jefferson is a young man desperate to return to his wife, whom he hasn't seen in six months. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) is a humorous, gout-addled eccentric. South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) is the closest we have to a villain, a change-resistant young man who may be the biggest obstacle to independence.

There is not an abundance of songs here, which is okay by me. Most of the film's first half unfolds with dialogue and debate. It's a bit of a stretch to turn these nation-birthing Continental Congress clashes into musical numbers, but the film, like the play before it, pulls it off. Though Edwards did little else for theatre, having come to the medium from writing pop songs for the likes of Elvis Presley in the late '50s and early '60s, his songs are catchy and often light-hearted, but more substantial when needed.

The film does an admirable job of opening up the stage show. Free of theatrical confines, it makes use of giant sets, open spaces, and nimble camerawork. You can sense the background of the predominantly stage-seasoned cast. Though they generally all resist the urge to go as big as they might to a responsive live audience, they don't have that camera-loving charisma of movie stars. The biggest standout is the one with the biggest role: Daniels delivers an appealing performance as a fundamentally good, principled man with a nose for progress but a bristly demeanor that ruffles his peers. It's a little strange that more lead turns didn't come Daniels' way after this, with the actor largely being left with TV work (albeit the type that grants immortality) and supporting film roles. At the very least, this role and his most iconic one to my generation as a teacher and principal of John Adams High School are nicely complementary in some strange way.

Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) and John Adams (William Daniels) engage in comic banter in their first scene.

The biggest problem with 1776 is that it's too long. It runs 165 minutes in the director's cut it has been released as in recent years. Such length is not unprecedented among movie musicals, but this is no Roadshow extravaganza. There are none of the following: an overture, an intermission, exit music, end credits. Beyond the few minutes of opening credits, there is movie and enough of it for your interest to flag at different points. The foggy imagined exchanges between Adams and his wife Abigail would probably be the first to go if you were to trim this. A couple of the songs, like the weight-injecting solemn soldier's number, might also be deemed inessential.

At the same time, you appreciate that this journey to independence is not presented as a quick and easy one, with days being torn off Congress' calendar to chart the months needed to just arrive at a unanimous vote and to garner approval for the Jefferson-penned document. Some time is needed to convey the size of this undertaking and of the stifling summer days where the Congress has to weigh the perks (fresh air) and pitfalls (flies) of open windows.

Historical accuracy is not the first priority for either the film or the musical before it. Stone and Edwards embellish actual record with their imagined debates and invented disputes. The production is much more trustworthy than a 2015 History miniseries but also loose enough with facts to a detailed and fairly unreadable 13-paragraph Wikipedia section on dramatic liberties taken.

1776 is one of those movies where there is not one definitive cut. The one that has survived most in recent years is the Director's Cut, a 165-minute edit preferred by Peter H. Hunt, a young first-time filmmaker who worked in television for most of his subsequent career. It restores the number "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men", a song that producer Jack L. Warner (one of the four founding Warner Brothers) axed in response to a request from his friend, then-President Richard Nixon. According to IMDb, the film's theatrical cut ran 141 minutes (which sounds like it might be the perfect length). An extended 180-minute cut on laserdisc added deleted bits, alternate takes, an overture, and an intermission. Neither of those edits has made it to DVD nor to this Blu-ray, whose only alternative to the 165-minute cut is an Extended Cut running 2 minutes and 44 seconds longer. With the way that restorations and rereleases are performed, I doubt we'll see either the theatrical or laserdisc edits again anytime soon, if ever.

1776 Blu-ray + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: June 2, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Still available on DVD ($14.99 SRP; July 2, 2002) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Sony's Blu-ray presentations always satisfy, but the studio goes even further than usual on 1776, treating it to one of their mastered in 4K restorations (with expanded color, whatever that is, on home theaters that support it). The 2.35:1 visuals aren't merely great for their age, they're just plain great, showing off this film, its sets and costumes with far greater clarity than ever before. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix gives musical numbers real weight you doubt they originally had in theaters, but it too satisfies for turning back the clock and keeping all elements crisp and easily heard.

Patrick Hines' screen test as Maryland's Samuel Chase is one of nine preserved on Blu-ray. A British egg hatches an American bald eagle in the animated title logo from 1776's theatrical trailers.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Studios have gotten away from treating catalogue titles to new bonus features, especially catalogue titles that aren't perennial bestsellers.
Thus, it is both surprising and satisfying that Sony has produced and unearthed some 1776 extras that weren't available on DVD.

First up comes a brand new audio commentary by director Peter H. Hunt and actors William Daniels and Ken Howard. Opportunity seized! Hunt does most of the talking and it feels like he's telling stories he's told before (probably some of them in the second commentary). But he has vivid memories of getting the job on stage before he had an agent, his experiences on the stage version, making his filmmaking debut, and putting up with the tactics of producer Jack Warner. The actors do share some tales of their auditions and production experiences that certainly enhance the track. All in all, it's a fairly enjoyable listen, though like the movie itself, longer than you might like.

Next comes an audio commentary recorded for DVD prior to May 2002 by Hunt and screenwriter Peter Stone, who passed away in 2003.

On the video side, where all is encoded in HD, we start with a section of deleted and alternate scenes. There are three in total: an extended performance of John Adams' "Piddle, Twiddle & Resolve" (3:20), a reprise of "The Lees of Old Virginia" (1:12), and a spoken scene featuring an alternate line (0:54). The first two of these can also be viewed with commentary by Hunt over the beginning of them explaining their loss.

Next up is a Screen Tests section (12:52) consisting of nine short clips of costumed and made-up actors performing against a plain cream-colored backdrop. Five of these were included on DVD, meaning the other four are, as the package claims, never-before-seen. The full roster (each is kindly individually accessible): William Daniels, Daniels and Howard Da Silva together, William Hansen, Patrick Hines, Daniel Keyes, Leo Leyden, Ray Middleton, James Noble, and Rex Robbins.

Last but not least, we get two original 1776 theatrical trailers: a teaser (1:02) and a full trailer (3:13). Both show off a colorful animated title graphic not used in the film, but the latter actually excerpts the singing and lists the many awards the stage musical won.

The static, silent menu simply adapts the cover art. As usual, Sony happily authors the disc to support bookmarks and also resume unfinished playback.

The appropriately patriotically labeled Blu-ray is housed in a side-snapped keepcase, joined by an insert supplying the Digital HD with UltraViolet code and snuggly topped by a thin, soft slipcover.

In early May 1776, the calls to action of Massachusetts representative John Adams mostly fall on deaf ears within the Continental Congress.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

1776 has enough color, wit, humor, and personality to turn a potentially stuffy history lesson into a genuinely entertaining musical. Though it runs a tad too long, most of it features strong writing and acting and the experience is agreeable enough to overlook some lulls. Sony's Blu-ray release is about as satisfying as it could be, with its newly unearthed and newly produced extras complementing outstanding picture and sound plus a digital copy... all at a very reasonable price. If you're a fan of this film, this is clearly the edition to own.

Buy 1776 from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Adapted from Broadway: Into the Woods Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Chicago Annie (1982) Funny Girl Gypsy
1970s Musicals: Pete's Dragon Nashville Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory The Muppet Movie
Musicals: The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band Mary Poppins Oliver!
William Daniels: Boy Meets World: The Complete First Season The Graduate A Thousand Clowns Blind Date Blades of Glory
Ken Howard: The Judge A.C.O.D. J. Edgar | Blythe Danner: The Lightkeepers Howl's Moving Castle
James Noble: Benson: The Complete First Season | John Cullum: The Conspirator Kill Your Darlings
Sons of Liberty Lincoln Amistad Johnny Tremain Ben and Me National Treasure

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Reviewed June 14, 2015.



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