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Thursday, April 10, 2008


We’ve been enjoying HBO’s John Adams mini-series, but share concerns from many scholar-reviewers about its lack of historic accuracy. In no episode so far, for example, do John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin break into song and dance as they debate the wording of the Declaration of Independence.

Our touchstone for this bit of historic detail comes from the Broadway musical 1776 which was turned into the 1972 film we tried out on the kids last weekend. Musicals have been a pretty safe Movie Night bet, especially with our younger son Ben, and 1776 seemed an entertaining way to introduce our eight-year-old to historical characters he’s beginning to learn about in third grade.

1776 came out at the end of a period that Ty Burr, Boston Globe film critic and author of The Best Old Movies for Families, refers to as the era of “white dwarf musicals.” These were shows like Oliver and Hello Dolly that became so loud and bloated on their way from stage to screen that they drowned out whatever drama the shows once possessed and helped to accelerate the end of big Hollywood musical extravaganzas.

Amidst all of this noise, 1776 is a much quieter work, almost made-for-TV in its production values. The show is set in Philadelphia and covers the machinations of Congress in the weeks before the successful July 4th vote for independence from Great Britain. The familiar cast is mostly made up of character actors who would later find a home on the small screen. Ken Howard, future star of The White Shadow, plays Jefferson, William Daniels (Dr. Craig from St. Elsewhere) is Adams and Benjamin Franklin is played (as usual) by the once-blacklisted Howard Da Silva. The faces of other actors will ring familiar bells to Northern Exposure and Mannix fans, and Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo appearance as an embryo in the womb of a pregnant Blythe Danner (who plays Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha).

The parents split on the quality of the songs, but agreed that there were not enough of them to make this a real musical experience. Long segments of Congressional political debate and exchanges of letters between John and Abigail Adams (depicted as long-distance conversations/dream sequences) were moving, but not entirely riveting, given the relatively low wattage of the stars.

All that said, it was certainly nice to introduce the kids to the country’s founding fathers through a dramatic work that highlights their humanity and foibles, including Adams the “obnoxious and disliked” pain in the arse, Jefferson the randy flake and Franklin the scheming but charismatic dirty old man. Until now, these names and faces have mostly been introduced to our brood as faces on currency, and before the school system talks about them all-wise sages or white European slaveholders, it’s good to get to know them as plain old human beings, especially ones whose patriotism and commitment are matched only by their ability to cut a rug in front of the Liberty Bell.

Who’s Pick: Eli

Ben: 5/5
Mom: 2/5
Eli: 3/5
Dad: 3/5

Total: 13/20

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