1776, &c.

Second. Worst. Ever.

Famille Historiann spent this past holiday weekend in a nearby Colorado mountain town, and therefore I had access to a much better cable package than I have currently at home.  Flipping channels, I landed on an HBO marathon of John Adams, starring the shockingly ugly actor Paul Giamatti and wasting the talents of Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.  (And you all remember my opinion of John Adams, right?) 

The whole thing is played like history is just a costume party with wigs.  All Linney does in the two episodes I saw is look worried and cry and say to her kids, “I wish your father were here,” or hear her kids say, “I wish father were here!”  (Plus lots of hugging for the eighteenth century.)  And apparently, Abigail Adams kept the farm going in Braintree and raised four kids without any household help.  At one point, she’s so upset about John being away that she starts washing windows obsessively in the middle of the night–as if clean windows were a priority in colonial huswifery.  (Having windows in the first place was the limiting step for most folks.)  The scenes in which Adams inoculates her kids with smallpox was pretty satisfyingly gruesome.  However, they all broke out with the pox (one daughter rather seriously), but magically, their skin cleared up and they bore no scars.  (Kind of like the invisibility of the household help!)

I’ve never thought that much about Abigail Adams one way or the other, but I never thought of her as a neurotic stay-at-home mother.  Linney is a great actor–but roles like this one seriously diminish both the historical person and Linney.  (And please don’t get me started on the squirm-inducing sex scene she does with Giamatti.  Ugh!  It was so unwatchable we had to turn it off.) 

I also caught the end of the episode in which they vote for independence.  The filmmakers make that day in Congress look about as exciting as your average faculty meeting.  The one episode I saw all the way through covered Adams’ disastrous trip to Paris in 1778.  (I think the movie conflated different European visits and combined them all into one.)  The whole episode played on the dumbest old stories and stereotypes about Benjamin Franklin and Adams in Paris.  Guess what?  The Parisians are frivolous and value charm!  Franklin was an old goat!  John Adams was a terrible diplomat!  Having watched these two episodes, I think I know less than I started with, they were so devoid of intelligence, insight, or news.  (They have pretty good production values, though, I must admit.)  Then all of a sudden, Cornwallis surrendered without showing us a single battle scene!  What a ripoff.

Then on Independence Day itself, I flipped channels again and ran into 1776, and was reminded of what a much more entertaining movie it is.  Come on–the White Shadow as Thomas Jefferson!  Dr. Mark Craig as John Adams!  (Clearly, this actor was too handsome to play Adams.)  Gwynneth Paltrow’s mother as Martha Jefferson!  And the old bartender with the hot young wife on Northern Exposure as Edward Rutledge!  I much prefer historical productions with a sense of humor, no matter how silly.  Much better than watching all of those glum, pasty Adamses.  Sheesh.

And if that’s too earnest for you, you could try this.

0 thoughts on “1776, &c.

  1. I shamelessly adore “Sit down, John!” and a lot of the other songs from “1776”. Now I have to dig out my CD from the Broadway revival and give it a listen again.


  2. bc–thanks for the link. I hadn’t see this until now. Mark and I don’t agree on much–just ask him about the knock-down, drag-out fight he and Charles Cohen had with Rob Desrochers at last year’s Omohundro conference in Salt Lake City about Cotton Mather!–but I really like this part of his article:

    That’s why I like 1776. As soon as John Adams starts singing in the bell tower of Independence Hall in the opening scene or conducting an imagined duet with Abigail debating the importance of saltpeter and pins, we know we’re in the presence of a stylized genre, with all the conventions of movie musicals—different from but akin to the stylized conventions of academic history or the classroom lecture. No one imagines that Edmund Rutledge actually jumped up on the desks in Independence Hall and sang a dramatic song about New England’s trade while acting out the selling of slaves on an auction block. But when the actor playing Rutledge, John Cullum, sings “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” in 1776 it leaves an indelible impression on anyone who sees it, and it tells them that slavery was a major issue in the Continental Congress’s deliberations on independence, without leaving them thinking that they know, that they have seen, just what happened. Judging by the enthusiasm of some of my students, who were born long after the making of 1776, this stylized telling of the American Revolution opens a curiosity about what actually happened, and how, and why. John Adams, by contrast, tends to cut off curiosity by leaving the audience thinking that they already know wie es eigentlich gewesen war, because they’ve seen it. And it leaves them open to an odd kind of disappointment when they learn that for all its vaunted authenticity, John Adams is just another costume drama.

    This reminds me too that I owe Mark an e-mail. He wants me to write something for Common-Place this fall. . .


  3. On May 8, Adams was too busy contriving at the overthrow of Pennsylvania’s democratically-elected Assembly (and technically the landlord of the Continental Congress) to harvest the needed votes for Independence to spend too much time either brooding in bell towers or rehearsing production numbers on the floor. Not too bad for a cranky old puritan, especially if he remembered how badly trafficking with the mobility had gone awry in his hometown eleven years before.

    None of this is tempting me to get back into the television game. A hard-hitting Inside Edition devoted to the Fort Wilson Riot, three years later and a couple of blocks away, might do the trick though. You can scarcely even get a wall plaque up about that event, however, much less a musical or a three part series.


  4. Holy carp, I totally forgot about 1776, the musical. I saw this as a kid (perhaps in conjunction with all that bicentennial stuff), and all I remember is the song with three of the Founders arguing about the bird, with Franklin insisting on a turkey, which kid-Notorious found the height of hilarity.


  5. There is *one* way to liven up _John Adams_. I watched part of the miniseries on HBO Latino, which was running it concurrently. I found it much more interesting to see Carolina del Norte vote “si” on the resolution for independence. It could have proven a way to help me learn Spanish.


  6. Thanks, Historiann, for validating my guilty-pleasure interest in 1776 (and complete lack of interest in the earnest HBO take on John Adams). I tried the HBO version, honest, but seeing LL cry and Paul Giametti span the acting gamut from irascible to annoyed and back again just didn’t do it for me. Portraying an annoying person without being annoying = William Daniels.


  7. What would have really put some life in the miniseries would have been a reworking of “Sideways” with Thomas Haden Church playing Ben Franklin.
    Frankilin: “What’s the plan John ?”
    Adams:”We begin a series of negotiations with French nobles, each one getting us closer to the king”
    Franklin: Looks up from his copy of Common Sense and gives Adams a sarcastic thumbs up.

    Better yet, go all Bill and Teds with it and have Franklin and Adams, again played by Church and Giamatti, thrust forward into modern day Napa. Wacky hijinx ensue.


  8. BWA-hahahaha. Yes, “Sideways” crossed with “John Adams,” fer sure. And Thomas Hayden Church as Franklin is perfect–he was the compulsive womanizer character, after all. This is almost as funny as Jeff Daniels (of Dumb and Dumber fame) playing Washington in “The Crossing.” My students have found the contrast of “Harry” cast as the “father of our country” pretty hi-larious.

    Can the White Shadow still play Jefferson? (Whoever played Jefferson in the HBO series looked and acted like he was on morphine. There was no life in that corpse, I’m afraid.)

    John S.: How do you say “Nueva York” abstains in Spanish?

    Undine–great point about William Daniels. Dr. Mark Craig was played exactly the same way–an annoying man who wasn’t annoying to watch.

    Notorious: you’re not the only child of the 70s whose life was seriously affected by the Bicentennial. (But at least you didn’t make it your life’s work!)


  9. John Adams will always and forever be Dr. Mark Craig to me. Dr. Mark Craig was also John Adams to me, as well. Then, he showed up in “The Graduate,” and Simon and Garfunkle started singing “Mr. Adams, Dear Mr. Adams, you are obnoxious and disliked, that cannot be denied.”


  10. I don’t think I ever saw the movie 1776, but my high school AP US history class went to see it on Broadway when it first opened! Must rent the movie…


  11. Notorious, thanks for the tip. I’ll see if I can swing by later this summer. (You should check it out! I mean, if it’s *good* community theater.)

    I forgot that Dr. Mark Craig/John Adams/Ben’s dad in The Graduate was also KITT. John S., we’re just that much older than you that in the 1980s when you 8-12 year olds were watching Knight Rider, Clio and I and other odd high schoolers were watching St. Elsewhere.


  12. My problem with Paul Giamatti in that show is…he isn’t John Adams, he’s Paul Giamatti. It’s like finding out Giamatti was actually a “founding father” and discovering how he changed or did change American history. Forget John Adams, who is that guy anyways. I assume having him be the star like that was something to do with people paying more attention to his memoirs and challenging conventional wisdom on him that he was almost entirely useless and the worst President. However, it did confirm my suspicions that Thomas Jefferson is/was a total a-hole(the show was historically accurate, right? haha). In some aspects it’s nice to see a show about somebody who’s not always painted as the “hero”. Somebody who tries hard, is smart, but is often less than successful at many things in his life. It’s nice not to idealize every founding father or use one facet (i.e., slaveowning) to attack them, when in fact some of them were just bad people, or good people with flawed motives and flawed skillsets.


  13. It is really sad to think that a whole generation of Americans will know Broadway great John Cullum as the old guy with the hot wife on Northern Exposure. Not that he wasn’t fabulous in that role, but they should have had him sing more.


  14. Western Dave–not so sad, but kind of funny, I guess. He’s been back on B-way lately, from what I’ve heard–Urinetown was a hit.

    FrauTech–if Jefferson was shown as an a-hole, it’s because the show (like the book it was based on) was partisan and totally pro-Adams. Jefferson may have been an a-hole (I don’t really care), but Adams was a worse president, that’s for sure. (At least as far as these things can be reasonably gagued. Jefferson, too, contradicted his own ideology as President by contracting the Louisiana Purchase without congressional approval. The original President of the “against Big Government and government overreaching” party went ahead and unconstitutionally spent money for the LP. But, that’s a technical foul compared to the Alien & Sedition Acts, IMHO.

    (That might be TMI for you–if so, I apologize. Anyone who wants to harsh on either Paul Giamatti or John Adams is welcome here!)


  15. Historiann

    I’m afraid there are lots of folks who disagree with you about the actor who played TJ. There was a member- created thread on the HBO site devoted to him–Stephen Dillane is Thomas Jefferson–that went on for months and months after the program ended.


  16. Not so much of the discussion thread. I dropped in every now and then just to see how long it would go on. As for the series, I thought Dillane did the best characterization among all of them. He had clearly studied the writings and recollections about TJ’s mannerisms and mode of presentation. He was certainly a more believable TJ than Ken Howard, who was still good in his own way.


  17. I hear you–Howard (like everyone else in 1776) was playing a cartoonish version of the historical characters, whereas the HBO production took verisimilitude very seriously. But, that’s why I prefer 1776–it’s just a heck of a lot more fun.

    I also think it’s just funny that Ken Howard went from playing TJ to someone called “The White Shadow.” Someone could almost write an American Studies dissertation on that.


  18. Pingback: Happy Independence Day! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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