When Language, Pop Culture, and Politics Collide

'1776' film posterYou know what driver’s-ed classes don’t teach you? They don’t teach you how complicated it is to make your way through a busy intersection of more than two streets, especially when there are no traffic signals.

I thought about this failure today, in connection with the 1972 film of the musical 1776.

Until last night, I’d never seen the movie and never (truth be told) had wanted to. No objection to musicals per se, you understand. But I’ve always had a hard time with light and frothy musical treatments of truly momentous historical subjects.

(Yet I very much like Cabaret, and agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment at the time it was released: “A great movie musical, satirical and diamond-hard.” Satire with an edge: good. But perkiness? Eh, well…)

But last night my resolve was weak. The Missus and I were both wiped out by planning, preparing, and executing a July-4th cookout for […counting…] ten people. While she escaped to her office, collapsing into a fog of online gaming, I just sat, stretched out, on the sofa, TV remote close to hand. And clicked. And clicked. And clicked…

For some reason probably having to do with the previous day’s power failure, when I first turned it on the channel was set at 2: the Home Shopping Network. (click) PBS had David McCullough on Charlie Rose, talking about John Adams. (click) Wonder what’s on Turner Classic Movies…? Hmm. William Daniels in colonial garb. Singing. Singing? Did William Daniels sing? What was this, anyhow?

By the time I realized what it must be, I’d been sucked in.

Oh yeah, make no mistake: 1776 has its frothy moments. It also takes some liberties (er, no pun intended) with history. (Wikipedia lists some of them. On the other hand, it cites the Columbia Companion to American History on Film: “Inaccuracies pervade 1776, though few are very troubling.”) But there are also some notable highlights, even for a cynical viewer.

For the cynical viewer in question, the chief pleasure comes from a number called “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”:

Here’s the background: John Adams wants the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. His opposition (personal as well as political) comes from a faction led by one John Dickinson, representative from Pennsylvania. As depicted in the film, Dickinson is a rather calculating Tory sympathizer who doesn’t want to rock the boat lest he jeopardize his considerable property holdings — but who cloaks his objections in a cool rationality: Why embark on a path to certain ruin for everyone, when it’s impossible for us to win? Surely there’s some more reasonable way than revolution to resolve these temporary and really quite minor disagreements with the Crown? And so on.

(In fact, the real Dickinson‘s motivations were probably much more complex and sympathetic than the broad-brushstrokes caricature which the movie presents. But hey, this is a musical, right?)

After Dickinson and Adams have a furious argument — Dickinson: “Madman!”; Adams: “Coward!” — Adams finally storms from Independence Hall. Following shortly after are other supporters of revolution, leaving Dickinson and his faction in the hall, along with John Hancock, secretary Charles Thomson, and “Mr. McNair” (a sort of servant/building manager, responsible for keeping the delegates in rum and the hall both cool in temperature and free of flies). And then Dickinson begins, leading them into and through “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men”:

Oh say do you see what I see?
Congress sitting here in sweet serenity
I could cheer; the reason’s clear
For the first time in a year Adams isn’t here
And look, the sun is in the sky
A breeze is blowing by, and there’s not a single fly.

Not bad. A pleasant little song, with a lilting melody (though sung forcefully). But then there’s a turn:

Come ye cool cool conservative men
The likes of which may never be seen again
We have land, cash in hand
Self-command, future planned
Fortune flies, society survives
In neatly ordered lives with well-endowered wives

You can probably see the direction this is going by now, a direction established literally by the next verse:

Come ye cool cool considerate set
We’ll dance together to the same minuet
To the right, ever to the right
Never to the left, forever to the right
May our creed be never to exceed
Regulated speed, no matter what the need

In the film, the final verse comes as the Loyalists descend a staircase to the street. They almost march, in a triangular formation, and in a peculiar sort of gait which has them accenting each line with a stiff-legged upraised foot:

Come ye cool cool considerate men
The likes of which may never be seen again
With our land, cash in hand
Self-command, future planned
And we’ll hold to our gold
Tradition that is old, reluctant to be bold.
We say this game’s not of our choosing
Why should we risk losing?

One thing especially interesting about “Cool, Cool, Considerable Men” is that if you saw the film when it was released in 1972, you wouldn’t have seen or heard this musical number. Why not? The story is told in several places, but I think the closest thing to authority comes from a Broadway librettist/critic, who says:

When I was in college, I interviewed Peter Stone [1776‘s librettist] for my campus paper. I asked him why “Cool Men” wasn’t in the film, since it’s practically the center of the show, crystallizing the conflict and defining the conservative faction in song — and since, curiously, the tune was still alluded to in the film’s underscoring. “It was shot,” Stone said to me, “and shot beautifully.” Then how, I asked him, could it possibly have gotten cut?

This was the early ’70s — and this was Stone’s answer then. “If you put a gun to my head, I’d have to tell you I don’t know. But if you took the gun away, I’d say for political reasons.”

A very tactful way of saying what couldn’t be admitted at the time for publication. Which was this–

–Nixon called [his personal friend and the film’s producer Jack] Warner up and asked him to cut it. And so it went. All eight minutes of it. And because Warner didn’t want to be overruled at some future point–

he then burned the negatives. Presumably destroying it forever.

(In 1969, “1776” had the distinction of being the first stage musical to be performed at the White House in its entirety. Previously, “tab” versions of shows had been presented. Even so, “Cool Men” created much controversy. A request was made that the number be cut for the White House presentation. The request was refused; [the staged version of] “1776” would be performed with “Cool Men” intact or not at all. The number stayed in. But Nixon remembered…)

(Eventually, obviously, restorers of the original film located and reinstated the number, in the early ’90s. It’s probably not necessary to mention that this would have been during the Clinton interlude after 12 years of Reagan and GHW Bush, and preceding the eternity which started in January 2001.)

For some reason this story doesn’t catch me by surprise. At all. But then, I’m cynical, right?

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  1. s.o.m.e. 1's brudder says:

    Maybe somebody should contact Comedy Central ’cause I think we’ve got a musical number for the finalé of “Little Bush”. Can’t you just see all the lil’ characters dancing and singing along to this? Lil’ Rummy? Lil’ Condi? Lil’ Cheney? and Lil’ Bush himself? That would be worth watching! Better yet maybe the guys who put together the “What’d I do?” web thing on Clinton could put it together!

  2. @s.o.m.e. 1’s brudder – Ha! Yeah — or the “JibJab” guys, maybe.

    Except they specialize in writing parody versions of the songs they use, and in this case there’d be no need for parody.

    Great to see you here, s1’s brudder — or anywhere else for that matter. ;)

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