The egg

Summer of ’76: John Adams (William Daniels), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva).

For my birthday last week I treated myself to watching 1776, the 1972 film adaptation of the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone musical about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. It’s about as accurate as a musical comedy about the Declaration can be, what with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others singing and prancing around Independence Mall, built on a Hollywood back-lot; Wikipedia has a substantive list of the considerable liberties taken by the musical to history, and critic Roger Ebert was decidedly negative about the film. Nevertheless it still retains a great deal of silly charm, and as even The Columbia Companion to American History on Film concedes, “few [of the inaccuracies] are very troubling.” 1776 was the ur-Hamilton in a way, an attempt to render early American history palatable to those who may feel it rather dry and boring; as Hamilton anachronistically uses hip-hop to get its musical points across, 1776‘s score is more reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, fifes and drums added to the arrangements, than Mozart, a genuine contemporary of the Founding Fathers (though there are still enough gavottes and waltzes to go around). And I still find most of the performances delightful. To me, John Adams will always be William Daniels, never Paul Giamatti.

I first saw 1776 upon its original release in 1972, when I was ten years old. It was released then with a G rating; these days, what with its occasional swearing, sexual innuendo, and bathroom humor, it would likely earn a PG (perhaps we live in more, not less, innocent times today). But I was already familiar with Old City Philadelphia and its environs to a certain degree. I was born in center city — at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets, which itself was founded in 1751 — and visited there very often. My family lived in the city’s outskirts, but because my father’s parents still lived on Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of the city, we made it into town just about every weekend, and my brother and I were dragged along to Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley, and other historical points of interest before we were ten. So I have rather deep roots in the city.

As the years went by I investigated Philadelphia more and more on my own. I live in New York now, and New York has its own history, but it isn’t living history to the extent that Philadelphia’s is. Just getting from one place to another in downtown Philadelphia — from home to work, say, or a night out on South Street — you regularly passed Carpenter’s Hall and the State House, these buildings still carefully maintained in an 18th century style, especially around 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, when Philadelphia expected an onrush of tourists that never really materialized. A part of the bicentennial celebration was a tab version of 1776 performed in an outdoor theatre on the Mall through the summer of ’76.

I watched 1776 last week with the Declaration of Independence fresh in my mind. Turning from that film to the New York Times political headlines the next day, I was reminded of this observation from Henry Adams, John Adams’ great-grandson, who wrote about President Ulysses S. Grant in his 1918 autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Adams refers to himself in his memoirs in the third person:

What worried Adams was not the commonplace; it was, as usual, his own education. Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called — and should actually and truly be — the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

And that was Grant, 100 years before Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump. Henry Adams can thank his God that he died in 1918, before this recent rush of evidence disproving evolution.

To fill in the film’s gaps and as a corrective to its inaccuracies, I’ve also been reading Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, a popular history of the events leading up to the Declaration. It’s quite the page-turner and I recommend it highly. As I read it, two things are occurring to me.

First, as Henry Adams suggests, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, and the others were undoubtedly great men: Philadelphia from 1760 to 1800 was one of those unique locations in history to be blessed with people who participated in an intelligent, radical rethinking of the human spirit. The Declaration was not law, to be sure — it was propaganda directed at the world. But what effective propaganda it was. Of course, it reflects the flaws of its creators as well, its attitudes to slavery and women chief among them — though even here the founders allowed within the Constitution itself a way to amend it through the years; it was a living document. The Declaration, and the Constitution that would follow a decade later, made America unique among the modern nations in that its founding was based upon principles and ideals. That those principles and ideals were laid out in two documents that it may take you about two hours to read carefully is something of a miracle. It’s the only modern nation to come with an owner’s manual, and unlike the owner’s manual that came with your microwave, it reaches occasional poetic heights that it would behoove us to re-examine today.

Second, these ideals and principles are still clearly in the air. They are a part of our basic belief system as a nation and a people — religious tolerance, open discussion, a free press, the need for representative deliberation, but most especially, I think, for the right to agitate and become radicals against tyrannical powers of government. Eventually a “wait-and-see” attitude towards George III became impossible and unconscionable, a crime against the rights of man. They are as much in the air as history palpably surrounds you on the streets of Old City Philadelphia.

I often wonder whether such documents could have been created anywhere but Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Philadelphia is itself unique in world history, a city founded upon Quaker principles of religious tolerance, self-reliance, simplicity, humility, and the certainty of an Inner Light in each and every individual regardless of race, gender, or talent. (New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post, upon the suspect principles of money and greed. Penn paid the Lenni Lenape Indians for their land, and Pennsylvania enjoyed peace with the Native Americans, unlike most of the other mid-Atlantic and New England colonies; New Yorkers just stole it.) Those principles fell by the wayside rather quickly — William Penn last saw Philadelphia in 1701, and even then the tide of immigration was revising those religious principles in the name of expansion, democracy, and commerce. But even now, walking Philadelphia’s streets, there is something of that sentiment still available to anyone willing to recognize it. But of course you do have to acknowledge it. And that, too, takes humility. My daughters were both born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village — they are native New Yorkers and always will be. But, in my own way, I’m a native Philadelphian, and always will be. That said, I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to drag them around Independence Hall as well. And hell, 1776 is a musical — maybe they’ll even enjoy that one day.

Below, a sample of one of the more charming songs of the show; Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams await the results of the first reading of Jefferson’s Declaration to the Continental Congress.

The silent clowns

Those readers of mine who are interested in silent film (about which I recently wrote here) will note the 20th anniversary of The Silent Clowns Film Series, a monthly schedule of screenings shown at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and named for Walter Kerr’s 1979 landmark study. “We present monthly, year-round showings of the silent movies of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Lloyd, and many others, all with live musical accompaniment by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model. Every program features a spoken introduction and Q&A by film historians Bruce Lawton and Steve Massa,” says the web page for the organization — and the screenings, delightfully, are free. This Saturday at 2.30pm, the series will present a rare showing of the 1926 Raymond Griffith Civil War comedy Hands Up! The feature will be preceded by the Harry Langdon short subject Saturday Afternoon of the same year.

The anniversary was marked last month on the NYC-ARTS television series. You can see that story below (once you get through the five minutes or so of commercials — ahem, I mean “sponsor acknowledgements,” of course).

It’s a gift

As much as I adore Metrograph, the repertory cinema at 7 Ludlow Street celebrating the first anniversary of its opening this month, they really must stop dropping films into the schedule that they’re not telling anybody about. Poking around on its web site this morning, I found that they’ll be showing a 35mm print of the W.C. Fields 1934 masterpiece It’s a Gift next week — on Wednesday, March 15, at 5.30pm, to be precise. This after screening another great Fields comedy, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, just a few months ago, and at the same time as they’re running this Buster Keaton retrospective.

“In the more enlightened days of the 1930s, W.C. Fields became a household name by playing a cranky alcoholic who detested children,” says Metrograph. What more do you need to know? These comedies are rarely revived on the big screen, so I suggest you make your way down there (and enjoy a drink at the Metrograph bar before or after the show — Fields would). I wrote about the comedian himself here and here.

The great stone face

Beginning this weekend and running through the month of March, Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side is featuring four classic silent films from Buster Keaton in new restorations from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films. Steamboat Bill Jr. launches the series this Saturday and Sunday at noon; College follows on Sunday, March 12; the film generally considered his masterpiece, The General, will be screened on March 18-19; and the series concludes with Three Ages on March 25-26.

It’s a rare chance to see these films on the big screen, so set some time aside. More information and tickets are available here.

David Shepard (1940-2017)

David Shepard.

“It cannot be stressed too strongly that the sound motion picture was an entirely different medium from the silent motion picture, and not merely the extension of it,” William K. Everson wrote in his groundbreaking 1978 history American Silent Film. “The difference between the two media is literally the difference between painting and photography, and the frequent unreality — or stylized reality — of much of the camerawork of the silent film was, artistically, one of its greatest assets.” Nor is this all. The silent film also required, ironically, a more naturalistic and nuanced performance style from its performers; from its audiences, it required (and still requires) a new way of viewing, a close attention to the visual. In the sound film, dialogue cues might fill you in if you look away or are distracted for a moment. The silent film requires a studied intention to see. To be a silent film enthusiast is to be an advocate for a unique art form that retains, even (and maybe especially) now, remarkable pleasures and aesthetic experiences. But, strange as it may seem, contemporary appreciation of silent films doesn’t begin to approach the contemporary appreciation of literature, music, and visual art of the same period — from 1895 to about 1930.

Anyone who appreciates the unique appeal of silent film will be sorry to hear of the passing of film preservationist David Shepard earlier this week. Shepard made it his life’s work to collect, preserve, restore, and disseminate (as widely as he could) the first thirty years of American film history. He, along with Martin Scorsese and Kevin Brownlow, was one of the major figures who recognized the immense historical and continuing value of these films.

Shepard began his career at the American Film Institute, which was started in part to preserve the American film heritage, in 1968. Later, he joined Blackhawk Films, a company that distributed classic films to the home market in 8mm and 16mm formats; following the closure of the company, he acquired both its restoration technology and its film catalog, which included films by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and many many others. In more recent years, Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates worked closely with Kino Lorber, Lobster Films, and Flicker Alley to ensure that the restoration and dissemination of these films continued. Realizing that mere archival restoration wasn’t enough, he worked assiduously to keep these films in front of the public eye. A partial list of the hundreds of films that Shepard had a hand in restoring can be found here.

Shepard kept a low profile; he never published any books, and Film Preservation Associates never even had a web site; Scorsese (obviously) and Brownlow (who produced many documentaries himself and wrote several historical studies) were much better known to the public, but all three knew and admired each’s efforts. His enthusiasm never wavered, however, and many have paid tribute to his achievements and advocacy for silent film, as this and this demonstrate. An obituary from the Hollywood Reporter can be found here, but this interview from 2000 at digitallyobsessed.com has a wealth of other information. An appropriate moment of silence, then, for one of the heroes of American film history.