4th of July movies: Celebrating American Independence Day in times of dystopia
Humankind’s much-dreaded dystopian future is already here. But don’t you worry. In the United States, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is celebrating American Independence Day by presenting no less than seven 4th of July movies. Four of these are set at the time of the Revolutionary War; the other three revolve around what’s commonly referred to as “Americana” – i.e., nostalgic, idealized (in the minds of some) portrayals of American society.
That means those in the U.S. who don’t feel like taking to the streets in mass protests à la, to name a few recent examples, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, and Algeria, have the option of setting aside their immediate 21st-century reality – climate crisis and its denial, migrant children in cages (you can see their heart-rending drawings here), military parades for the pleasure of the Dear Leader and his supporters – by checking out TCM’s red-white-and-blue presentations taking place in the distant past.
The four 4th of July movies transpiring around the time of the Revolutionary War are John Paul Jones (1959), 1776 (1972), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), and The Scarlet Coat (1955).
The three “Americana” 4h of July movies are The Music Man (1962), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Ah Wilderness! (1935).
‘John Paul Jones’: Lies my filmmakers told me
Produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Australian-born John Farrow (Best Director Oscar nominee for Wake Island, 1942; husband of Maureen O’Sullivan; father of Mia Farrow), starring a sparklingly handsome Robert Stack (Best Supporting Actor nominee for Written on the Wind, 1956) in the title role, and featuring a big-name supporting cast (Oscar winner Charles Coburn, nominees Marisa Pavan and Thomas Gomez, plus Jean-Pierre Aumont, David Farrar, Macdonald Carey, etc.), John Paul Jones suffers from central miscasting, conventional handling, and excessive running time (an interminable 126 minutes).
Shot in Spain under difficult financial conditions, Farrow’s widescreen color epic is of interest only as a, however brief, showcase for two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Bette Davis (Dangerous, 1935; Jezebel, 1938), who has a campy cameo as Russia’s multilingual Catherine the Great, and as a historical curiosity: how did late 1950s Hollywood depict the peripatetic, controversial, Scottish-born Continental Navy commander who fought the British during the American Revolutionary War?
Russian asset & rape allegations
Long before the current White House occupant was accused of being a Russian asset, John Paul Jones, while maintaining his American citizenship, was an employee of Empress Catherine II, fighting both the Ottomans and, once again long before Donald Trump, accusations of sexual “improprieties.” In Jones’ case, these had nothing to do with water sports and Russian sex workers; instead, he was accused of raping a young girl.
Even though the accusation is supposed to have been baseless, don’t expect to see anything of the kind in this by-the-book Hollywood biopic, which happens to be as insightful (screenplay by Farrow and Jesse Lasky Jr.) as soap opera trash like Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman and as faithful to the facts as a Trump tweet.
But if you’re lucky, you may catch Mia Farrow in a bit part. In her autobiography, What Falls Away, she discusses her eye-opening film debut at age 13 or so, when the director’s daughter was shocked to discover she had lost her one line of dialogue to the star’s wife. Another of the director’s children, John Charles Farrow, plays the young John Paul.
Professional setback & personal tragedy
Distributed by Warner Bros., John Paul Jones turned out to be the last feature directed by John Farrow, whose three-decade Hollywood career had had its share of artistic and commercial ups (Two Years Before the Mast, The Big Clock, an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay of Around the World in 80 Days) and downs (A Bill of Divorcement, A Bullet Is Waiting, The Unholy Wife).
In the case of John Paul Jones, Farrow experienced not only a professional setback but also a personal tragedy. The filmmaker and Maureen O’Sullivan’s 19-year-old son, Michael, left behind in California during the shoot, was killed in a small-plane collision – he was a student flyer – over the San Fernando Valley, north of the Los Angeles basin, in October 1958.
Five years later, John Farrow would be dead at age 58.
‘1776’: Blacklist victim Howard Da Silva returns
Peter H. Hunt’s 1776 is another of TCM’s late 18th-century-set 4th of July movies. Adapted by Peter Stone from his and composer Sherman Edwards’ Tony Award-winning 1969 historical musical, the Columbia-distributed 1776 chronicles John Adams’ behind-the-scenes efforts prior to the drafting of the United States’ Declaration of Independence (which followed the actual “Resolution for Independence,” signed on July 2).
A key point of interest in the 1972 film version is the presence of veteran Howard Da Silva (born Howard Silverblatt) reprising his stage role as Benjamin Franklin. With more than 30 features to his credit (e.g., Blues in the Night, The Blue Dahlia, The Great Gatsby 1949) Da Silva was one of countless Hollywood names whose movie careers were destroyed during the House Un-American Activities Committee-engendered Red Scare of the mid-20th century.
One of those who named him at the HUAC hearings was MGM star Robert Taylor (Johnny Eager, Ivanhoe), a “friendly witness” who told the panel that he could name several individuals in the film industry “who seem to sort of disrupt things once in a while. Whether or not they are Communists I don’t know. One chap we have currently, I think is Howard Da Silva. He always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.”
Da Silva pleaded the Fifth in March 1951:
I refuse to answer the question on the following basis: The first and fifth amendments and all of the Bill of Rights protect me from any inquisitorial procedure, and I may not be compelled to cooperate with this committee in producing evidence designed to incriminate me and to drive me from my profession as an actor. The historical origin of the fifth amendment is founded in the resistance of the people to attempts to prosecute and persecute individuals because of their political views.
Performance erasure & comeback
As a consequence of the accusations and his defiant testimony, Howard Da Silva was summarily blacklisted from films and television.
Just like Kevin Spacey, who, following accusations (no trial or conviction) of sexual misconduct, had his performance erased from Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (Christopher Plummer was Spacey’s replacement), Da Silva was eliminated from Irving Allen’s already completed 1951 Western Slaughter Trail. His scenes were reshot with another veteran, Brian Donlevy (In Old Chicago, The Great McGinty).
Apart from one 1959 appearance in the anthology series Play of the Week, Da Silva would remain away from the big and small screens until the early 1960s, when he became a sporadic figure in features (David and Lisa, The Great Gatsby 1974, Mommie Dearest) and a more frequent one on TV, eventually winning an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Special for his work in the Great Performances presentation of Verna: USO Girl (1978).
Da Silva was luckier on the Broadway stage, where the HUAC seemed to hold less sway, getting featured in, among others, Alexander Ostrovsky’s Diary of a Scoundrel, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, and Jerome Weidman and George Abbott’s Fiorello! (which earned him a Tony Award).
See the 1776 movie trailer below.
More on ‘1776’: When 4th of July movies offended snowflakes
Another 1776 politically charged off-screen story centers on Jack L. Warner. The former Warner Bros. studio chief turned independent producer did his own private HUAC’ing by unceremoniously excising the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” from the movie despite protests from the filmmakers.
Warner went as far as to demand that the negative of the scene featuring the song be destroyed. (Co-editor Florence Williamson secretly saved it.)
But why would the old Hollywood mogul – acting as if he were George the Third, King of Great Britain – take the trouble of obliterating a song from a movie about, of all topics, freedom from tyrannical rulers?
Well, because soon-to-be-disgraced U.S. President (and Jack Warner pal) Richard Nixon perceived the song, about those less concerned with severing ties with the king than with preserving their own wealth, as an indictment of “conservatives” (a.k.a. right-wingers).
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.
Nixon thus pressured Warner to have the song removed.
And why shouldn’t he? After all, there were no First Amendment rights in 1776. (The Bill of Rights’ First Amendment would be instituted only on Dec. 15, 1791.)
“Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was finally reinserted into 1776 at the time of its DVD release in the early 21st century.
Lastly, 1776’s John Adams is played by William Daniels, later a two-time Emmy Award winner for his portrayal of Dr. Mark Craig in the 1980s TV series St. Elsewhere, and later yet president of the Screen Actors Guild (1999–2001).
Just in case you’re wondering, William Daniels is no relation to Erich von Stroheim and Greta Garbo cinematographer William H. Daniels (The Merry Widow, Mata Hari, Camille), an Oscar winner for his work on Jules Dassin’s crime drama The Naked City.
More 4th of July movies: ‘Miserable’ Laurence Olivier in ‘The Devil’s Disciple’
The triangular casting of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Laurence Olivier in The Devil’s Disciple came about because, as explained in Anthony Holden’ Olivier biography, the British actor had been looking for financing on both sides of the North Atlantic for a planned film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a play in which he had starred to great acclaim in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1955. Instead of Shakespeare, however, Olivier ended up doing George Bernard Shaw.
Based on Shaw’s American Revolutionary War-set 1897 play, The Devil’s Disciple tells the story of a New England man (Kirk Douglas) who, as it happens, is both an apostate and a self-sacrificing Sydney Carton-like figure. Burt Lancaster was cast as the local minister, Olivier played real-life British General John Burgoyne, and Broadway legend and future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Eva Le Gallienne (Resurrection, 1980) landed the role of the apostate’s mother.
Olivier was going through difficult personal times during the shoot, as he and Vivien Leigh were careening toward a definitive split following a violent altercation that left the Oscar-winning Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire actress badly bruised. Referring to The Devil’s Disciple, Olivier would say that he had never endured “such a miserable a time in a job.”
‘Performance of his life’
Even so, at least in the view of some critics, Olivier stole the film – a box office flop – from his more popular Hollywood co-stars, with the London Evening Standard affirming that he “gives the performance of his life, making Lancaster and Douglas look like stupid oafs who have wandered back from a Western into the world of the American War of Independence.”
A replacement for Alexander Mackendrick, who had been fired one week into the shoot, future Goldfinger and Live and Let Die filmmaker Guy Hamilton directed The Devil’s Disciple. The endeavor was put together by Lancaster’s independent outlet with Harold Hecht and James Hill, with Hecht named the film’s official producer.
As for Macbeth, Laurence Olivier would never get to play the role on the big screen.
‘The Scarlet Coat’: Last of the Revolutionary War-set 4th of July movies
The fourth of TCM’s Revolutionary War-set 4th of July movies is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s John Sturges-directed, Karl Tunberg-written historical drama The Scarlet Coat, about the origins of the American Secret Service.
Long before the FBI and the NSA (post-4th of July presidential speech update: and long before there were either airplanes or airports), there was Cornel Wilde (in place of Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor) as the fiercely determined (fictional) Major John Bolton, going undercover in order to expose a Revolutionary War traitor.
That turns out to be Benedict Arnold (Robert Douglas), who, similarly to what took place around the time of the most recent U.S. presidential election, used back channels to aid and abet a foreign power working against American interests – in this case, Britain.
Also in The Scarlet Coat: Contract player Michael Wilding, as Major John André, in his final MGM movie; Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner George Sanders (All About Eve, 1950); Anne Francis in her pre-Forbidden Planet days; and Bobby Driscoll, who nearly became a major child star after the success of Disney’s Treasure Island (1950) – which earned him a Juvenile Oscar – and who, as a result of years of drug abuse, would be dead at age 31 in March 1968.
“4th of July Movies: From Our Dystopian Present to Complex American Revolutionary War Figures” follow-up post:
The rape accusation against John Paul Jones is discussed in Samuel Eliot Morison’s John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography.
Evening Standard review quote via Robert L. Daniels’ Laurence Olivier, Theater and Cinema.
Image of Robert Stack in John Paul Jones, one of TCM’s 4th of July movies: Warner Bros.
Howard Da Silva, William Daniels, and Ken Howard 1776 movie image: Columbia Pictures.
Laurence Olivier The Devil’s Disciple image: United Artists.
“4th of July Movies: From Our Dystopian Present to Complex American Revolutionary War Figures” last updated in July 2019.