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The world premiere (most shorts never had one) of this Vitaphone
Technicolor featurette was held on August 31, 1939 at The National
Conference of Christians and Jews at Williams College, Williamstown,
Warner's also arranged for a national radio broadcast of the events over the NBC Blue network, with many of the company's stars (including some big-names who weren't in this short) participating via a hook-up to the Los Angeles NBC studio.
Actually, considering the events going on in Europe at the time, the National Conference of Christians and Jews was exactly the right place to premiere this short. Those with short and/or selective memories and revisionist inclinations may disagree. That's okay. The Bill of Rights gives them that privilege.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This little film was shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) as part of
their "One Reel Wonders" series.
There was a lot of very good history told in this story of how the concepts enshrined in the Bill of Rights grew out of the American Revolution. However, the good history is wrapped in a broad cartoonish story with sweeping caricatures.
In a nutshell, Founding Fathers good and British rulers bad. Interestingly, the story does attempt to draw a distinction between the British rulers, embodied in the Virginia Governor and King George, and the British people by portraying Edmund Burke's famous speech before Parliament in support of the colonists.
With the possible exception of the "The Patriot", you don't see this type of raw patriotic fare anymore from Hollywood. And for good reason. Modern sensibilities have to be struck by the hypocrisy of the Virigina landed gentry demanding their freedom while denying freedom to the negro slaves.
However, I believe that the reluctance to paint history in such broad is strokes is one reason that children are woefully ignorant of history and so many Americans are unappreciative the great heritage that we all profit from.
Education must begin with the simplistic before it can address the complex. By focusing only on complex and contradictory issues, such as how Thomas Jefferson could call for the freeing slaves while not free many of his own, we lose sight of the obvious. From today's histories you would never know that prior to Jefferson there was no abolitionist movement at all and he was unquestionably its inspirational founder. The fact that he was a flawed man doesn't change that.
Simply speaking, yes indeed, the individual rights enshrined in the bill of rights are very good and the alternative can be very bad.
We could do worse than show this film to our kids.
Another in the kind of historical shorts the major studios produced
during the '30s and '40s, given Grade-A production values and using the
studio's stock company of supporting players for the leading roles.
THE BILL OF RIGHTS begins in 1774 in Williamsburg, Virginia with the colonists insisting that while they "respect the motherland", they are demanding a bill of rights for "the home country". What follows is a fervent replay of American history with the Americans vs. the British, with the British considering ways to get the "hot-blooded colonists" to obey their commands.
Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" (overacted by JOHN LITEL) is a part of the proceedings, as are other fragments of history including the Minute Men and ending in 1787 with rebellion among the colonists as they work on an Amendment to preserve "the Bill of Rights".
Sets and costumes are strictly Grade A in presentation but the acting is uniformly stiff and self-conscious. Best in the cast is earnest TED OSBORNE as James Madison, while the rest of the cast indulges in energetic but stilted acting under Crane Wilbur's direction.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is entertaining enough as a short, but it's defect as a piece of
history telling is glaring enough. It was shown on Saturday from 11:30
A.M. to 12:00 P.M. on the Turner Classic Film network (apparently it
has been shown on there before). Basically it is giving some of the
background for the creation of the Bill of Rights in the First ten
amendments of the U.S. Constitution, traced back to the Virginia
Resolves of 1775. And it does (fortunately) show that Col. George Mason
(John Hamilton - finally doing something important besides being Perry
White of the Daily Planet) was strongly involved in the creation of the
prototype (with Jefferson and Madison), though it fails to mention that
Mason remained one of the key architects of the later Bill of Rights as
The problem of course is the mangling of the failure of the revolutionaries from Virginia to end slavery there. This has been addressed on the thread already, and the reminder that Jefferson was a flawed hero here, but he at least got some movement towards abolition started, is not a true one. Jefferson liked his lordly comforts until his death, and he did not free his slaves until he died. And actually he did not free all his slaves (like Washington did). Moreover, judging from his book NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, Jefferson had a distinctly low opinion of the African-Americans, even remarking that they had an unpleasant odor. This is hardly enlightened. Actually George Mason made sizable efforts to end slavery in Virginia and the South, and met with little support from Jefferson, Madison, and other Southern leaders.
The film makes Lord Dunsmuir (Moroni Olsen), the last Colonial Governor of Virginia, the villain of the piece. He is shown to be a total importer of the worst aspects of British tyranny (as set up by King George III), and setting off the Revolution in Virginia by seizing the gunpowder in the Williamsburg Arsenal, and transporting it to a British ship. This is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out one vital aspect - Dunsmuir decided to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves who would fight for the crown's rights. A huge number of slaves fled to Dunsmuir's ships, and a small civil war briefly occurred. Eventually Dunsmuir was forced to head for New York City but he took most of the slaves that joined his call to arms. In 1783, the surviving ex-slaves (including several belonging to General George Washington) were taken by the British vacating New York, and transported to Canada or England.
The acting was pretty good in the film, if a trifle self-conscious and stiff at times. The leads are good. One wishes more accuracy about the historic record was included. The business about Dunsmuir's ally Moreland (Leonard Mudie) setting up a gun that will be fired at whoever opens the doors of the emptied arsenal, and being forced to do that by a mob led by Russell Simpson, seems to be a dramatic piece of lying that I have yet to come across a reference to in any history book.
A nice docudrama on the adaption of the first ten amendments to the
Constitution would highly be in order as Thomas Jefferson and James
Madison played a big part in that which occurred in 1789-1790 in the
First Congress. But this is not the film for that. In fact only the
last couple of minutes deal with that.
What we do see is the beginning of the rebellion as seen from the point of view of Virginia with the House of Burgesses defying the British royal governor Dunsmore as played by Moroni Olsen. The events aren't as dramatic as what was going on in Massachusetts, but the point is made that the fate of Massachusetts and those Puritan types in that colony could be that of the Virginia cavalier plantation owner people whom Jefferson and Madison represent. True then as it is today that Americans come from a variety of life experience.
The Bill Of Rights is a pleasant enough film which expresses the need for those rights to be codified. But not hardly the history of how they came to be in our Constitution.
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