'Swing Out, Sweet Land' is the deeply annoying title of a variety special that's actually fairly entertaining. Because this special allegedly has something to do with American history, IMDb have listed it as a 'documentary'. Actually, this is a comedy/variety special that presents a series of skits (most of them attempting to be funny, a few of them serious) with modern actors impersonating figures from American history. Oddly, two of the U.S. Presidents depicted here are played by Canadian actors: Lorne Greene as Washington, William Shatner as John Adams. The whole affair was a personal project of John Wayne, and was produced by his company Batjac Productions.
I attended a press screening of this special in London in 1971. A Batjac rep was hoping to persuade British TV producers (one of them my employer) to buy the UK syndication rights. Unsurprisingly, British TV producers were chary to give British audiences a programme dealing entirely with American history, much of it concerning America's War of Independence against Britain. 'Swing Out, Sweet Land' was never transmitted in the UK.
CONTAINS SPOILERS. Most of the humour here is simple displacement of 1970s showbiz personalities into earlier eras. Bob Hope shows up in a tricorn at Valley Forge for Christmas 1776, doing his usual shtick of entertaining the troops (who look surprisingly well-fed, well-dressed and warm ... in what's clearly an indoor set). Ann-Margret, in a mob cap and petticoats, does a dance routine for the enthusiastic soldiers, lifting her skirts surprisingly high for the 18th century. Then Bob Hope sings his usual 'Thanks for the Memories', with Revolution-era lyrics: 'We all hold very dear / that patriot Revere. / He rode all night to aid our plight, but just think of his ... rear!' On the word 'rear', Hope pauses slightly and he gooses Ann-Margret, and she squeals in delight! That's the biggest surprise here.
Phyllis Diller shows up as Belva Lockwood, the first woman to stand for election as U.S. President (1884 & 1888), and also the first woman lawyer to plead a case before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, Diller's turn here is treated largely as a joke. In fairness to Diller, Belva Lockwood's political campaigns were largely regarded as a joke in the 1880s.
Lorne Greene, in elaborate costume and wig, is seen as President Washington. As he walks away from his advisors, he is confronted by Jack Benny in 18th-century costume but wearing his usual hornrims. Benny tentatively asks Washington if the rumour is true that he once threw a dollar across the Potomac. When Washington confirms this, Benny nervously asks if Washington would be able to identify the dollar. When Washington answers in the negative, Benny replies: 'Good. So I can keep this one, then.' Ha bloody ha.
Dean Martin shows up as the inventor of the cotton gin, just so he can drunkenly belch 'Keep yer cotton-pickin' hands off my gin.' The rule in this special tends to be that white figures in American history will be mocked for cheap laughs, but black figures in American history will be depicted respectfully (though not always effectively).
The most bizarre turn is a dead-earnest skit featuring Red Skelton as a newspaper printer in Philadelphia in 1776, with Tom Smothers as his assistant; I leave it to you to imagine how these two actors look in 18th-century work clothes. They've been hired to run off copies of a new document called the Declaration of Independence. Smothers nervously feels that perhaps they shouldn't print this document; it defies King George, and it might just stir up trouble. Skelton reads off a few passages of the galley proof -- something about freedom and liberty -- and he hands it to Smothers with the verdict 'Print it.' Much as I admire John Wayne's sentiments in producing 'Sing Out, Sweet Land', I found this sequence extremely sententious and a little too pleased with its own boldness. I still have the press kit from the London screening I attended. The text in the press kit attempts to make a great deal of the fact that conservative John Wayne and liberal Tom Smothers had divergent political beliefs, yet were able to work together amicably to make this special. Right, so what? Tom Smothers is a member of the establishment, even if he pretends otherwise, and he wasn't going to rock the boat to compromise this special. The press kit mentions that Wayne and Smothers got along just fine during rehearsals by avoiding politics altogether. 'We talked about sailing,' Smothers is quoted in the press kit.
There's really nothing of great interest in 'Swing Out, Sweet Land' unless you're a fan of one of the performers in this cast ... and even then you'd have to be a completist. The comedy here isn't especially funny. As for the serious stuff: I'd be delighted to watch a special that gives respectful tribute to the subject of America's greatness ... but this special ain't it. I'll rate 'Sing Out, Sweet Land' 4 out of 10, purely for its novelty value.
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