The Declaration of Independence (1938): Caesar Rodney, Action Hero?

Decleration1Editor’s note:  The following article, originally published in July of 2014,  is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the May 2-4 Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon 2015 hosted by Movies Silently. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.

Acouple of years ago, in the first half of a two-part particle I wrote about selecting an appropriate movie to represent each of the 50 states, I bemoaned the paucity of cinematic activity set in my home state of Delaware. You know, Delaware: the one you pass through while driving between New York and Washington, the one where all those credit card offers you get in the mail come from. While its feature film heritage may be minimal at best (Empire Records, Fight Club, Survival of the Dead, and a handful of others), the First State and one of its favorite sons did get a moment in the sun–albeit a brief one–in a 1938 Warner Bros./Vitaphone historical short subject, The Declaration of Independence.

For those of you who couldn’t stay awake in 11th-grade American History class–or couldn’t stay awake when your 11-grade American History teacher showed the 1972 film version of the Broadway musical 1776–the film sticks surprisingly closely to the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration by the Continental Congress during that fateful summer of ’76. Virginia Congressional delegates Thomas Jefferson (John Litel) and Richard Henry Lee (Tom Chatterton) are seen en route to Philadelphia, discussing the need to pass a resolution calling for breaking away from England, while Benjamin Franklin (Walter Walker) and John Dickinson (Wilfred Lucas) of Pennsylvania argue the merits of such action.

Meanwhile, in the tiny colony of Delaware, delegates Thomas McKean (Boyd Irwin) and George Read (Emmett Vogan) are in a roadside inn, on opposite sides of the issue, awaiting the arrival of their colleague Caesar Rodney (Ted Osborne). When McKean says that Rodney also supports revolution, Read retorts “That firebrand agrees with anything that promises a battle.”  Just then, the dashing Caesar enters the tavern…

Declaration 7Now, seriously; does that strapping lad up there look like the gentleman John Adams–who was no Beau Brummel himself–once described as “the oddest looking man in the world…tall, thin and slender as a reed, pale,” with a face “not bigger than a large apple”? He also doesn’t appear to be asthmatic, as the real-life Rodney was known to be.

rodneywhAnd where, pray tell, is the bandage covering the facial cancer that plagued the statesman, who referred to it as “that horrid and most obstinate disorder,” and was such a prominent feature in William Hansen’s portrayal of him in the movie 1776 (see right)? No, the two-fisted, he-man Rodney featured in here seems to come more from Warner Bros.’ Errol Flynn costume thriller mold than the studio’s George Arliss straightforward biodrama wing. As we’ll see in a little bit, though, the physical representation of Caesar Rodney in this short is just one of many (you’ll pardon the expression) liberties taken by the filmmakers.

The action next moves northward to the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. After the resolution calling for a final vote on independence passes, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams go to work writing up the document that would state America’s case to the world. It’s interesting–at least, by 1938 standards–to note that this film did find the time to show that the anti-slavery statements Jefferson placed in the Declaration’s initial draft had to be written out (this time around, at Adams’ urging!) for fear of jeopardizing the resolution’s unanimous support. “Very well, it’s out,” says Jefferson, “which only puts off the trouble to another day.”

Declaration 3Rodney, in the meantime, returns to central Delaware to deal with local uprisings of Tory loyalists (this part is historically accurate)…and to see his fiancée Betsy Kramer (Rosella Towne), whose father (William Orlamond) just happens to be head of a Tory spy ring (this part is a total Hollywood fabrication). Caesar doesn’t exactly endear himself to his would-be father-in-law by making statements like “If they (loyalists) won’t accept liberty, then we’ll cram it down their throats.” And sure enough, when word comes that Rodney must return to Philadelphia at once to cast the tie-breaking vote for Delaware and ensure adoption of the Declaration, Pa Kramer has him held at gunpoint and threatens to hold him hostage until the vote fails. Luckily, our hero manages to disarm his captors and rides off into the night.

“80 miles to Philadelphia, 80 miles of wretched roads and Tory sympathizers,” says the narrator. “One vote could mean the freedom of a nation!” Escaping a roadside assassination attempt (once again, spun out of whole cloth), the gallant patriot rides the treacherous, rain-slicked route from Dover to Philadelphia on horseback and arrives at the Pennsylvania State House assembly room “in his boots and spurs” (as McKean later recounted), eagerly casting his vote for independence amid handshakes and backslaps from Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and company. John Hancock signs his name to the document, large enough “for John Bull to read without his spectacles” (and for an insurance company to use as a logo); bells are rung; and 18th-century mattress and housewares sellers start planning their very first Fourth of July sales.

Declaration 5The Declaration of Independence  may not be perfect (I’m talking about the film here, not the actual document), but it is an interesting little curio from the time when moviegoers got more for their admission than a series of commercials and a seemingly endless array of previews before the feature. It was also one chapter in a series of late ’30s films Warner Bros. and their Vitaphone subsidiary released to help foster patriotic enthusiasm with the threat of war emanating in both Europe and Asia (further entries focused on Patrick Henry, the Sons of Liberty, the Monroe Doctrine, Andrew Jackson and other topics).

And while it certainly played fast and loose with the actual facts surrounding Rodney–who some say may have made at least part of his journey to Philadelphia by coach rather than horseback, and whose well-to-do Delaware family were, unfortunately, slave owners–the mini-drama also effectively depicted some of the key events leading up to our nation’s founding. What’s more, it won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Two-Reel. Apparently there were no history experts among the Academy voters at the time.

RODNEY SQUAREBy the way, the real Caesar Rodney never married, survived the Revolutionary War and died in 1784, but his gallant nocturnal ride for liberty lives on in many forms, not the least of which are a statue in downtown Wilmington and the Delaware state quarter released in 1999. Unfortunately for movie buffs, the coin’s designer seems to have based the image on the Rodney Square statue and not a shot of Ted Osborne from The Declaration of Independence. So much for life imitating (cinematic) art.