Monday, February 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln - 1930

“Abraham Lincoln” (1930) plays out like fragmented memory, in this case the collective memory of a nation’s lore -- but with the unmistakable imprint of its director, D.W. Griffith. As is the case with most movies dealing with history, this film tells us as much or more about the era in which it was filmed rather than the era it depicts.

We celebrate Presidents Day with a look at a figure so wrapped up in folklore that his true nature, thoughts, accomplishments and legacy have been so long diminished in the bright glare of his legend. President Abraham Lincoln, and D. W. Griffith, both.

The movie is rich in folklore and is, like all of Mr. Griffith’s films, a huge project made even bigger by his reverence for the subject. In this case, his reverence is magnanimous considering his own father was a colonel in the Confederate army and Mr. Griffith grew up in an atmosphere of reverence for the Lost Cause. His family heritage and his Southern heritage influences his most famous, or infamous, film, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Perhaps his film covering the life of Lincoln is an attempt to balance the scales in his tarnished reputation where racial stereotypes and promotion of the then Southern viewpoint are concerned. “Abraham Lincoln” certainly carries an impressive pedigree unique for films of that era -- first, the subject matter; second, the great director who influenced a generation of filmmakers and established the artistry of the flickers; and third, the writer of the screenplay.

This is Stephen Vincent Benet, the poet who only the year before, in 1929, won the Pulitzer Prize for his epic poem “John Brown’s Body”. Mr. Griffith was careful to add literary legitimacy to the movie, which was to be his first sound film.

Most interesting about “Abraham Lincoln” is not its subject matter or artistic cache, but that it is filmed like a silent movie. In view of this, it’s even more ironic that, due to scenes or sound tracks being missing, in the new restoration of this film, the opening scene has no sound. The restoration team added subtitles to give us the dialogue. There are a couple of other scenes in the movie where this also occurs. Therefore, when the film starts, we are on familiar ground with D.W. Griffith, settling into his usual brand of storytelling. When the restored sound finally begins some minutes into the film, it comes almost as a jolt.

As much of a jolt as the sound era was to prove to Mr. Griffith’s artistic sensibilities and his career.

Griffith added sound to his film, but seemed to do little else to adapt to the new era in filmmaking. His scenes are sketched out as historical vignettes, almost tableau at times. His actors, not allowing for the intimacy that sound movies would create between the actors and the audience, are still mouthing starch-stiff platitudes and over-emoting, at times veering into the old pantomime style. Griffith apparently did not discourage them from this because he knew no other way.

Walter Huston plays Abraham Lincoln, and for most part does quite well. He is a strong actor, looks like Lincoln, and is particularly impressive in showing how Lincoln ages through the years, in appearance and manner. At first we see him a robust frontier youth, “wrassling” in a tavern and courting Ann Rutledge (where his lip makeup could be toned down a little. Too much silent movie image here. Heck, too much Pola Negri here.), and through the years, his grief and his burdens age him prematurely. As, unfortunately, they do most Presidents.

Una Merkel has her first major role in films as Ann Rutledge. We’re used to seeing her as the wisecracking sidekick of the Great Depression, so this is an interesting turn for her in her brief scenes as Lincoln’s first love. Her death scene is melodramatic, but again, that is D. W. Griffith’s sensibilities at work here.  For more on Una Merkel's hometown tribute, have a look at this previous post.

Kay Hammond is good as Mary Todd, and Ian Keith plays a very over-the-top John Wilkes Booth, but anytime we see him on film he is over-the-top. He is always the frustrated actor-as-assassin.  Have a look here for John Derek as Booth in this previous post on "The Prince of Players".

Lincoln has his archetype, too. He is Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, the rail-splitter, the frontier lawyer who entertains his audience and exacerbates his opponents with homespun witticisms. Griffith makes a valiant attempt to cover pretty much all of his life, which may have been too much to bite off. We see that Mr. Griffith, typical of his generation and of that era, is of the school that history is the product of great men. His Lincoln is the old-time schoolroom copybook saint. Lincoln was not seen this way even in 1865 at the time of his murder. By 1909 we had a penny stamped with his likeness and grand temple of a monument, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1922, only eight years before this movie was made.

These days we are more apt to pay less attention to great men of history in favor of the average fellow, who may not have made history but certainly got in the way. Perhaps this makes us uneasy these days producing films about historic figures, to the point where so-called revisionist history endeavors to bury old folklore. Neither method of biography is perfect, but the pendulum swings back and forth in fashion, as it will.

D.W. Griffith was meticulous in his settings, his reenactment of the assassination in Ford’s Theater, just as he did with “The Birth of a Nation”, is as realistic as we know the event to be. This being a sound film, we also get to hear the lines from the play “Our American Cousin” that Lincoln was watching from his box. Remarkably, it lends an eeriness to the scene, another layer to the tragedy to come that could not be portrayed in a silent film.

This is not to say that all his historical facts in this movie are always right on the button; they’re not. They’re not too hard to pick out, either, so I won’t bother.

Although, I must say, the actors look the part. One of my favorite things about watching historical films is to see if the actors look like the real-life people they are portraying. This film does that pretty well, from General Ulysses S. Grant, to General Winfield Scott. General Robert E. Lee is close enough. I was surprised at Booth’s fellow conspirators -- one actor looks very much like George Atzerodt.

As regards Mr. Griffith’s expunging his reputation for using racial stereotypes, his success here is a mixed bag. The opening scenes, those silent ones mentioned earlier, take place on a slave ship where we see the misery of the slaves in chains below decks. They appear to be played by African-Americans in a realistic setting with a sympathetic message.

However, much later on in the film there is a scene where a group of white Southerners, John Wilkes Booth among them, gather to express their shock over John Brown’s capture of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his intended revolt. A single black man among them affirms that he wants no part of John Brown’s raid, and says he threw away the gun he was given. He is a “good” black. He is also a white man wearing blackface makeup.

Mr. Griffith was evidently not able to take one step forward without taking two steps back.

But, Abraham Lincoln fares well in his hands. He is given his due as a great man of history, and at his passing, the movie ends with a chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and then a very moving, if artificial-looking, camera pan across the woodland childhood home, the log cabin model, and then to another set designer’s model of the Lincoln Memorial. These are the bookends to his life, the log cabin and the classical shrine.

D. W. Griffith made only one more movie after this, a financial flop, and then he retired from filmmaking still only in his mid-fifties. Hollywood had finished with him. One can see why the great stories of ages past appealed to Mr. Griffith. They brought comfort to him, and do to many for whom the present is an even greater struggle.

What made Abraham Lincoln one of our greatest Presidents, I think, was his present-mindedness. He did not lean too heavily on the past as a crutch. Nor did he fear the future, except perhaps for the famous premonitions of his own tragic end.

“Abraham Lincoln” is now in the public domain. You can see the movie here in its entirety on YouTube.


Gilby37 said...

I saw this film on TCM last year. Walter Huston was very good, particularly as the older Lincoln. I agree with what you said about D.W. Griffith, "Mr. Griffith was evidently not able to take one step forward without taking two steps back." Unfortunately, for someone who was so innovative in the silent era, this film is a bit stagy. Good review of a little seen movie!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Gilby, and thanks for commenting. It's a bit stagy, all right, an indication perhaps that D.W. felt awkward in his transition to sound -- which really does require a different approach. "You just add talking" -- the line in "Singing in the Rain", comes to mind. Not so.

Yvette said...

There's a new Abraham Lincoln film in the making with Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. (I'd have said he was too short, but presumably they'll get around that somehow.)

I haven't seen a film based on Lincoln in any way shape or form since I was a teenager. But I do remember ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS.
Sort of.

The movie you're talking about today, though, Jacqueline, I've never seen. Don't know if I want to. But as usual, I still enjoyed reading your review. :)

Now, John Derek is my idea of John Wilkes Booth. James L. Swanson in his book, MANHUNT: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer says that Booth was extrememly handsome.

By the way, if you haven't read it, I recommend Swanson's book highly. It is fascinating.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I had no idea a new Lincoln film was in the works. I like Daniel Day-Lewis, so I'll have to keep on the watch for that one.

I can't remember if I've read Swanson's book, but I'll put that down on my list. Sounds great.

KimWilson said...

Jacqueline, I just don't think Griffith was the man to do a Lincoln biographical film. As you mentioned, he had way too many racist leanings, so it's difficult to watch this film without looking for some secret undercurrent (at least for me, and I am know for being overly-suspicious). Still, Huston plays the role of Lincoln well.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kim, you're right about looking for some secret undercurrent. Still, it fascinates me that he tackled the job of a biographical film on Lincoln. Huston was, indeed, fine in the role. Sometime I'd like to compare the Lincolns: Fonda, and especially Raymond Massey.

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