Thursday, February 12, 2015

Abe Lincoln in Illinois - 1940

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) carries both historical insight while at the same time being remarkably and most startlingly current in its message.  Surely writer Robert E. Sherwood made no attempt to be prescient, in the same way Abraham Lincoln seemed to foresee his own doomed future, but we may take as a sad state of fact that all life is a cycle and we must continually fight the same battles every couple generations. 

We celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday today with probably the best movie ever made depicting Abraham Lincoln, both in script, and in characterization by Raymond Massey, who played this role on Broadway before Sherwood adapted his own script for the screen.  John Cromwell directs, and we are treated to a nineteenth century fairy tale land of innocence and danger, but always familiar because it is part of our American consciousness—the log cabin, the reading by firelight, the lusty backwoodsmen who “wrassle” and drink, the hoop skirts, the stovepipe hat, but stringing everything along is the message of a gentle, reluctant man, sometimes self-admitted blunderer, who is idealistic enough to expect better from his country, and pragmatic enough to know “a more perfect union” wasn’t going to happen without an awful lot of trouble, and that some in the dysfunctional family of states would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table.  Behind all, shaping his journey and shouldering it, are his periods of depression that threaten his nimble mind, sap his courage, and crush his soul.

We covered another Lincoln biography here when Walter Huston took the role in 1930.

Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln is not a schoolroom saint.  He is flawed, human, and beset by troubles that include a nagging wife, certainly the most homespun and prosaic of incidents that ride the coattails of his more Herculean crisis—that of publically standing against slavery, and of trying to keep the union together when so many preferred it to be dissolved.  He makes compromises, he allows himself to be shepherded into the political process by backroom dealers.  Our American democracy is on display here for all that is good about it and all that is shady.

Election night, with vote tabulations cast by magic lantern onto a screen, and crowds cheering everything by torchlight, with relentless tinny tapping of Morse code relaying results from across the country—which is presented by a crude map of states and territories and pins—is no less accurate and no less exciting than were it covered ad nauseam between commercials on CNN.

That Raymond Massey, for whom Abe Lincoln was his signature role, was, and probably remains the best actor to have played him, was able to convey Lincoln’s self-deprecating humor, his cleverness, his anxiety, his good nature all at once is a splendid feat of acting.  His manner of speech is a marvel and mesmerizing.  However, he was helped along by the very legacy we have of Lincoln’s personality in context of the opinions of his countrymen.  There are fewer films in which George Washington is depicted, largely because we still, I think, don’t know how to approach the father of our country.  He remains a schoolroom saint in many respects, as least for the non-historian. 

We know more about Lincoln, and he has become a flesh and blood, more down-to-earth person to us in large part probably because so much was written about him in his own day that was extremely critical.  The Confederacy, of course, considered him an enemy, up to and including the nutcase who murdered him.  John Wilkes Booth’s act was borne of cold, deep-seated hatred, political resentment, and vengeance.  Such an action is not an anomaly; it is the end result of resentment carried to the extreme.  Then—and today.

But there were many in the North who felt just as much antagonism for Lincoln, even if they did not carry their anger to such extremes.  Lincoln was dogged by critics every step of his years as President, in his own party, in his own cabinet, by some of his own generals. 

All Presidents are met with criticism while in office, especially from the opposing political party; that is normal and the sign of a healthy democracy.  But few Presidents are reviled and mocked and vilified to the extent Lincoln was.  We may add Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this category, for his programs to lift the nation out of the Great Depression were all hated by those who considered them communistic.  FDR, just as Lincoln, was considered by those who felt they had a great deal personally to lose under his administration, as dangerous anti-American radicals.

And they were two of our greatest Presidents, who brought us through two of this nation's great periods of crisis, and we know them for their flaws as well as for their great deeds.  It’s a funny kind of paradox that those who hate to the extreme shine an accusatory light not only on their intended enemy, but on themselves.  Lincoln’s detractors, including those who mocked the Gettysburg Address, are regarded as fools today, standing on the wrong side of history.  So are the factions into the early twentieth century who felt that child labor was necessary and that without it, our economy would collapse; that if women were allowed the right to vote family values would collapse; etc. and we could go on about those who fear equality for others because it might mean they would lose their own enviable position in society, or their own imagined moral superiority.

Massey delivers, in a depiction of a Lincoln-Douglas debate on a wooden platform under torchlight:
“All men are created equal except Negroes.  If we are to accept this doctrine of race or class discrimination, what is to stop us in time of decreeing all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners, Catholics, Jews, or just poor people?”

Stephen Douglas, played here by Gene Lockhart, upholds slavery as it is decreed lawful by the Supreme Court.  We could certainly draw similarities to a Supreme Court bought by special interests today, could we not?

Lincoln further warns that we are sliding into a morass where “there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

It is a literate script that carries us from Abe’s adventures, and misadventures, as a young man, his doomed love for Ann Rutledge, his business failures, his start as a lawyer, his troubled courtship of Mary Todd.  John Cromwell’s direction is artistic and full of feeling. We look down over the shoulders of these historical figures, we look up at them, we stand in the doorway and watch their turmoil.

A few high points:  Mr. Massey’s singing of the old campaign song for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and the crowd later singing the campaign song for Lincoln, “Lincoln and Liberty Too.

Stage actress Ruth Gordon gives a strong performance as Mary Todd Lincoln.  

Howard Da Silva (who originated the role on Broadway) is the town bully and eventual loyal supporter of Lincoln. 

Louis Jean Heydt as Mentor Graham, who tutors Abe in the law.  Look for Ian Wolfe as newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

Alan Baxter is Billy, the young law clerk Abe takes under his wing, who, almost like Mary Todd, nags him to take up the torch of politics and defeat slavery.  An interesting minor character, he is not fawning and idealistic; he is tortured, angry, and a kind of Greek chorus.  All the minor characters who stay in Abe’s life through the film visibly age with him, and it is a poignant thing to see.

The scene where Lincoln has just won the election and Billy explains the new President’s grim attitude by reminding us that the South has threatened to secede if he won.  Now, war is inevitable, and Lincoln is walking straight into it.  Literally.  As Massey is about to leave to the room, suddenly the double doors open and a there is a uniformed guard detail: at once a sign that he is the President, that he will need security because there are already threats against his life, and also as a portent of Civil War and the soldiers over whom he will have authority as Commander in Chief.

The final scene is Cromwell’s dramatic touch, as Lincoln stands on the train platform offering a curiously ominous farewell to Illinois as he is about to leave for Washington.  He won the election, but seems somehow the loser.  The train slowly pulls away, he manages a weak half-wave, and he slips into the darkness of the night, as we finally imagine, as he has done already, his doom.  It is not a moment of triumph; it is an eerie moment of foreboding as the train chugs away into the blackness.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is such a fine achievement both as drama and as history, and works so well partly because of the skill of the writer, the director, and the actors, but also because we have the unique legacy of knowing all about Abe Lincoln and all about those who hated him.  Neither can hide from us, even this far away from 1860.

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2015. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission. 


My book on Ann Blyth's career--Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th. To that end, I’ll be looking for some help in the pre-launch phase, so I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).


Rich said...

Better than Spielberg's Lincoln?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love Daniel Day-Lewis, he's tops. And Sally Field. I confess, I've only seen bits of the Spielberg movie, so I can't fairly say, though from what I understand even that one took liberties. But there is something in the 1940 movie that is yet lyrical, a kind of storytelling we seem to have lost these days in our determination to be edgy and current. I really should see the Spielberg film one of these days, thanks for reminding me.

Caftan Woman said...

Day-Lewis is a remarkable Lincoln. I remarked to my sister as we left the theatre that he was almost as good as Massey. The Spielberg film is engrossing drama that, ultimately, plays like a top-notch episode of "The West Wing". The lyrical quality you mentioned from "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" binds me to it. Plus Alan Baxter and those two nice Canadian boys.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Two nice Canadian boys indeed. One of these days I'll track down the Spielberg film (I've only been saying that since it came out. Duh.)

Kevin Deany said...

Boy this sounds good. I really have to re-watch it again soon. My brother is something of a Lincoln buff, and Raymond Massey's is his favorite portrayal.

Interesting about the final scene. In John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Lincoln is seen on a hill in a thunderstorm, preparing to fulfill his destiny. Such hope in that last scene. In Cromwell's the last scene shows foreboding as to what his life will be like. Sounds like the two movies would make a fascinating double feature.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It's a great movie, Kevin. It really would be interesting to compare YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, and perhaps the Walter Huston version, as well.

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