Abe Lincoln in Illinois


Today’s the birthday of our greatest President.

TCM ran Abe Lincoln in Illinois last night, an adaptation of the Robert Sherwood play. Raymond Massey (who created the role in the original stage production as well)  comes close to being the best Lincoln interpretation (including Daniel Day-Lewis’s), both bumpkin and genius, ugly, strange, moody, funny and charming all at once. (Others from the classic studio era who made the brave attempt were Walter Huston and Henry Fonda. Ruth Gordon is tremendous as Mary Todd Lincoln. Watching her in her youth it’s easy to see why she had such a difficult time with her film career. She was obviously an excellent actress, but diminutive and a bit strange looking. She was easier to slot into Hollywood’s cookie cutter system as a little old lady. Charles Middleton plays Lincoln’s father who promises that young Lincoln will become a poet “Over my dead body!”. Gene Lockhart is a bloviating Stephen Douglas and the always terrific Howard De Silva plays a rough-housing rival from Abe’s frontier days.

Sherwood’s script coheres nicely by the end, focusing entirely on the formation of Abe’s character (ending with his departure from Illinois to start his Presidency), although it relies a bit too much on overly expository dialogue and facile quotation — common foibles in biographical playwrights. And we don’t get a clear sense of WHY Lincoln cares about the slaves. Who put the thought in his head, or the sentiment in his heart? Seems to come a bit out of nowhere.

Is there a definitive Lincoln script or performance? In my view, not yet. My thoughts on three other film versions (including the recent Spielberg one) are here and here.


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