Abe Lincoln in the Movies

In honor of our Greatest President, a look at some notable Lincolns of screens big and small.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1908)

Essanay is said to have released a short by this title in 1908, but nothing is known of the cast and no copies of the film are known to survive.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1915)

Frank McGlynn played the Great Emancipator in this 1915 Edison short. McGlynn was to make a mini industry out of playing President Lincoln, portraying him also in a 1919 Broadway play, in a 1924 Lee DeForest sound experiment called Abraham Lincoln (based on the play), and numerous more films, including Are We Civilized? (1934), The Littlest Rebel (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), The Plainsman (1936), Hearts in Bondage (1936), Western Gold (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), and The Mad Empress (1939). he also played him in the original film The Lone Ranger (1938), although the scene was cut.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

We’ve previously blogged about D.W. Griffith’s problematic magnum opus here. We only pause briefly here to remember that the movie’s opening act does contribute to the hagiography of Lincoln and depict his struggles during the war, as well as his assassination. Then-novice actor Joseph Henabery took on the important role. Because he was a few inches shorter than Lincoln, Henabery is usually shown sitting down in the film. Raoul Walsh, who later gained greater fame as a film director, played John Wilkes Booth.

The Crisis (1916)

Sam D. Drane, previously best known for playing Mutt in the Mutt and Jeff comedies, plays the brooding President in this film by the Selig Polyscope Company. 

The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924)

This independent silent epic exists today only in fragments so not much is known about it. Lincoln was played by George A. Billings, a novice who was hired strictly on the basis of his resemblance to Lincoln. Subsequent to this, he made a career as a Lincoln look-alike throughout the rest of the decade. He also appeared as Lincoln in the silent films Barbara Frietchie (1924, based on the Clyde Fitch play, itself based on the Whittier poem, and ultimately based on a real-life historical figure), The Man Without a Country (1925), and the Raymond Griffith comedy Hands Up! (1926). In 1927, Billings toured theatres with Henry Fonda in a two man play about Lincoln. In 1929, he starred in a ten minute talkie called simply Lincoln. 

Abraham Lincoln (1930)

This is one of my favorite movies. It’s D.W. Griffith’s first talkie and his penultimate completed film. It’s notable for its extremely strange pace and tone, slow moving, underwater, very much like German Expressionist horror or the films of Guy Maddin. Melodramatic readings of lines are given, with huge, eerie pauses before and after the actors say them. The actors are directed to wallow in the pictorial strangeness. Walter Huston is good casting as Lincoln, but as directed in the film he comes off as Lincoln in a nightmare, not a far cry from Todd Browning’s Freaks. (See the photo above, with the madhouse haircut, and the crude make-up, heavily drawn in eyebrows, pallid skin, and too much rouge and lipstick). Una Merkel, in a rare serious role, is well cast as Lincoln’s early love, Ann Rutledge. In the early 20th century, many Southerners (my dad, for one) were (ironically) taught to worship Lincoln with an almost masochistic degree of Stockholm Syndrome, mixed with a probably delusional idea about how lenient Lincoln would have been to the South during Reconstruction compared with Grant. “Malice Towards None”, yes, but there is also the task of pleasing your political base. Like many, Griffith steered Lincoln away from the politician that he actually was, towards the Saint that many imagine him is. In fact, the movie is one of those that set up the template of starting with his birth in a log cabin in a manner that clearly evokes the birth of Jesus in a manager.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

John Ford very wisely focuses on just a section of Lincoln’s storied life, avoiding the mistakes of so-many bio-pics by not taking on too much. The movie concentrates on just one fictionalized case from the young Lincoln’s early law career in Springfield, Illinois where he is called upon to defend a couple of brothers accused of murder  Henry Fonda plays the bemused, laconic, drawling and down-to-earth Lincoln for maximum entertainment value, always with his feet on his desk or whittling or something, and causing the courtroom to break out in laughter. I’d be shocked if the structure of it weren’t a model for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The cast includes Eddie Quillan as one of the accused, Alice Brady as their mother, and Donald Meek as the prosecutor. As with the Ford/Fonda treatment of Wyatt Earp in the later My Darling Clementine (1946) it is at once all about preservation of the myth..mixed with the image and myth of Fonda himself. Entering town on a donkey? That’s a Jesus reference, too.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

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.  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.

Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln (1974-76)

An NBC tv mini-series based on Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume biography of the President, which played out in several stretches over a two year period in the lead up to America’s Bicentennial. I read Sandburg’s biography when I was about 19, and while it is a most pleasurable read, it tends to enshrine the mythology and thus probably isn’t the best source material for new drama. Hal Holbrook, while tall, ugly and folksy (and famous for impersonating Mark Twain) has the wrong sort of face for Lincoln. The producers tried to compensate by building too much make-up over his face, so while the part is well-acted, the grotesquerie of his visage is a distraction. He looks like a Dick Tracy villain!  Other notables in the cast include Beulah Bondi, Lloyd Nolan, Elizabeth Ashley, Whit Bissel, Ed Flanders, and John Randolph. 

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)

There’s something so right about a picture with this title and this take appearing at just this time. Just a few years after Watergate and All the Presidents Men (1976), not to mention the still-recent assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the word “conspiracy” sold tickets. Made by Sunn Classic pictures, the people who brought you the popular UFO documentaries Chariots of the Gods (1970), In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973), In Search of Noah’s Ark (1977) and In Search of Historic Jesus (1979). I was a big fan of these movies and the paperback books that went with them when I was a child. They were sort of The National Enquirer on the big screen. The Lincoln Conspiracy makes two controversial  (i.e., crackpot) assertions: 1) That the real force behind the Lincoln assassinations was a group of Radical Republicans at the highest levels of government; and 2) John Wilkes Booth was not the man who burned in Garret’s barn. What is surprising about this movie was its distinguished cast; several well known character actors are in this picture: John Anderson as Lincoln, Bradford Dilman as Booth, John Dehner as Col. Lafayette Baker, and Robert Middleton as Secretary of War Stanton. The movie of course is risible hooey. Fans of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) ought to consider that his movie is essentially a more flamboyant version of this sort of thing: entertaining perhaps but unworthy of serious attention as history. Not knowing the difference has grown to be a serious problem in this country.

The Blue and the Grey (1982)

No less than Gregory Peck played the Great Emancipator in this memorably cheesy all-star tv mini-series about two families forced to choose up different sides in the Civil War.

North and South (1985-86)

Hal Holbrook took on the part yet again in this equally cheesy all-star tv mini-series. Fool me once….!

Lincoln (1988)

Sam Waterston was widely praised for his interpretation of Lincoln in this made-for-tv film. Waterston made the bold choice not to use drastic make-up , instead choosing to make the characterization all about his performance. The result is that he has been widely associated with the role ever since. Waterston did the voice of Lincoln in Ken Burns’ 1990 Civil War documentary, for example, has been called upon to read Lincoln’s words many times over the years, and has been widely interviewed about his philosophy of how to interpret Lincoln. In fact, if you think about it, the choice to cast him as crusading prosecutor Jack McCoy on Law and Order (1994-2010) feels like a ripple from that Lincoln performance.

The Perfect Tribute (1991)

Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews wrote the wildly popular 1906 short story on which this film is based, all about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and a kindness Lincoln showed to a young drummer boy. It first been adapted to the screen as a 1935 film short starring no less than Chic Sale as Lincoln!  Jason Robards plays the melancholy President in this tv movie version. The casting has a nice symbolic resonance to it. We sometimes forget that Robards was actually Jason Robards, Jr. His father, the actor Jason Robards, Sr., had been in Griffth’s Abraham Lincoln back in 1930. That said, though tall and homely no doubt, Robards seems a tad (see what I did there?) too hard-bitten and urban for Lincoln. On the other hand, he was PERFECTLY cast in another film as the whiskey drinking, cigar smoking Grant.

Lincoln (2012) 

Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite screen Lincoln. I blogged about this film and his incredible performance here. 

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