Archive for the Lincoln’s Birthday Category

Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Lincoln's Birthday, Movies with tags , , , on February 12, 2013 by travsd

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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.

Abraham Lincoln (As Seen by D.W. Griffith)

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Hollywood (History), Lincoln's Birthday, Melodrama and Master Thespians with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2012 by travsd

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Today is the Great Emancipator’s birthday. In honor thereof, we present one of our favorite movies, D.W. Griffith’s beautiful, bizarre Abraham Lincoln, one of only two talkies that he made. I find the slow pace of it dream-like and enchanting. Walter Huston is extremely weird as Lincoln, Una Merkel is in one of her rare serious roles as Ann Rutledge, and Jason Robards, Sr. (dad of the Jason Robards we all know) plays Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon. After the sins of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had a lot to atone for, and to his credit he spent a lot of time trying to do so, notably in the follow-up epic Intolerance (1916), and in this hagiography of Abe.  If you don’t dig the weird pleasures of this movie, you’re just too damn impatient.

Also, for your reading pleasure, might I recommend Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume Lincoln biography. I tackled this monster when I was about 19.  Naturally, 80 years of subsequent scholarship have overridden some of the facts. But I’m of the view that some people deserve hagiographies, and for me Lincoln’s very near the top of that short list.

Happy birthday, Abe!

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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