Sunday, March 31, 2013

Abraham Lincoln (United Artists, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was the tape we’d bought at Horton Plaza the night before: D. W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln. I’d seen it in the early 1970’s (the time I really first discovered antique Hollywood; so many of my favorite films today are the ones I first saw camped out in my bedroom, watching the little TV on top of my filing cabinet, often until 2 or 3 in the morning) and I’d seen bits and pieces of it more recently on an Arts and Entertainment showing. I remembered being quite impressed by the film back in the 1970’s, and especially being impressed by Walter Huston’s performance as Lincoln — comparing him to the other Lincolns from Hollywood’s classic period, Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey, Huston seemed quite the best: authoritative, properly homely and physically clumsy (though at least some of the clumsiness was due to the elevator shoes Huston had to wear to raise himself to Lincoln’s height) but also convincing both as a frustrated lover (this movie endorses the historical legend that Ann Rutledge, played in an interesting bit of off-casting by Una Merkel, was the great love of Lincoln’s life) and as a war leader.

Later on, Harry Medved and Randy Lowell listed Abraham Lincoln as one of the fifty worst films of all time — in a book that seemed to take great joy in skewering the lesser works of great directors (Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn also made the cut, right next to truly terrible B-movies like Robot Monster), but the rating of Lincoln — like that of Ivan — is truly unfair to an uneven but remarkable movie. True, Lincoln suffers from an almost unbearable stiffness, stemming partly from the limitations of early sound technique (and Griffith’s clear discomfort with it — one suspects his inability to adapt to sound was as much responsible for Griffith’s inability to make movies after 1931 than the vague sense around Hollywood’s producer community that he was “old-fashioned”) and partly from the deliberately pageant-like style Griffith brought to this movie (as he had to his pro-Southern take on the same historical material in The Birth of a Nation, though the pageant-like approach was less bothersome in a silent movie, with its inevitable breaks in visual continuity for the intertitles). The actors all show off their stage credentials by declaiming their lines, speaking slowly, distinctly and loudly in a way aimed more at being heard in the balconies than being picked up by a microphone; they assume stiff poses that keep them in range of the immobile cameras; and they politely and patiently pause between each other’s lines, just like they did in so many other early talkies. (As I noted to Bob R. when I ran him The Threepenny Opera — the 1930 version — and the 1930 Dracula within days of each other, European producers significantly led American ones in the artful and fluid use of sound and the re-introduction of visual interest in talking films.)

Now for the good news. Huston’s performance as Lincoln is almost as good as I’d remembered it, probably still the best Lincoln on film (though it seems unfortunate that Henry Fonda wasn’t able to repeat his performance as Young Mr. Lincoln in a sequel or two that would have continued Lincoln’s life to the end), and Una Merkel and Kay Hammond as the two women in Lincoln’s life also stand out (it’s clear that David Selznick must have screened this movie before he shot Gone With the Wind, and Vivien Leigh probably did, too; her Scarlett O’Hara is strongly reminiscent of Hammond’s Mary Todd). Within the limits of the style, actually, virtually all the cast members turn in excellent performances, and Stephen Vincent Benét’s script (he was brought in to write the film after Carl Sandburg, Lincoln’s biographer and Griffith’s and producer Joseph Schenck’s first choice, turned it down) makes some embarrassing historical glitches (like misquoting Lincoln’s famous “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech as “A house divided against itself must fall”) but, for the most part, provides a sensitive framework that limns Lincoln’s life with only a minor amount of dramatic license.

Most notable are two superb visual sequences (evidently shot silent and post-synchronized) that show the kind of filmmaking Griffith still felt most comfortable with. One is the very opening of the film: a dark, rainy, stormy night in the woods of Kentucky, in which a mobile camera threads its way through a dense forest of denuded winter trees to lead us to the log cabin where Lincoln will be born (and his mother, Nancy Hanks, will die in childbirth). The other occurs early on in the Civil War, after the Union defeat in the first Battle of Bull Run led to fears that the Confederate Army would actually conquer Washington. For a few minutes, this film comes vividly to life in a series of well-chosen images, from a trumpet (shot up close with a wide-angle lens) calling the troops together to defend Washington, followed by shots of the Union Army massing, circling in parade formation and ultimately charging to the defense of the beleaguered capital in criss-cross formations across the screen. The ending is also a visually powerful moment; it repeats the traveling shot through the Kentucky forest that began the film — only now the weather is clear (symbolizing the end of the stormy period of American history depicted in the film and the reunification of the country under Lincoln), and when the camera gets to the now-deserted log cabin where Lincoln was born, the scene dissolves to the Lincoln Memorial, with the sun rising over it (an artful mix of actual footage and a model used for the traveling shot through the Memorial to Lincoln’s statue), a beautiful bit of historical myth-making and a visual statement of how far Lincoln came from humble origins to greatness. — 12/11/93


Charles and I finally got together at around 7 (after I’d left the house, hoping to find a haircut place open, and — unable to do that — took the bus downtown and finished reading the book L.A.’s Secret Police by Mike Rothmiller and Ira Goldman), and we distributed Zenger’s, came back here to eat (at least I ate) and then repaired to his place and ran the video of D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. Charles liked the movie, even though he noticed the highly stilted quality of the acting and its overall slowness (partly Griffith’s problem adjusting to sound, partly the limitations of early sound moviemaking in general and partly, I suspect, a stylistic choice on Griffith’s part to make the acting as pageant-like as possible). So much of this movie takes place in Lincoln’s war office as he impatiently waits for telegrams from the front to tell him whether the North is winning or losing the Civil War that Charles said if somebody made a movie of the Bush Presidency in the same style, the depiction of the Gulf War would be Bush sitting in the Oval Office wringing his hands and watching CNN. Walter Huston is a credible Lincoln, even though the six-inch stilts he wore to raise his own medium height to Lincolnesque proportions are pretty obvious throughout the movie (in the one scene in which he doesn’t wear them — a scene in which he’s pacing the White House barefoot in a dressing-gown — Huston is all too obviously six inches shorter than he is in the rest of the movie), and the non-dialogue scenes (particularly the opening tracking shot through the Kentucky forest to the log cabin in which Our Hero will be born, and the magnificent montage scene of the Northern army mobilizing to defend Washington, D.C.) are so much better than the rest of the movie they make it all too clear the kind of moviemaking with which Griffith still felt most at home. — 8/11/96


For last night’s movie Charles and I watched a version of D. W. Griffith’s first (of only two) sound films, the biopic Abraham Lincoln from 1930, which I thought would be an interesting contrast to the two other films we’ve recently seen about Lincoln and the aftermath of his assassination, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (2010). (I’d also like to break out the Ford at Fox box again and watch the two films John Ford made about Lincoln and the aftermath of the assassination, Young Mr. Lincoln and The Prisoner of Shark Island.) Abraham Lincoln was made at an unhappy juncture in Griffith’s career; as James Agee noted in his 1948 article eulogizing Griffith, technically he was the most advanced filmmaker of the late teens and early 1920’s but thematically he remained rooted in both the moral sentiments and the storytelling devices of the late Victorian era, and as the 1920’s progressed his movies seemed more and more out of touch with what contemporary audiences wanted. In 1925 he lost his independent studio and his berth with United Artists as one of its owner-producers, and he signed a contract with Paramount to work as a studio director. His first assignment there was a novel called The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli — a project originally assigned to Cecil B. DeMille and given to Griffith once DeMille departed for a short-lived attempt at founding his own studio — and he also got socked with projects like Sally of the Sawdust (1926), a weird adaptation of W. C. Fields’ star-making musical Poppy whose stars were Fields, Carol Dempster (Griffith’s girlfriend and later his second wife) and Alfred Lunt, a weird assortment of talents indeed. For the rest of Griffith’s career — until 1931, when he made his last film, an anti-alcoholism drama called The Struggle — he bounced back and forth between Paramount and United Artists, now no longer as a UA part-owner but a contractee of UA production chief Joseph M. Schenck. In 1929 Griffith shoehorned a few talking sequences into a film he’d started as a silent, Lady of the Pavements, and then he and Schenck had a conference and the two of them decided that the way to launch Griffith’s sound career would be to return to the subject of his most commercially successful — and most infamous, then and now — film, The Birth of a Nation: the Civil War and its aftermath.

They concocted a Lincoln biopic and originally approached Carl Sandburg to write the script because he’d already published his epic six-volume biography of Lincoln, two volumes called The Prairie Years and four called The War Years (which would make it one volume per year of the war). Sandburg turned it down, so they next offered the job to Stephen Vincent Benêt, who’d also written about Lincoln before in other media, though the final film credited associate producer John W. Considine with the story and Benêt solo for “adaptation” and also co-credited with Gerrit Lloyd for “continuity and dialogue.” (A lot of early talkies had similarly convoluted writing credits; at one point the conventional wisdom was that just as silent films had had different writers working out the continuity and adding the titles, so sound movies would have different writers working out the continuity and adding the dialogue. That changed when the producers started hiring playwrights like George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, Charles McArthur and the Mankiewicz brothers, Herman and Joe, who were used to doing both story structure and dialogue in their plays.) Abraham Lincoln is a much-maligned film — it got listed by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell in their 1970’s book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (as did Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, though all three listings seemed to have had more to do with the desire of Medved and Lowell to shock the film cognoscenti by attributing three of the worst films of all time to three of the greatest directors of all time) — and yet, as problematic as it is, it’s also absolutely haunting and does justice to its subject. Let’s deal with the problems first: it’s very slow-moving — despite the relentless compression needed to cram all of Lincoln’s life into 90 minutes of running time (one example: Griffith cuts directly from a scene in which a Northern political boss is approaching Lincoln to run for President in 1860 to one in which Lincoln’s baggage tags are being prepared for a train trip to Washington, D.C. and his wife, Mary Todd, crosses out “Mr.” on the tag and writes in “President” instead) — and pageant-like in the manner of George Arliss’s films from the period, especially his biopics. Griffith was pretty clearly intimidated by the strictures of early-sound moviemaking, especially the difficulty of shooting close-ups (which Griffith, though he hadn’t invented them, had pioneered in his early years!) and the immobility of the cameras — but, as Charles pointed out, he fought back by having the actors move around the set and approach the cameras themselves.

Griffith and Schenck hired a first-rate actor to play Lincoln, Walter Huston, but there was a problem with casting him: he was considerably shorter than the real Lincoln, and given that Lincoln’s unusual height was one of the big things everybody remembered about him (at 6’4” he remains our tallest President ever — if John Kerry had been elected he would have tied Lincoln’s record, and Barack Obama is one inch shorter) they couldn’t just ignore the discrepancy the way Martin Scorsese did when he cast the 5’6” Leonardo DiCaprio as the 6’4” Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Instead they gave Huston six-inch elevator shoes to wear throughout the film — except in the scenes in which he goes barefoot (when Kay Hammond as Mary Todd Lincoln upbraided him for going around barefoot so often, I thought, “I shouldn’t wonder! He wants to get out of those damned elevator shoes!”), and even then he might have been wearing fake feet over his real ones to keep him at the same apparent height he is in the scenes where he’s shod. The film contains a few scenes that were shot silent with sound dubbed in later — notably armies massing and marching off to fight in the Civil War — and those have so much more vitality than the rest of the movie it’s clear this was still the sort of filmmaking that excited Griffith the most. I’ve seen Abraham Lincoln in three different versions: the first was on PBS in the mid-1970’s, when they showed a copy that began with a silent shot of slaves enduring the Middle Passage and then dissolved into a shot of the camera bearing down on the log cabin in Kentucky where Lincoln is about to be born (and his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is going to die in childbirth). This was hailed as newly discovered footage but no other information was given about the film’s provenance. The next time I saw it, it was in a VHS public-domain pre-record that lacked the slave sequence and had a set of normal 1930 opening credits (the PBS version had had new credits superimposed over the shot of the slaves being shipped to the U.S.) which cut directly to the tracking shot of the camera bearing down on the Lincolns’ cabin (a very tacky-looking table-top model — as is the scene of the Lincoln Memorial at the end; one wonders why a major operation like United Artists couldn’t send a second unit to Washington, D.C. and shoot at the real Lincoln Memorial instead of assembling something representing it that looks like a grade-school student made it for a school project) and ran about 75 minutes instead of the 90- to 96-minute version originally released.

This time it was in a modern restoration that revealed that that mysterious shot of a slave ship in a fierce storm that had baffled me way back when on PBS was part of an elaborate prologue in which both Southerners and Northerners lament about what the other’s region is doing to the country and pray for another George Washington to come along and reunite the Union. Alas, the picture for this survives but the soundtrack does not (a bit odd since the film was originally shot in the Movietone sound-on-film process), so this version ran the footage without sound and had subtitles explaining not only what the actors were supposed to be saying but also what sounds — the slaves singing “Go Down, Moses” (when they were just being imported from Africa and hadn’t yet landed on U.S. soil? I don’t think so!) and the wind and rain from the storm — were supposed to be on the soundtrack. A later restored scene, in which the young, impecunious Lincoln has his horse repossessed from him by a debt collector, was also shown silent with subtitles because the soundtrack was lost. Personally, I wish they’d reconstructed the soundtrack by having modern actors dub the lines and using recordings of the period for the music (there must be a record of “Go Down, Moses” of the proper vintage they could have used); finding a modern-day actor to match Walter Huston’s idiosyncratic intonations as Lincoln might have been a problem, but there are enough of Huston’s family members still alive and working in the film business they could have found someone who could have pulled it off. But without the willingness to budget a dubbing session or two, this is probably the best solution they could have come up with. The opening titles hint at a considerably more sophisticated sound mix than was common for 1930, and there are enough scenes that do survive with the original sound that it’s clear Griffith was pushing the boundaries of what was considered the “proper” use of sound in a film. There are scenes in which music is heard underscoring dialogue (an effect which didn’t become common until 1932), and others in which off-screen choruses sing songs of the period to add richness and context to the visuals and dialogue going on in front of them.

 Lincoln has its problems, including the expected historical mythologizing — the film was made at the height of the “Ann Rutledge legend,” the myth that Lincoln had dated her in his early years in Illinois and had never got over the shock of her early death, and that she had been the great love of his life even though he eventually picked up his career and later married someone else. (This seems to have got started among people who actually knew Lincoln and who though him and Mary Todd so obviously ill-matched they figured there must have been an earlier partner in his history with whom he would have been more compatible.) The film also has such annoying mistakes as opening with a slave ship plying the Atlantic in 1809 (the slave trade had actually ended one year before) and Lincoln’s famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” inexplicably altered to, “A house divided against itself must fall” — and it ends with Lincoln delivering a speech, a mash-up of the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, as he takes his seat in the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre before the start of the play during which he will be assassinated. It also has the sort of “good construction” scene beloved of screenwriters of the period, in which we meet John Wilkes Booth — played with the right combination of theatricality and smarminess by Ian Keith (who in 1930 was also one of the actors considered for the title role in Dracula when Universal needed a replacement for Lon Chaney, Sr., who had just died — ultimately, of course, they went with Bela Lugosi, who had played the part on the Broadway stage) — in 1860, cursing Lincoln’s election and saying that the man who killed him would be doing the country a favor. (Apropos of The Conspirator, this film contains a scene which definitely establishes that Booth was part of a conspiracy; we don’t learn who the other people are but we hear one of them say, “Mrs. Surratt is definitely in.”)

 Abraham Lincoln is a great movie, albeit an uneven one, if you can meet it halfway and accept it for what it is: a pageant-like re-creation of historical events audiences in 1930 knew well and therefore could fill in the gaps — like Lincoln suddenly exclaiming to Mary, I’ve found the man to win this war! His name is … Grant!,” when the existence of a general in the Union Army named Ulysses S. Grant has not been mentioned, or even hinted at, in the film thus far. The film is pageant-like in its acting style as well; Walter Huston delivers his lines with a sort of forced solemnity — at least once past the early scenes in which Lincoln beats a tavern bully at wrestling and otherwise shows us he’s jes’ plain folks — but then Abraham Lincoln is probably the second most difficult part (next to Jesus Christ) for any actor to play and bring a semblance of real, relatable humanity to, and for the same reason: the aura of holiness and sanctity that has accreted onto Lincoln’s image over the decades and changed him from the most polarizing President America has ever had (let’s face it, when 11 states respond to your election by seceding and starting a civil war instead of letting themselves be governed by you, that’s about as polarizing a President as you can imagine!) to the closest thing the U.S. has to an official saint. Any actor who plays Lincoln, from Huston to Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey and on up through Daniel Day-Lewis, is going to have the problem of balancing the human and the saintly sides of Lincoln’s character — and quite frankly, within the limits of early sound filmmaking and the pageant-like approach Griffith and the writers were taking to the drama, Huston did it better than most. (This movie was also an interesting warmup for his role three years later as a fictional U.S. President in an even weirder film, Gabriel Over the White House.) Griffith’s one casting miscalculation is Una Merkel, usually a comic-relief player, as Ann Rutledge; her intonations bear a striking resemblance to Gracie Allen’s and her performance hovers over the thin edge of risibility even though you have to give her points for trying to play the character seriously; she’s annoying enough that, unlike Lincoln, we’re really not that sorry to see her go when she exits permanently one-third of the way through the film.

Few of the other characters have enough screen time to make much of an impression either way — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is the only member of Lincoln’s actual Cabinet to be shown on screen (and he’s played by a white-haired veteran character actor named Oscar Apfel; the actors who played Stanton in The Conspirator and Lincoln both came closer to the photos of the real Stanton) — though actor E. Alyn Warren manages an interesting feat of playing both Stephen A. Douglas and Ulysses S. Grant (as Grant he’s credited as “Fred Warren”), and there’s a heart-rending silent close-up of Hobart Bosworth as Robert E. Lee when he realizes that the war is lost and he has no realistic option but to surrender. (Griffith, like Lee, was a Virginian and no doubt the pain of his side having lost the war affected him personally even decades later.) Abraham Lincoln is an unjustly neglected film, proof that even past his prime, limited by his own old-fashioned sensibilities and the difficulties of adjusting to sound filmmaking, Griffith was a first-rate director — and one thing that surprised Charles about the film was, especially in its restored form, that it was in no way sympathetic to slavery. But then there are enough examples of Griffith being surprisingly anti-racist — against anti-Indian prejudice in Ramona, against anti-Asian prejudice in Broken Blossoms, against religious prejudice and self-righteous “moralism” in Intolerance — one could make the case that The Birth of a Nation is actually an outlier in his overall career, a film shaped more by the lies Griffith got fed about Reconstruction as a boy growing up in Virginia than by any deep-seated racist prejudices on his part. (Then again, The Birth of a Nation is a preposterously racist movie — something I hadn’t realized for years because the first time I saw it was in a heavily cut version from the 1930’s which edited it so it looked no more racist than Gone with the Wind — which made it all the more shocking when Charles and I watched the full version later!) — 3/31/13