Two nights ago I wanted to honor the actual birth date of Abraham Lincoln — I can remember as a child when both Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays were celebrated as holidays instead of being subsumed into this idiotic made-up holiday called “Presidents’ Day,” and I thought it would be nice to strike a blow for actually honoring Lincoln by showing a movie about him which had eluded my grasp when Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln came out on DVD and I ran a series consisting of it, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (a quite good 2011 movie about the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the conspiracy trial of eight people allegedly involved in it), D. W. Griffith’s monumentally underrated 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and The Prisoner of Shark Island (the latter a film that goes over much the same historical ground as The Conspirator and focuses on Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was accused of being part of the conspiracy because he had set John Wilkes Booth’s leg, broken when Booth made his spectacular leap from the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre to its stage shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”). Last night’s movie was Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1938 play about Lincoln which was filmed at RKO as a co-production with Max Gordon Plays and Pictures, Inc. Max Gordon had produced the original and went in as a co-producer at a time when RKO’s new studio head, George Schaefer, had decided that his company’s future lay in bankrolling independent producers and partnering with them. It was an idea about a decade ahead of its time, and some of the independent producers — notably Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney — brought in hits that made enormous amounts of money for RKO. Some of them, like Orson Welles, made brilliant but non-commercial films that lost big at the box office at the time but are now hailed as classics. Abe Lincoln in Illinois did well enough, probably because it had a pre-tested subject and the reputation as a hit play with the same star, and as a movie it’s reasonably compelling. It’s well acted — though Raymond Massey’s fabled Lincoln (he had played the part in the stage production as well and repeated it several times on radio and TV) has a scratchy, rather stylized voice; Charles and I both noted how much it sounded like Daniel Day-Lewis’s voice in the Spielberg Lincoln and I joked, “I guess that’s how a British actor sounds when he tries to play Lincoln.” (Massey adopted similar intonations whenever he was cast as an American — including his next film, The Santa Fe Trail, which went over the same bit of history but this time cast Massey as John Brown and made the future Confederates the good guys.)
The faults of Abe Lincoln in Illinois are inherent in Robert Sherwood’s play and particularly the overly reverent attitude he took towards the material. As I noted in some of my comments on other Lincoln movie, Lincoln is probably the second most difficult role for any actor to play (next to Jesus Christ) because he’s been practically canonized as a secular saint in American history. Most depictions of Lincoln on stage or screen ignore just how polarizing a figure he was in his time; when modern-day commentators called Barack Obama the most polarizing President in American history, my reaction was, “He is not! Lincoln was! When 11 states decide that they want to fight a war against the federal government rather than be governed by you, that’s about as polarizing as you can get!” Sherwood’s play is rather uncertainly split between the personal and the political; the first hour or so of this 110-minute movie is about Lincoln’s coming to the town of New Salem, Illinois, winning the hearts of the townspeople by beating town bully Jack Armstrong (Howard da Silva) in a wrestling match and falling in hopeless love with Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard), who’s actually engaged to John McNeil (Maurice Murphy) until he leaves for New York and Ann realizes that he’s probably never coming back — when she starts showing an interest in Lincoln, only it’s interrupted when she suddenly takes sick (she collapses at a dance) and dies of brain fever. The “Ann Rutledge legend” — the idea that she was the great love of Lincoln’s life and his actual wife, Mary Todd, never really displaced her in his affections — apparently started with the first Lincoln biography ever published, the memoir by his former law partner Billy Herndon (played here by Alan Baxter), who never liked Mary Todd and depicted her unsympathetically in his book. The Rutledge legend was incorporated into Carl Sandburg’s mega-biography of Lincoln (two volumes, The Prairie Years, about his pre-Presidential life and four volumes, The War Years, about his Presidency — which would add up to one book per year of the Civil War) and would have been part of mainstream Lincoln historiography when Sherwood wrote his play. But it’s been pretty well debunked by modern historians and biographers.
Mary Todd herself is played here by stage actress Ruth Gordon, making her film debut (and thereby putting Raymond Massey one degree of separation from Bud Cort!), and along with Sally Field’s performance in the Spielberg movie is probably the edgiest reading of her ever put on film. While the film doesn’t include one of my favorite bits of Lincoln’s history — when the official delegation from the Republican convention came to give him the word that he had won the 1860 Presidential nomination, he dumbfounded them by telling them, “There is a woman upstairs who will be far more interested in this news than I am” — one of Sherwood’s dramatic themes in his play was the extent to which Lincoln was lazy and just wanted to be left alone, and it was his friends in general and his wife in particular who pushed him to enter public life and ultimately run for the U.S. Senate and then for the Presidency. Actually, Lincoln suffered from what then would have been called “melancholia” and today would be diagnosed as clinical depression, but one of the fascinating things about his life was how much he was able to accomplish anyway and in particular how much more aggressive he was as a war leader than the generals running the Union Army in the first two years of the war. Not that that part of the story gets told here; as the title suggests, the film ends with Lincoln about to leave Illinois forever to go to Washington, D.C. and assume the Presidency — there’s even a shot of a label on a trunk reading, “A. Lincoln — White House” (one imdb.com trivia contributor noted that this was anachronistic — the actual baggage tag would have read, “A. Lincoln, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C.,” since the term “White House” wasn’t used until Theodore Roosevelt’s administration). It’s rather abruptly bisected into a first half that deals mostly with Lincoln’s personal life and career as a lawyer (I was disappointed that Sherwood and Grover Jones, credited with the “adaptation” of the play, weren’t able to work in the “My politics are short and sweet” speech John Ford and his writers, Howard Estabrook and Lamar Trotti, included in Young Mr. Lincoln), while the second half abruptly cuts from the record of Abraham Lincoln’s and Mary Todd’s marriage in 1842 to the U.S. Senate campaign between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, and thereafter mostly deals with Lincoln’s public life in general and the issue of slavery in particular.
The political portions of the movie seem even stagier and more tendentious than the personal parts, but at least they give Raymond Massey the chance to speak lines written not by Robert Sherwood, but the real Lincoln — including a powerful delivery of a part of the “House Divided” speech during closing arguments in the last of the Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial debates in 1858. In an historical howler, Sherwood and Jones have this debate take place after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which actually happened in 1859. They also have Lincoln deliver the “House Divided” speech as part of a debate with his Senatorial — and later Presidential — opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, when in fact he gave it to the Republican state convention that nominated him for Senate before the debates took place. Luckily they didn’t make the ahistorical mistake Stephen Vincent Benêt made in his script for the Griffith biopic, in which for some bizarre reason he altered Lincoln’s famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” to, “A house divided against itself must fall.” And as I was writing this I looked up the “House Divided” speech and not only referenced the words Lincoln said immediately after that simile — “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South” — but made it clear that the speech is a good deal more radical than its reputation, a slashing attack on the Southern elites and their Northern sympathizers, including Douglas and President James Buchanan, who in Lincoln’s words fully intended to make all the U.S. a slave country and were largely succeeding in that goal:
The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas’ “care not” policy, constitute the piece of machinery in its present state of advancement. This was the third point gained. The working points of that machinery are:
First, that no Negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any state in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the Negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United States Constitution which declares that “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”
Second, that, “subject to the Constitution of the United States,” neither Congress nor a territorial legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory. This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future.
Third, that whether the holding of a Negro in actual slavery in a free state makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave state the Negro may be forced into by the master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately but, if acquiesced in for awhile, and apparently endorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or 1,000 slaves, in Illinois or in any other free state.
Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mold public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows exactly where we now are; and partially, also, whither we are tending.
The play does seem to have been “opened up” for film some — there’s an exciting sequence in which Lincoln and two of his friends are hired for $20 each to take a shipment of live pigs by boat to New Orleans (which left me chuckling over the fact that director Cromwell’s son’s most famous credit, Babe, is also a movie involving a pig), leading up to one of Hollywood’s quirkier meet-cutes when the boat overturns, the pigs try to escape into the river and Lincoln runs into Ann Rutledge for the first time as he’s holding a pig he’s just recaptured. Where I thought this was heading was that we’d see Lincoln in New Orleans, which as one of the South’s leading ports was a hub of slave trading, getting a decidedly nasty experience of the South’s “Peculiar Institution” up close and personal and returning to Illinois fully convinced of slavery’s evil and determined to end it — alas, whether for ideological, censorship or budget reasons they didn’t go there. (And I suspect the budget was the chief factor; duplicating 1830’s New Orleans on top of the money they were spending on duplicating 1830’s Illinois in Eugene, Oregon would really have blown the budget.) It’s an otherwise handsomely produced movie that for once — thanks largely to James Wong Howe’s cinematography (a bit more burnished and noir than the actual photographs of the period, but clearly influenced by them — there’s even a scene in the movie where the Lincoln family is being photographed and the gag, of course, is he can’t keep his children still for the extended exposure time needed in the 1850’s to photograph anything, especially indoors) and the art design by Carroll Clark — actually manages to bring an historical period to life on screen and convince us the people are living in a different time from the contemporary one. It’s just another example of a good movie that could have been considerably better — and when Sherwood and Cromwell showed a group of three town gossips talking about Lincoln and letting us in on how his neighbors (some of them, anyway) felt about him, I couldn’t help but think of The Magnificent Ambersons, made at the same studio two years later, and wish Orson Welles had been around to direct this. But then if there were any putative Lincoln movies I would wish into existence if I could, it would be two more directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda (whose high, rather nasal voice came closer than any other on-screen Lincoln’s to the descriptions we have of the real Lincoln’s voice) that would have taken the story from the end of Young Mr. Lincoln to his Presidential campaign, the Civil War and the assassination.