Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Westinghouse Studio One: “John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln” (CBS-TV, J. Walter Thompson, aired live

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The James Dean boxed set entry Charles and I did watch last night was John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln, broadcast live on May 26, 1952 and based on a play John Drinkwater, a British actor, had written for himself in the 1920’s. Instead of attempting to do a bio-play of Lincoln’s entire life, Drinkwater just cherry-picked a few of the most famous anecdotes from the Lincoln biographies and put them on the stage. I knew about this play because Dorothy Parker had reviewed its original production, and I presume the play ran considerably longer than the 52 minutes allotted to it on TV. (The version on the James Dean boxed set was missing the original commercials; my guess is it was prepared for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which produced commercial-free copies of U.S. radio and TV shows for the entertainment of U.S. servicemembers stationed abroad.) The show was adapted by David Shaw, who no doubt had to further cherry-pick Drinkwater’s play to get it down to TV length but otherwise did a reasonably good job — even Drinkwater’s original, if Parker’s review is to be believed, wouldn’t have made that much sense if you didn’t already know the story ­— and, astonishingly for a Lincoln story, the top-billed actor was a woman, Judith Evelyn (one of those charmingly “reversible” names), who was cast as Mary Todd, Lincoln’s ambitious wife.

What makes this show a bit unusual for Lincolniana on film is that it’s one of the most sympathetic portrayals of her I’ve seen; much of the consensus in Lincoln literature portrays her as an ambitious ball-buster on the edge of dementia (and since she did go crazy after Lincoln’s death — their son Robert had to sign her into a mental institution — that’s at least a defensible position), and apparently both the negative portrayal of Mary in a lot of the Lincoln literature and the raising of the short-lived and mysterious Ann Rutledge to the status of the real love of Lincoln’s life came from the fact that the first biography of Lincoln was written in the 1880’s by his former law partner, William Herndon, who never could stand Mary and let the world know it. This Mary is certainly ambitious both for herself and her husband — she’s shown pushing him to run for President over his initial reluctance — and we know that’s true because there’s a famous anecdote (not included here, though it could have been) of the night Lincoln received the official committee of the Republican convention that was sent to notify him formally that he’d won the nomination. “There is a woman upstairs who will be far more interested in this information than I am,” Lincoln told them. Lincoln is played by Robert Pastene, who’s a bit short for the role (though at least the TV producers didn’t put him in six-inch elevator shoes the way D. W. Griffith did to Walter Huston for his 1930 Lincoln biopic) and whose attempt to do the reportedly high-lying Lincoln voice makes him sound like he’s gargling, but he’s otherwise quite impressive in the role and manages to convey the mixture of steely resolve and sometimes crippling depression the historical record of the real Lincoln tells us he had. The film cuts from the scene in 1860 when two politicians are trying to talk Lincoln into running for President (and one of them makes the mistake of smoking in Lincoln’s parlor — apparently Mary Todd Lincoln was an anti-smoking activist about a century before that became “in”) to one early on in his presidency in which Fort Sumter is being besieged and a delegate named Jennings (Noel Leslie) is sent to meet with Secretary of State William Seward (Charles Eggleston) to see if the southern states can broker a deal with Lincoln to be allowed to keep slavery in return for not seceding.

The show depicts Lincoln (who in the script has a hissy-fit that Jennings went to see Seward instead of coming to Lincoln himself) as dead set against making any deal with the states attempting to secede that would involve guaranteeing their “right” to allow slavery — a position diametrically opposed to that of the real Lincoln, who in 1861 before he formally took office sent his favorite back-channel negotiator, Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland (one of the so-called “border states” which had slavery but didn’t secede), to offer the future Confederate states a so-called “unamendable amendment” to the Constitution which would forever guarantee slavery in the states that already had it in exchange for their pledge to stay in the Union and not expand slavery anywhere else. Then there’s a montage of Civil War battle sequences, from Fort Sumter to Manassas/Bull Run (the catastrophic Union defeat that let the North in for the fact that it was going to be a considerably longer war than anyone there had thought), a few other campaigns, leading up to Shiloh and then Antietam, the September 17, 1862 Union victory that gave Lincoln (the real one) the win on the battlefield he needed to give the Emancipation Proclamation both military and political credibility. The script actually has Lincoln saying to his Cabinet the famous lines he wrote to editor Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862 — “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that” — which progressive historians like the late Howard Zinn have quoted to argue that Lincoln really didn’t give a damn about slavery one way or the other. I read that letter as a classic piece of “disinformation” on Lincoln’s part; at the time he wrote it he already had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk drawer at the White House and was only waiting for enough of a Union victory to give him the excuse to issue it. Indeed, I looked up the letter online at http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm and noted that in its final paragraph, Lincoln wrote, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

Lincoln’s hand on emancipation had also been forced by the first (1856) Republican Presidential nominee, John C. Frémont, who as military governor of Missouri (a slaveholding state that hadn’t seceded, though Lincoln was convinced enough that it would he appointed Frémont to govern it and make sure it didn’t) had issued his own emancipation proclamation. Contrary to actual historical fact, David Shaw’s script for this show makes it seem as if the Emancipation Proclamation freed all U.S. slaves, which it didn’t; it applied only to the states in rebellion against the Union authority and not in the slaveholding border states Lincoln was anxious to keep in the Union because losing them would have been devastating to the North’s military position. It’s not terribly surprising that here, as in the opening scene set in 1860, that Lincoln is being depicted as a far more uncompromising opponent of slavery than he was — and the next big scene is a confrontation between Lincoln and an unnamed member of his Cabinet he’s determined to fire. Shaw’s script doesn’t detail who this person was or why Lincoln wanted to get rid of him, but my guess is that it’s Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War and the rival Republican Presidential candidate in 1860 with whom Lincoln cut a deal and promised him Secretary of War in exchange for Cameron’s delegates to the Republican convention. Unfortunately, once he was Secretary of War Cameron proved both incompetent and corrupt, and the Union army got few of the supplies the North’s taxpayers were paying for, so Lincoln forced him out and replaced him with Edwin Stanton, who did such a great job of keeping the Union armed forces supplied and fighting there were a lot of people back then who thought he had been the key person in winning the Civil War (one reason why so many Republican Congressmembers were up in arms when Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, tried to fire Stanton in 1868)

The 52-minute show is nearly over before we finally get to see James Dean (ya remember James Dean?), who’s cast as William Scott, a Union soldier who’s just been court-martialed and is scheduled to be shot for having fallen asleep while on guard duty at the Union’s garrison at Appomattox. The scene is prefaced with a lot of excited talk amongst the Union’s generals, including Ulysses S. Grant (unidentified on imdb.com, oddly), that the war is about over anyway, and Lincoln visits the camp and wonders why there needs to be more killing, especially with the war just about over. Needless to say, he spares Scott’s life and sends him back to his regiment — though it reminded of my grim joke that if you believe the movies about him, Lincoln did nothing for the last few days of his life except sign pardons (the film The Littlest Rebel, the Shirley Temple vehicle in which she plays a Confederate girl and does the famous staircase dance with her family’s slave, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, went so far as to have Lincoln sign the pardon for James Dunn, playing Temple’s father, as he was reaching for his hat and coat to go to Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night of April 14, 1865!) — only to find, irony of ironies, that Scott was killed in battle the next day just before the war ended. The final scene shows Lincoln and his wife Mary ready to leave for Ford’s Theatre, only before they go Lincoln asks her to read him the famous “we are such stuff as dreams are made of” speech from (what was then thought) Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, a considerably better play than the one they were going to see. (When Ford’s Theatre was restored, the first piece put on there was the actual play Lincoln was there to see, a British farce called Our American Cousin, and it was so terrible the reviewers to a person essentially wrote, “Lincoln got himself shot so he could see this?”)

According to an imdb.com commentator, Drinkwater’s original play depicted the actual assassination, but this show didn’t; instead it ended with a close-up of the edition of The Tempest Mary was reading from, though instead of pronouncing the trademark line correctly the second time around Judith Evelyn said, “We are such dreams as dreams are made of” — one of the occupational hazards of live TV: if you made a mistake millions of people heard it and there was no way to take it back or do a retake! Overall, John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln was a quite capable piece of work, decently cast with the sorts of actors available to New York TV producers, even though it suffers from the same flaw as virtually all films about Lincoln: too reverent towards him, uninclined to make him a figure of real dramatic complexity. I’ve already said apropos of the recent film Lincoln and the others Charles and I watched around the same time — oldies like the Griffith Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who at least according to the film was accused and convicted by a military tribunal of being part of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln because in his flight from the crime, John Wilkes Booth came by Dr. Mudd’s home and Mudd set the leg Booth had broken in his dramatic leap from Lincoln’s box after he shot him) and Young Mr. Lincoln — that Lincoln is probably the second hardest part in the world for an actor to play (next to Jesus Christ) and for many of the same reasons: Lincoln has been so deified in American mainstream historiography it’s virtually impossible for a writer to bring him to multidimensional life or an actor to play him that way. And as for James Dean, he’s perfectly competent — interestingly, he mumbles less than he did later — but nothing special; oddly, as silly as the whole production is, probably the best performance he’s given so far in our trek through the boxed set is in one of the silliest movies, as the Apostle John in that strange 1951 religious film Hill Number One that Charles described the first time we saw it as “an infomercial for rosary beads.” (It was, too.)