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The Movies: the "Reel" Lincoln

October 2019

Many have tried, few have succeeded in capturing the essence of Abraham Lincoln.

BEST AND WORST: THE REEL LINCOLN By Harold Holzer “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,” Abraham Lincoln admitted in 1864. A century has passed since the invention of motion pictures, but it’s fair to say that the industry has yet to produce a good definition of the man whose own centennial almost coincided with the birth of the medium. Lincoln made one of his first “appearances” in film in a 1908 Vitagraph nickelodeon short called “The Reprieve,” but it would be unfair to call any of the stilted productions of the silent era the worst Lincoln movie ever: they were all so surpassingly bad, or so good in pursuit of a bad message (like D. W. Griffith’s brilliantly filmed, hideously pro-Klan masterpiece Birth of a Nation), that they almost defy categorizing. But anyone who has ever seen frock-coated actor Samuel D. Drane with his hand on the head of a near-naked African-American in the crude 1916 epic, The Crisis, will be hard pressed to remember anything more embarrassing on film, in any genre.

My own choice for worst Lincoln film, however, will undoubtedly surprise many. No actor looked more like the Great Emancipator or played him with more melancholic dignity than Raymond Massey, and no one before or since ever won an Oscar nomination for playing him. But Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois is so preeningly ambitious, and yet so fatally skewed historically, that hands down it earns my nod for the worst Lincoln film of all time. Pretentiousness alone doesn’t kill this film; the imposition of period politics does. Sherwood wrote it as a play before World War II specifically to arouse a complacent America into the fighting mood to take on the Nazi threat in distant Europe. To make this admirable point, however, Sherwood converted the insatiably ambitious Lincoln into a reluctant, nearly comatose non-warrior who has to be pushed almost kicking and daydreaming into confronting the sectional crisis. The conceit makes Lincoln into an uber wimp, maddeningly immune to his patriotic duty and domestically henpecked in the bargain by the tiny Ruth Gordon as his shrewish wife Mary.

Flawed as this conceit was, it proved enough to inspire Franklin D. Roosevelt to hire Sherwood as a speechwriter. Before long, FDR’s speeches featured frequent references to Lincoln’s reluctant recognition that evil lurked. Again, it was an admirable outcome, but a ridiculous and impressionable calumny on Lincoln. In the picture’s most famous scene, Sherwood added injury to insult by presenting Lincoln’s departure for Washington as a climactic fade-out. But then he presumed to re-write the President-elect’s canonical farewell address into an abortion of that sublime speech—better suited to Roosevelt and Churchill than Lincoln.

The best all-time Lincoln movie appeared just months earlier—the equally mythologized, but far less objectionable Young Mr. Lincoln, with Henry Fonda shining as a down-home attorney who proves his client innocent of murder by ingeniously using an almanac to prove that the prosecution’s leading witness could not have seen the moonlight incident as claimed—for there was no moon that night. The cornpone stock characters may come out of Tobacco Row, and director John Ford cannot resist ending the movie with the clichéd Battle Hymn of the Republic, but Fonda is so mesmerizing, and the script so engaging, that viewers really do emerge from the experience of this 1939 masterpiece with the sense that they have enjoyed a rare glimpse into the life of a future giant. I felt so when first seeing this film as a young boy, and I feel the same whenever I re-screen it—invariably on Lincoln’s Birthday. Besides, Milburn Stone—who later played the beloved old Doc on Gunsmoke—plays Stephen A. Douglas.

Oh yes, I have seen Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and got an early chance to read Tony Kushner’s brilliant script for Stephen Spielberg’s forthcoming Lincoln biopic. The former is too egregious to qualify as the worst of all time—besides, the metaphor of vampirism to explain the evil of slavery makes a bizarre kind of good sense to me. What’s more I rather liked Merryl Streep’s son-in-law as the title character: a man with an axe to grind—on the undead. Logic says that the latter film, via Spielberg, should leap into first place as the best ever within hours of its release, if the production lives up to the promise of the screenplay. Daniel Day-Lewis may well take his place as the best Lincoln ever before the year is out. Until then, give me Fonda—and on television, Sam Waterston and Hal Holbrook—until the reel thing comes along.