Warner Bros. // 1940 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // June 17th, 2010
"Well, Abe, there are two occupations open to those who have failed at everything else: school teaching and politics!"
While over 200 actors have played the 16th President on the United States onscreen, few have made a significant effort to tell the story of man and his road to the White House. One of the first attempts was The Dramatic Life Of Abraham Lincoln, a silent with George A. Billings, who frequently played Lincoln in the late 1920s. Other noble efforts include a 1930 production directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Walter Huston; actor Frank Glynn, Sr. played Lincoln over ten times in the 1930s, including Lincoln In The White House; in recent times, we've seen Hal Holbrook (North & South) and Sam Waterson (The Civil War) lend their stage experience to the role.
Perhaps the best crack at Lincoln's life is 1940's Abe Lincoln In Illinois, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert E. Sherwood (The Best Years Of Our Lives).
In 1831, young Abe Lincoln (Raymond Massey, Arsenic And Old Lace) leaves his parents to transport swine across on the Sangamon river to New Orleans. One day, a boat accident near the village of New Salem, Illinois results in many of the pigs falling into the river. While scrambling to collect them all, Abe chances to meet the ravishing Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard, The Riders Of The Purple Sage), who would later become his first love. Abe gives up the river to live in New Salem, taking a job as the local postal clerk. Despite a lack of education and funds, Lincoln is pushed by the locals to run for the Illinois General Assembly; right before the election, Rutledge becomes gravely ill and dies.
Devastated but remaining committed to politics, Lincoln would serve in the state legislature before moving to Springfield to become an attorney. While there, he meets Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon, Oscar-winner for Rosemary's Baby), whom he would later marry and have several children with. His success at law would lead to four terms in the House of Representatives, where his outspoken beliefs would make him many friends and enemies. His attitudes on the issue of slavery emancipation was often called into question, particularly by his Presidential opponent Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart,Miracle On 34th Street).
As speechwriter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sherwood no doubt studied and was inspired by many of Lincoln's speeches to write Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Indeed, he utilized many of Abe's actual words as dialogue, including the heartbreaking farewell state address before assuming the Presidency. RKO picked up the film rights and hired John Cromwell (Since You Went Away) to direct. Released in 1940 -- on Lincoln's birthday -- the film became a critical success, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Cinematography (James Wong Howe, Hud). However, modern audiences are largely unfamiliar with the film, its status as a minor classic limited to only occasional showings on Turner Classic Movies.
With the expected Hollywood corn and gloss minimized, Abe Lincoln In Illinois emerges as a poignant, passionate movie. Sherwood's script alone makes this soar above most traditional biopics, focusing only on Lincoln's early years as a lawyer and statesman. We never see Lincoln as President, free the slaves, or assassinated; possibly because the majority of Americans are already aware of those events. Instead, we watch Lincoln as an ambitious young man who is coming to grips with the slavery situation splitting the country in half, while also garnering his reputation as an all-American patriot. The film is worth seeing alone for Massey's moving portrayal, recreating the role he originated on the stage. Ingratiating every moment he's onscreen, Massey delivers Lincoln's eloquent speeches with quiet dignity and humbleness; it's no wonder he was cast in all later television adaptations, playing Lincoln for the final time in How The West Was Won. Previously, the actor had worked with Cromwell on The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937), and their collaboration here proves to be one of the film's chief assets.
The only other actor to make the transition from play to screen is Howard da Silva, who plays Jack Armstrong, the drunkard who fights Lincoln in the beginning. Silva would later be blacklisted before getting his most famous role: Dr. Benjamin Franklin, in the stage musical and screen version of 1776. As for the ladies, Gordon makes her feature film debut here, emerging as a lovely and spirited Mary Todd; and Howard, who passed away in July 2009, is equally good as Ann Rutledge. The beloved Lockhart is slightly over-the-top as Douglas, yet he still makes a worthy antagonist. And, yes, that is Cromwell himself in a cameo as John Brown, the abolitionist who led an arsenal raid in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; the director is also the father of actor James Cromwell (Babe), who was born a month prior to the film's release.
Because of its forgotten status, Abe Lincoln In Illinois is finally arriving on DVD as part of the Warner Archive collection. As expected, no evidence of restoration is present; the full frame image is riddled with scars and white spots. Audio is even worse, with cracks and hisses galore. If this isn't enough, the print damage occasionally muffles the dialogue; this is a serious offense considering no subtitles or closed captioning is provided. The absence of extras only shows even more how ridiculous the $25 price tag is, but it remains a must-see for classic film buffs. Your best bet is to try to find it for rental.
Massey and the film are free to go, but Warner Bros. is found very guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated