The 10 Best Lincoln Moments in Film History

tags: Hollywood, Abraham Lincoln, movies, best of, film history, Thomas Doherty



2-18-13

Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 from Columbia University Press.

"Lincoln does not have the phallus; he is the phallus," proclaimed the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1970, in a group-written polemic on the ideological superstructure of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), John Ford's moody paean to the salad days of the Great Emancipator. The piece is a doozy of a performance, a high-wire act exemplifying the airy delights of the high renaissance of French-accented film theory. Alternately enlightening and maddening, the essay ends on a declaration that few Americans could ever abide: that in Ford's film, Lincoln emerges finally as a figure of “monstrous dimensions.” A monster? Not Abe, never Abe -- he is our guardian angel, secular saint, and -- virtually since the birth of American cinema -- celluloid hero.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is but the latest in a long line of feature films starring, conjuring, and otherwise commemorating our first photo-friendly if not quite photogenic president. (In 1860, prior to delivering his coming out speech at Cooper Union, he made a beeline for Matthew Brady's portrait gallery on Broadway for an iconic campaign shot, launching American politics into the age of mechanical reproduction.) Whatever the ultimate statuette tally at the annual fest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 24, the critical plaudits and huge box office success of the latest addition to the Lincoln filmography is rock-solid proof of the monumental star power of Lincoln in the American imagination. What other president could successfully anchor a talky political film structured around the sausage-factory process of passing a Constitutional amendment through Congress? The Brady portraits limned the vivid picture of a kindly man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but Hollywood gave us the fleshed out moving image of a walking, talking and deeply human Lincoln -- folksy but inwardly Other, a tormented soul under the genial exterior, somehow knowing that his own martyrdom is the price that must be paid for preserving the Union. No wonder the high crest of his feature film appearances occurred during the Great Depression, when America faced its greatest crisis since the Civil War and the nation turned instinctively to Lincoln for retrospective reassurance that it would weather the present crisis.

Listed below are ten of my favorite Lincoln moments from Hollywood cinema. Though I've doubtless blanked out on some classic star turns and cameo appearances, the omission of the final revelation from Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001) and all of the action of Timur Bekmambetov Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012) was entirely intentional. If you have your own favorite Lincoln moments in film, you might add them to the comments section.

10. The assassination of Lincoln from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). To better unify the North and South in his racist revision of the Civil War and its aftermath, Griffith canonized the leader who ended the way of life his epic celebrated. Depicting “the fated night of April 14, 1865” from “an historical facsimile of Ford’s Theatre as on that night, exact in size and detail, with the recorded incidents, after Nicola and Hay in Lincoln, A History,” Griffith lets his trademark cross-cutting and intertitles ratchet up the suspense, as Our American Cousin unfolds on stage and the assassin lurks in the wings. After his infamous deed, John Wilkes Booth (played by none other than future Warner Bros. director Raoul Walsh) leaps onto the stage, shouting, in intertitle, “Sic semper tyrannis!” When news of Lincoln's assassination reaches the South, our Confederate heroes, the Cameron family, are shocked and grief-stricken. “Our best friend is gone," wails the father. "What is to become of us now!” DWG returned to Lincoln in his first sound film, the stiff bio-pic Abraham Lincoln (1930), a failed attempt to rejuvenate his career, despite the rather desperate pre-Code ad campaign that tried to sex things up: "Ann Rutledge -- she taught Lincoln how to love -- and like it!"

9. The universality of Lincoln admiration in Jon Turteltaub's National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007): A pretty lame sequel to the Turteltaub's surprise hit National Treasure (2004), a quite smart and deeply respectful treatment of the Declaration of Independence as MacGuffin, the follow-up moves from the Masonic conspiracies of the Revolutionary War period to another artifact-fixated treasure hunt buried in the dustbins of American history. For reasons not worth reiterating, the antiquarian action-adventure hero played by Nicholas Cage is wandering through an underground passageway with the current president of the United States. Cage mentions that Lincoln is his favorite president. "No offense," he says, realizing to whom he is talking. "None taken," says the president. "He's my favorite president too."

8. The spirit of Abraham Lincoln possesses the body of a vapid chief executive in Gregory La Cava's Gabriel over the White House (1933). In what is certainly the most bizarre of all Hollywood social problem films coughed up by the chaos of the Great Depression, this wacked-out fantasy depicts a feckless and corrupt U.S. president who is transformed into a noble and crisply efficient POTUS after being possessed by the spirit of Lincoln. Springing into executive action, he abolishes Congress, suspends the Constitution, and assumes dictatorial powers to solve the fiscal and social ills of Great Depression America. Projecting a portrait of a leader more in the mode of Il Duce than Honest Abe, the film is an unnerving expression of the gut fears of a nation beset by political catatonia.

7. Shirley Temple charms Lincoln in David Butler’s The Littlest Rebel (1935) [starts at 4:30]: A Hollywood match made in heaven finds little Shirley sitting on Abe’s lap, divvying up slices of an apple, and calling on the better angels of his nature to spare her ex-Confederate father, who has been sentenced to execution. Only a heart of stone, which Lincoln does not have, could resist the little tyke's plea for clemency.


Frank McGlynn before and after applying his Lincoln make-up and costume.

6. Frank McGlynn Sr.'s recitation of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln in the White House (1939) [clip not available]: Released on February 12 -- Lincoln's birthday -- and starring veteran Lincoln impersonator Frank McGlynn, Sr. (he also played Lincoln in The Littlest Rebel), this twenty-minute Technicolor mini-biopic is interesting mainly as a another ripe example of the raging Lincolnphilia wafting through Depression America. It was produced by Warner Bros., Hollywood's most fervently anti-Nazi studio, as part of a series of high-profile "patriotic shorts" dramatizing events from the pageant of American history, Most films in the series were thinly veiled allegories designed to buck up American patriotism on the eve of war and foster a stoic sense of Americans-all unity. Lincoln is portrayed as we have come to know him, down to earth in manner but celestial in stature. The film climaxes with McGlynn's recitation of the Gettysburg Address, presumably with most members of the audience mouthing at least the opening and closing lines. The short film premiered on a program at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where the reception was rapturous. "The blasé Music Hall audience salvoed this film like it was the 4th of July," reported Variety's Abel Green, himself no easy audience. "It's a natural, of course, now amidst the world strife between democratic and demagogic advocates, but at all times it is forthright entertainment and sound Americanism." Other voices in the trade press joined the chorus of praise. “This subject should be played in every theater in the country, regardless of run or size,” lectured Box Office. “It is not only a subject for February 12, but one that comes at a time ripe for maintaining the spirit of Americanism.”

5. James Agee's Mr. Lincoln series on Omnibus (1952-1953). OK, the selection of a TV show violates the stated criteria -- as does engaging in wishful thinking more than fond remembering. In truth, I have never seen this storied Agee obscurity. Hosted by British journalist and future face of Masterpiece Theatre Alistair Cooke, Omnibus was one of the glittering ingots from the Golden Age of Television, an educational television-cum-variety show that throughout its run on CBS from 1952 to 1961 defined the highbrow-culture-to--the-masses ethos of a certain brand of Cold War TV. On any given Sunday, a viewer might be treated to a reunion of the Benny Goodman Trio, a performance of The Mikado, or the counter-intuitive delight of Gene Kelly tap dancing with heavyweight champ Sugar Ray Robinson. Agee's Mr. Lincoln, a five-part filmed series on the life of Lincoln, played by Royal Dano, was a highlight of the early years. Glimpses of the series can be seen in the Omnibus compilation documentary from 1999 and (according to one web sleuth) in the "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" pageant at Disneyland, but so far a copy of the full series, shot on film for the live telecast, remains elusive. By all accounts, Mr. Lincoln is a must-see, not just for its pedigree (reformed film critic Agee's other screen credits, of course, include Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] and The Night of the Hunter [1955]), but for the wraparound discussions-- in which, for example, Cooke, Agee, and historian Joseph Allan Nevins discuss the tension between myth and history in the doomed romance between Lincoln and his first love, Ann Rutledge.

4. The Lincoln-Douglas debate as staged in John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). RKO’s film version of Robert E. Sherwood's enormously popular play tracks the formative years of Lincoln (the part was entrusted to the Canadian actor Raymond Massey) among the heartland folk who nurtured him. The emotional high point is his final leave taking from Springfield (“To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am”), but an extended sequence re-enacting the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 is a marvelous window into the kinetic energy of antebellum American democracy—and, as such, quite useful pedagogically in the university classroom. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), the late cultural critic Neil Postman’s influential screed against a television-addled political system, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held up as the apotheosis of democratic decision making before video killed the debating star. As rendered in James Wong Howe’s torch-lit cinematography, the debate sequence here is a Postman fantasyland -- a rowdy but engaged polis hanging on every word as two great speakers address the great issue of the day.

3. Jefferson Smith/Jimmy Stewart worshipping at the Lincoln Memorial in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) [clip not available]. The first thing newly appointed Senator Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) does upon disembarking at Union Station is to take off for a bus tour of the Capital to genuflect before the secular shrines of American democracy. His pilgrimage comes to an end, naturally, at the Lincoln Memorial, lit for all the world like a cathedral. Inside, a young boy reads to his grandfather (obviously a Jewish refugee) the words from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. As the boy utters the "freedom,” Capra cuts to a close-up of an African American. In his autobiography, Capra recounted that while scouting locations in D.C., he visited the Lincoln Memorial, "the most majestic shrine we have in America." He listened as an eight-year-old read Lincoln's words to his grandfather. "That scene must go into our film," he vowed. "We must make the film if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa."

2. Lincoln soothes the lynch mob in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). A mob of drunken and hate-filled citizens descend with a battering ram on a jailhouse holding two suspected murderers. Only young Mr. Lincoln (Henry Fonda) stands in the way of an outbreak of vigilante justice whose allegorical import for African Americans in the 1930s would have been all too clear. Knowing he cannot physically overpower a mob liquored up on more than whiskey, Abe uses all his rhetorical powers of persuasion to beat back their bloodlust. He disarms them with self-deprecating humor, and then calls upon their Christian conscience. Finally, he delivers a monologue about due process and justice under law. "At times like these, we lose our heads," he says, speaking not of the 1840s but the 1930s. Soon Lincoln's words have calmed the mob: the men put down the battering ram and walk sheepishly, shamefacedly away, leaving young Mr. Lincoln alone, framed in the doorway of the jailhouse. In his book of interviews with John Ford, Peter Bogandovich recalls that when he spoke with the director about the film, Ford had off handedly referred to the young, shabby Lincoln as "a poor ape" riding into town on a mule. Reading the manuscript for correction, Ford asked Bogdanovich to change the expression because "he didn't much like the idea of calling Mr. Lincoln a poor ape."

1. Charles Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address in Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). My favorite Lincoln moment in all of Hollywood cinema occurs in a film that doesn't feature Lincoln. McCarey's western comedy of manners is a pioneer fable that takes seriously the power of the American frontier to transform a man from a sniveling servant into a rugged individualist. The great British actor Charles Laughton plays the class-conscious British manservant Ruggles, who is won in a game of cards and brought to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. In the Red Gap saloon, a group of Americans can't seem to remember what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. "I don't know. I wasn't there,” slurs a drunk. "What a fine bunch of Americans," says the bartender in disgust. In the corner of the saloon, Ruggles begins to mutter the opening lines and then, encouraged, speaks up and flawlessly recites the entire 274 words, savoring every syllable. As his oration continues, the drinkers grow quiet and gather around him, awed and reverent. When Ruggles finishes ("shall not perish from the earth...."), there is silence for a beat, and then the bartender says, "I'll buy a drink." Instead of cheering, the bar regulars stare at him in amazement: nothing like this has ever happened before. (John Ford nicked the gag for a similar scene in The Quiet Man.)


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