Posted by Susan Doll on December 3, 2012
As a follow-up to last week’s commentary on movie presidents, I intended to devote this week’s post to Abraham Lincoln, wrapping up with a discussion of the recent cinematic odes to the 16thpresident, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. However, after sifting through sources and tracking down interesting asides, I discovered that there is way too much on Mr. Lincoln to fit into one post. Being such a movie-president enthusiast, especially when it comes to Lincoln, I just couldn’t bear to omit some of my favorite tantalizing tidbits, surprising suppositions, and ornery opinions. My two-part series on movie presidents has expanded into three parts. This week, I offer the unusual, the obscure, and the forgotten; next week, I will revisit the familiar, the celebrated, and the (in)famous.
Sources agree that Abraham Lincoln is the president most often represented on film, though an exact count of portrayals is difficult to determine. The editors at Guinness list 136 featured roles in films in The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats, but that doesn’t include television and shorts. The Movie List Book estimates over 150 films, but that reference was published in 1990. Internet sources such as Suite 101 and Great History.com weigh in at over 200 film portrayals, though I fear they inflate in order to push their point that Lincoln is our most iconic president. The popularity of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis’s magnetic interpretation of the 16th president has inspired bloggers to recount the portrayals and mine them for best performances, historical accuracy, and bizarre depictions.
The latter category has yielded some of my favorite posts and articles so far. Whether an attempt to deflate the weighty reverence that often defines a Lincoln portrayal, or just in the spirit of fun, these articles reminded me of movies like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Here, Robert Barron’s Honest Abe helps out Bill with the household chores before showing up at the local high school to deliver a modern twist on the Gettysburg address, ending with “Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.” In the 1977 film The Lincoln Conspiracy, John Anderson portrays the president whose assassination was the work of John Wilkes Booth’s collusion with members of the U.S. Senate. While many young bloggers scoff at the ridiculous plot, thinking it exploitation and therefore great “fun,” the movie and the book of the same title belong to the post-Watergate era. Many of us who lived through Watergate, especially on the heels of Vietnam and other conspiratorial revelations, were not shocked at the depths to which politicians could sink, but we were caught off guard at the lengths they were willing to go to cover it up. In that atmosphere, The Lincoln Conspiracy struck a chord. I still own a copy of that book, which sits on my bookshelf next to another that debunks the conspiracy theories. Here’s an oddity that I unearthed myself but I have not seen: The Tall Target. Dick Powell stars in this 1951 film as a detective who tries to thwart the 1861 assassination attempt on Lincoln (a real-life event referenced in Spielberg’s film). Powell’s character’s name is John Kennedy—file that one under “eerie coincidence.”
I am not sure what film was the first to depict Abraham Lincoln, because firsts in cinema history are nearly impossible to determine, but I did find a series of Lincoln one-reelers starring Ralph Ince released in 1911-1912, the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. Ralph Waldo Ince was the youngest brother of Thomas Ince, famous for pioneering the studio system in Hollywood and infamous as the victim of a fatal gunshot wound aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. The Lincoln series was produced by Vitagraph, not by Ralph’s ambitious older brother, and centered on the 16th president’s paternal image as patriarch to us all: In one film, he writes and delivers the Gettysburg Address to pull us together as a nation; in others, he resolves the problems of ordinary people to pull them together as families. Ince’s one-reelers were followed by an eight-film series (1912-1915) that focused almost entirely on famous events of the Civil War. This series of two-reelers starred John Ford’s brother Francis as Lincoln.
Apparently, producing a Lincoln series became a trend in burgeoning Hollywood, with production companies and newly formed studios competing with each other for the better Lincoln portrayal. In 1917, Benjamin Chapin wrote and starred in The Lincoln Cycle, directed by a young John M. Stahl for Charter Features. Chapin allegedly bore an uncanny likeness to Lincoln, though this may have been a rumor driven by publicity. Chapin was inspired by the wave of Lincoln-mania to write, direct, and star in four one-reelers that focused on the president’s family and youth. That led Chapin to direct a nine-film series of one-reelers under the banner title Son of Democracy. Each film was complete in itself and depicted a recognizable event in the Lincoln legend—My First Jury, The Slave Auction, A Call to Arms, etc.
Beginning in 1911, the 50th anniversary of the Civil War inspired dozens of reunions of veterans, including a three-day event at Gettysburg in 1913 in which former Union and Confederate soldiers shook hands. Dozens of smaller reunions were held in tiny towns, and newspaper and journal articles re-created the major battles from the war. In this atmosphere, the saga of the Civil War is revisited and rewritten to salve old wounds; it makes perfect sense that Abraham Lincoln should be reborn in the movies, the medium of the people, by the people, and for the people.
In 1915, Frank McGlynn starred in the short The Life of Abraham Lincoln for the Edison Company and reprised the role nine years later in another short, Abraham Lincoln. The 1924 short has slipped through the cracks of most Lincoln-movie enthusiasts, probably because by the 1920s, one-reelers were considered opening acts for feature films for the most part—unless they were sound shorts! Curious as to why someone would produce a short on Lincoln during the Silver Age of Hollywood (the era of the great silent features), I discovered Abraham Lincoln was produced by Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm company. De Forest had innovated the audion tube, a key invention in the development of talkies. He created his own sound-on-film system, which he dubbed Phonofilm, and founded the De Forest Phonofilm Corp. in November 1922. Between 1923 and 1928, the inventor corralled prominent celebrities to appear as themselves in sync-sound shorts produced by his company, including Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Gloria Swanson, politician Al Smith, and comedian DeWolf Hopper. He also recorded Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge giving speeches. De Forest produced two films about Lincoln, which likely consisted of actors interpreting Lincoln’s famous speeches or public appearances. Actor McGlynn was one of the first actors to interpret Lincoln’s voice or speech pattern, something critics and scholars often judge when evaluating portrayals of a president who was intelligent and well-read but also a self-educated Kentuckian raised in the Midwest. Debates on what Lincoln might have sounded like are part of his myth.
McGlynn’s vocal interpretation may have been a factor in his selection to portray Lincoln whenever a brief, iconic version of the 16th president was needed for a film. He went on to play Lincoln in Are We Civilized?, a 1934 drama that also featured Christ, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus—a meeting of the minds that sparks the imagination. During the Depression era, McGlynn made a career out of playing Lincoln, including: The Littlest Rebel (1935) with Shirley Temple, The Plainsmen (1936) directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Western Gold (1937) with Heather Angel, Hearts in Bondage (1937) directed by actor Lew Ayres, Wells Fargo with Joel McCrea, the serialized Lone Ranger (1938), Strange Glory (1939) directed by Jacques Tourneur, another short titled Lincoln in the White House (1938), and The Mad Empress (1939), a Mexican film made with Hollywood actors. My favorite is John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), the story of Dr. Samuel L. Mudd who was sent to prison for treating John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg.
During the 1950s and 1960s, television offered endless depictions of Abraham Lincoln. The era of live anthology programming produced several respected dramas, including “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” directed by Delbert Mann for Ford Star Jubilee, starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln, Lillian Gish as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Jack Lemmon as John Wilkes Booth. More interesting to me, however, are episodic television series from the 1960s, an era when genre programming dominated the airwaves. In westerns and sci fi series, Lincoln periodically showed up, generally symbolizing an idea or an ideal. In an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Passerby,” a Confederate soldier and a lonely widow sit under a tree in the yard of a run-down house, watching the road as wounded and exhausted troops trudge along. Finally the soldier realizes that the troops are not merely wounded but dead, meaning that he and the woman are also no longer in the land of the living. He treks on to his destiny, but the woman refuses to leave. When Abraham Lincoln, played by Austin Green, wanders down the road alone, he persuades her to walk the path with him. As the last casualty of the Civil War, he knows it is time to move on. In an episode of The Rifleman, a Civil War veteran believes that he is Abe Lincoln, exposing the emotional impact of war on the human psyche. Finally, in an episode of Star Trek entitled “The Savage Curtain,” an alien race pits Lincoln, played by Lee Bergere, and other historical heroes against Genghis Khan and a gang of notorious villains. It’s an experiment to see if the good can triumph over evil just because they are good.
No matter how cheesy or simplistic, the television shows appeal to me because they are fairy tales or fables in which Lincoln is so obviously a symbol or icon that has cultural meaning to Americans—a meaning that has evolved and changed with the times. Next week, I will delve into the famous biopics of Lincoln with that in mind.
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