D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) by matthew c. hoffman

“Critical judgments of the very early sound period were often very curious. Films that were shunted aside then seem quite marvelous today, and films which rated raves then, often don’t live up to them now. Abraham Lincoln really needs patience and an appreciation of Griffith to be fully enjoyed; it has many of the weaknesses of early talkies, and is slow, stiff, sometimes clumsy. But it is a tremendously sincere and deeply felt work; one is occasionally restless, but one never lacks respect for it.” ~ William K. Everson, 1964

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D.W. Griffith was a giant in the film industry, though he is barely remembered today. When we speak of his legacy, we’re recalling films that go back to the dawn of narrative filmmaking—ancient history for modern viewers. His films are removed from us by time, but also by his subject matter and his themes which often reflect Victorian attitudes. Despite this, Griffith is a name that should not be forgotten, and yet he was forgotten even in his own lifetime.

He was a pioneer who developed the grammar of motion picture storytelling. In time, though, Hollywood grew up and adapted to the changing times, and it passed Griffith on by. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Griffith was already out of fashion with movie audiences. His sensibilities were deeply rooted in an earlier time. In an age that craved Jazz Age liberation, Griffith was still rooted in 1890s melodrama.

But his best films are more than antiques or historical footnotes. Films like Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and yes, The Birth of a Nation, are some of the best representations of the silent era. His films, for better or worse, were the product of his own vision. Griffith’s best films could be described as pastoral romances. He knew how to compose a frame, and his films displayed a pictorial beauty and a visual romanticism that transformed cinema into an art form. Griffith may be perceived as old-fashioned today and certainly the modern movie-goer would find his films hard to embrace, but he was a master storyteller whose films influenced many great filmmakers like John Ford.

Abraham Lincoln was made at a time when the old master’s career was winding down. It was his first sound film. He would make only one more movie after this. In 1930, Griffith was operating in a strange new world of sound filmmaking. Like many early talkies, it will appear as rather static with action limited by the placement of the hidden microphone. Abraham Lincoln does not represent his most dynamic work, but it has moments of greatness despite its minor flaws.

Walter Huston and Una Merkel
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The film is often unfairly maligned by criticisms that attack everything from Una Merkel’s Ann Rutledge to Walter Huston’s heavy makeup in the early scenes. If anyone has the patience for it, try reading the user reviews on IMDB. But here at the Library, we see film in a different light. We understand the context of the times in which a film was made. Ironically, if you look on the “rottentomatoes” website, Abraham Lincoln has a 100% favorable rating with the critics, which is even higher than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Granted, only eight reviews are listed for the 1930 film. But at the time of its original release, Abraham Lincoln did receive good notices.

Walter Huston’s screen Lincoln is not as well-known as those that would follow. Nine years later John Ford transformed Henry Fonda into a Young Mr. Lincoln, and the following year saw Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But Abraham Lincoln deserves to be in their company because it is one of the definitive Lincoln films. Like Fonda and Massey, and Daniel Day-Lewis from a year ago, Walter Huston becomes the character, physically resembling Lincoln more and more as the film marches on. The Canadian-born Walter Huston was one of the great actors in the early talkie period—or any period for that matter. He appeared on Broadway before becoming a Hollywood star in films like The Beast of the City, American Madness, Gabriel Over the White House, Dodsworth, and so many others throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. His career culminated with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His selection as Lincoln was ideal casting.

Una Merkel plays Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge. Like her director, Griffith, she was a native Kentuckian. In fact, her hometown of Covington is less than a hundred miles from where Griffith was born in LaGrange. In the 1930s Merkel was known mostly as a comedienne, usually playing the second lead, which typically had her as the sidekick to the heroine. She appeared in 42nd Street and many other pre-Codes of the 1930s like Red-Headed Woman and Midnight Mary, which we played a few years ago.

Abraham Lincoln also features many actors Griffith had used in his silent days, such as Hobart Bosworth, who is the reincarnation of General Lee, and Henry B. Walthall as Lee’s second-in-command, Colonel Marshall. Walthall’s role, though small, is a nice inclusion since he had starred as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation 15 years earlier.

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The story, credited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, is episodic and told in vignettes that may seem all too brief, like half-recalled memories of our nation’s past. Originally, Griffith wanted Carl Sandburg to write the story. Sandburg, who four years earlier had published Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, would have given the material historical legitimacy. Unfortunately, the studio was not willing to meet that expense. Sandburg did, however, suggest to Griffith that he tell Lincoln’s life story in “a series of personality sketches.”

The second half of the film is much stronger as it settles on the Civil War. This was a period in our nation’s history that was close to Griffith’s heart. His Southern heritage influenced his work. His own father had been a Confederate colonel. Though there is admiration for the South, especially in how General Lee is portrayed in contrast to the hard-drinking General Grant, there is also a reverence for Lincoln who was obviously a historical figure Griffith admired. He had contemplated doing a story on the Great Emancipator since his early days at Biograph Studios. With his career in need of a box office hit, Griffith again retreated into the past and found comfort in a story he knew well. Modern retellings focus more on Lincoln’s human qualities—his intelligence and political acumen. Griffith, on the other hand, created a real sense of myth; he expressed it through the visual power of his camera. His approach was to depict Lincoln as a great man who shaped history.

One of the best reviews of tonight’s film was written by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who writes, “Both of D.W. Griffith’s sound films—Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931) were scorned as archaic when they came out, which helps explain why he wasn’t allowed to direct again for the 17 remaining years of his life. But both films look better and better with the passage of time, which suggests that Griffith continued to grow as an artist as long as he made films. Working with the sort of mythic material later associated with John Ford, Griffith gives us a primordial Lincoln, perfectly incarnated by Walter Huston, and a dreamlike sense of destiny that his camera fully articulates.”

That sense of destiny is clearly reflected in the atmospheric opening with the slave ship and the later birth of Lincoln in the log cabin in 1809. The inference is that Lincoln is the new Moses who will set a race of people free. It’s a very haunting sequence abetted by the fluid camera work of Karl Struss and the set design of William Cameron Menzies. The artificialness of the scene in the woods adds to the dream quality. Fate or a divine hand has brought Lincoln into the world.

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Many viewers who judge old films by the standards of today will find fault with the film’s presentation. One modern viewer criticized the film’s obvious use of models, as seen with the log cabin and the Lincoln Memorial. But if you study these shots you can see that models were needed to accomplish the desired camera effects. The last shot of the film, which includes a tracking shot up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, simply would not have been possible or practical had they used actual footage of the Lincoln Memorial.

Writer Robert Henderson in his biography on Griffith said that “animated history is not drama no matter how worthy the subject.” However, this film is more than waxworks in a museum. The recreations come to life. Huston brings humanity to the role with the anguish of war clearly etched upon his face. His pardoning of a cowardly soldier– as well as Sheridan’s stirring ride– are some of the more dramatic moments. And then there is the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, which Griffith had staged years before in The Birth of a Nation. You know what’s coming, but it’s still suspenseful. The murder has the pure drama of something out of Shakespeare, so it’s hard to mess that up as a storyteller. (Although, Spielberg’s film simply settled for a reaction shot of Lincoln’s son, who hears the tragic news while at another theatre.)

It’s amazing that the film turned out as well as it did. Griffith suffered a great deal of interference from the film’s intrusive producer, who even refused Griffith’s request to make the final edit. Nor was it a happy experience for the film’s writer, Stephen Vincent Benet, who supposedly wrote five scenarios but very little of his work was used. This may not have been Griffith’s fault, but he was in a precarious situation with a studio ready to drop him. He was not in a position to defend Benet even if he wanted to.

There are many important historical details that are missing. For instance, there is no scene depicting the Gettysburg Address. If you recall the recent Lincoln film, its very first scene involved black soldiers reciting the speech back to their Commander-In-Chief. But unlike the earlier versions– including the overrated Spielberg film, which was more about the fight to end slavery– Griffith’s film tries to tell the whole story—not just one period in a great man’s life. Abraham Lincoln might not have the historical accuracy of Ken Burns’ Civil War, but it awakens feelings in us for that time with its imagery. To elicit emotion from an audience is more important than plot points. Few recreations of that era feel as authentic as those seen in Abraham Lincoln. Unlike today’s films which distance us from the period with their modern techniques of storytelling, Abraham Lincoln make us feel closer to the 1860s because the film simply looks vintage. Griffith recalls Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs and transforms them into images on moving celluloid– history distilled onto film.

One thing that is not missing is the issue of slavery. Some viewers seem to think Griffith glosses over this. His Lincoln’s primary goal of his presidency is to preserve the union, a sentiment we hear several times. Yet Griffith includes the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And for a director often condemned nowadays for his depiction of blacks, we see the horror of slavery in the prologue which is remarkable for its time. There is also a later image of slavery in which men are towing a line to a barge while singing a spiritual. Griffith seems to be able to show the oppression of real blacks collectively, but in a scene in which John Wilkes Booth is introduced, the one individual black with spoken dialogue is played by a white actor in blackface. Since the scene conveys the Southern perspective, it’s as though Griffith is consciously returning to the old film prejudices, whereas the prologue conveys the objective eye of an overall storyteller.

When I played this film at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in 2001 as part of a month devoted to D.W. Griffith, I played the 81 minute version. Our version is 93 minutes. It’s been restored by the Museum of Modern Art and released by Kino, but portions of the soundtrack remain lost. So when viewers see the subtitles on the screen in the first reel, they’ll know that portion of the film is simply missing. There is no dialogue or sound. But in the best silent film tradition, the visuals tell us everything.

Abraham Lincoln appears to be a recurring theme with the film program this spring. One recalls the importance of Lincoln in the life of Jefferson Smith in last week’s film at the Pickwick Theatre. Though we know how Abraham Lincoln ends, the story will continue in the wake of John Wilkes Booth when we screen John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island. Ford was greatly influenced by Griffith, and we’ll see Ford following in the master’s footsteps this May.

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Postscript: Thank you to all those who came out on March 20 for our screening of Abraham Lincoln. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive with some in the audience considering Huston to be the best movie Lincoln. A day before the screening one of our library patrons asked me, “Is it as good as the Daniel-Day Lewis film?” I said it was better. Whereas the Steven Spielberg film is essentially 150 minutes of talking heads, Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln is a greater work of pure cinema.

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