John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois doesn’t profess to be a full biography of Lincoln’s rise to political heights, but the story of his years of struggle to find his place in the world nevertheless commands attention and admiration.
The Production: 4/5
Robert E. Sherwood’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Abe Lincoln in Illinois was brought to the screen two years later directed by John Cromwell and starring its stage Lincoln – Raymond Massey reprising his celebrated theatrical performance. As in all historical plays, facts are shuffled and motivations condensed and sweetened for dramatic purposes, but the results are nevertheless quietly stirring, and the film, despite being an abject failure at the box-office in 1940, remains a classic of its kind: a fine screen representation of a greatly lauded play.
There aren’t many folks more humble and self-deprecating than Abraham Lincoln (Raymond Massey), self-taught and unambitious, quietly going about living his life attempting to be a friend to one and all. He falls for the lovely local Illinois girl Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard), but life has other plans for her. His down-to-earth homespun philosophies endear him to politicians who run him for State Assembly as Honest Abe, and ambitious Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon) sees immediately that this is a man she can mold over time to rise to the greatest political heights, the Presidency. But despite his pacifism, the country around Abe is in turmoil over the problem of slavery, and Abe finds himself butting heads with the feisty, calculating Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart) for both a senate seat and later the Presidency.
Robert E. Sherwood has adapted his stage work with an assist by Grover Jones into a very concise biographical picaresque taking Abe from gangling Kentucky farm boy to the newly bearded president-elect on the train to Washington, D.C. Great chunks of his life, of course, have been eliminated (we go from his election to State Assembly to his decision in the next scene not to run for reelection with nothing in-between to suggest his frustrations with the life of a local politician), and other portions seem terribly romanticized (the meet cute with Ann while chasing a pig: a hilarious sequence beautifully staged by director John Cromwell that completely opens up the stage version for the screen). Montages also abbreviate the passage of time as the slavery turmoil grows to vicious dimensions and divides the country. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are condensed into a single speech for each man (both beautifully performed by their respective actors), and the final sequence with the overwhelming crowd of friends gathering at the foot of the train as Abe speaks his tremendously moving words of farewell can’t help but move even the hardest heart who has come to know Abe’s goodness and decency throughout the movie (even if the use of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a bit too obvious in ever-rising climactic swells as the picture ends).
Nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, Raymond Massey has powerfully and beautifully adjusted his stage performance as Lincoln for the screen: he delivers speeches more as asides rather than pontifications. His best moments occur in his “House Divided Against Itself” speech during the debate and his monumental correction of Mary, something we had waited all the movie to occur. Ruth Gordon’s Mary Todd Lincoln is played as something of a shrew; she doesn’t enter until more than three-quarters of an hour of the picture have run, and most of her scenes find her either unflatteringly cocksure of her allure or painfully embittered by her husband’s lack of fascination with her. Still, it’s a memorable screen debut for her. Equally harpy-like is Dorothy Tree as Mary’s elitist sister Elizabeth who has nothing but disdain for Abe’s common upbringing. Alan Baxter as law clerk Billy Herndon has good chemistry with Massey as his hero worship of Abe is on full display. Gene Lockhart has imbued Stephen Douglas with some traces of humanity surrounded by his pompous outer shell while Mary Howard’s Ann Rutledge is perhaps just a bit too saintly for comfort. In smaller roles, Howard da Silva makes a marvelous town bully Jack Armstrong, and Charles Middleton and Elisabeth Risdon get the picture off to a terrific start as Abe’s stern but understanding parents.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. At its best, the image as photographed by the great James Wong Howe is gorgeous with deep black levels and lots of details in faces to be seen easily (the entertaining brawl between Armstrong and Lincoln makes it clear that stunt doubles are being used in the long shots). But there are several occasions of a missing frame which cause abrupt jumps in presentation, and a couple of scenes seem soft and are obviously taken from something several generations from the original negative. The movie has been divided into 36 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is on the whole very nice, but careful listeners will occasionally hear some soft hiss and some random scratchiness. Otherwise, the dialogue has been professionally combined with the music and sound effects to make an effective final product.
Special Features: 1/5
Lux Radio Theater (59:57): a 1940 radio adaptation of the film with Raymond Massey reprising his title role and featuring Fay Bainter as Mary and Otto Kruger as Douglas. Hosted by Cecil B. DeMille.
John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois doesn’t profess to be a full biography of Lincoln’s rise to political heights, but the story of his years of struggle to find his place in the world nevertheless commands attention and admiration. Recommended!
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