Entry 23: Griffith on Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Written by Stephen Vincent Benet, John W. Considine, Jr., and Gerrit J. Lloyd.

Release Date: November 30, 1930.

This was a hard film to review because it required me to modify my perspective in two ways. First, although it’s impossible to ignore D. W. Griffith’s earlier, highly controversial and influential Civil War film, Birth of a Nation, I wanted to judge Abraham Lincoln on its own merits. Second, this film is 85 years old and Hollywood stage conventions were very different then, so I attempted to take the purple prose and overacting in stride. I think I failed on both counts because the film’s artistic sensibilities really did seem alien to me and the history wasn’t much better. This made watching it interesting, if not particularly enjoyable.

That being said, for the first 20 minutes I thought Abraham Lincoln was a hoot, albeit not for the right reasons. Griffith’s entire portrayal of Lincoln’s (Walter Huston) early life in New Salem is unintentionally hilarious. The future president’s courtship of Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel) is especially hilarious, reaching Anakin Skywalker / Padme Amidala levels of schmaltz and borderline creepiness. Rutledge is in a constant state of swoon, while Lincoln gushes over her in every sentence, sometimes rather suggestively (for instance: “There’s something I’d like to start right now if I thought I could finish it.”). Lincoln’s famous wrestling match with Jack Armstrong (Edgar Dearing) is also pretty ridiculous, as it erupts out of nowhere in a flurry of brash man-talk. Most egregious are the repeated ironic nods to Lincoln’s future success, as folks constantly utter phrases of the “that ugly untalented man won’t amount to anything” variety. But one can only take so much kitsch, and these elements gradually went from amusing to exhausting.

The dialogue really shouldn’t have been so bad.The head writer was Stephen Vincent Benet, a Pulitzer-prize winning author for his epic poem, “John Brown’s Body.” I haven’t read the poem but I have read his other famous work, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The man was no slouch and Abraham Lincoln has a few good lines, but the script is generally clumsy and obvious. There are two other authors credited and Griffith obviously had a strong narrative vision, so maybe Benet’s script ended up lost in translation, but this is not the work of a first-rate author. Just the number of recurring shots of Lincoln looking stoically at the camera and declaring, “the Union must be preserved!” qualify the film for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The history is a little harder to criticize, given the state of Lincoln and Civil War studies in 1930. Like his contemporary, Carl Sandburg, Benet divides his narrative between the prairie years and the presidency. The first half is pretty weak historically but its problems are forgivable because this is clearly Lincoln the legend, as opposed to Lincoln the man. Armstrong, Rutledge, Mary Todd, the Douglas debates, and the 1860 election all go by in episodic vignettes reflecting the popular image of Lincoln. He’s a self-made man propelling himself upward with a mix of folksy wisdom, unrelenting conviction, and political genius (similar to the Lincoln we saw in Star Trek but a little more rustic). The script never explicitly tries to explain Lincoln’s brilliance, but assumes the audience already reveres the man, making a chronological account of his life all that’s required.

The second half is more interesting, both cinematically and historically because Griffith’s influence is most evident. His skill as a filmmaker shines through, as he revisits some of the visuals from Birth of a Nation. Following the outbreak of war, large groups of soldiers convincingly parade through Washington and Richmond. Later, Lincoln visits an army camp and it looks completely realistic. There’s even a solid battle scene, although I never figured out which battle its supposed to be (my guess: Monocacy). Unfortunately, the themes of Birth of a Nation also bleed through. The film doesn’t avoid mentioning slavery and it does devote a scene to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Lost Cause gets the last word. Once Union victory becomes apparent, Lincoln’s only goal is reconciliation and the script sets up Robert E. Lee (Hobart Bosworth) as his partner in magnanimity. John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) is the true villain, not just for assassinating Lincoln, but for setting the table for more vindictive northerners to impose Reconstruction. This narrative is directly in line with Birth of a Nation and, although black voting is never directly addressed, only works if you deem freedpeople incapable of governing themselves.

In the end, Abraham Lincoln plays a lot like Dark Command, in that the script doesn’t quite know what it thinks about its subject. It starts as a frontier love story, shifts into a political drama, becomes a war film, and finally ends up a tragic history about the lost potential of the Civil War. In the hands of an adept scriptwriter, these four strands could work together, but here they emerge as a garbled mess. As with Birth of a Nation, the film is often visually striking, but that isn’t enough to overcome its weak dialogue and highly problematic history. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t as politically dangerous as its predecessor but its also not as interesting. Only those academically inclined or morbidly curious should devote 90 minutes to it.

Additional Dispatches

  • Mary Lincoln comes across very badly in this movie. Social mobility is her only motivation and she’s generally selfish and nasty. Ironically, Kay Hammond’s performance is electrifying and, despite the script’s demonization, Mary is usually the most compelling person onscreen. Maybe this was a bit of  Hattie McDaniel situation and Hammond was secretly smuggling a portrayal of a strong woman into a cliched depiction of a self-interested shrew.
  • Kudos to the script for having Union soldiers sing “John Brown’s Body,” instead of the far less likely “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
  • Marks off for having Lincoln misquote his own speech during a debate with Douglas: “A house divided against itself must fall.”
  • Does it mention slavery? Abraham Lincoln certainly doesn’t ignore slavery but it never really explains the institution’s role in bringing about secession or even why Lincoln was opposed to it. Having Lincoln argue against expansion in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and later sign the Emancipation Proclamation suggests slavery’s importance to the events at hand, but the script offers little context. Furthermore, even if Griffith was willing to come out against slavery, he certainly did so through the same white supremacist lens he used in Birth of a Nation. We only see African Americans twice, and neither depiction is complementary. Early on, a slave played by a white man in blackface tells a group of Virginians about John Brown’s Raid, and his exaggerated behavior and speech is perfectly in line with demeaning minstrel stereotypes. Elements of minstrelsy are also evident in the aforementioned shot of Confederates marching into Richmond, as slaves dance outlandishly along the side of the road.

Next Entry: The Proud Rebel

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5 comments

  1. David Corbett · November 30, 2015

    “I haven’t read the poem…” Teacher, mark Christian unprepared for today’s lesson .

  2. gdbrasher · November 9, 2015

    Nice work, Christian. Let me throw in just a couple of other points. When Griffith made this movie he was all but washed up and knew it. He was drinking heavily, and was pretty upset that he even HAD to make a sound picture. He didn’t like the idea of dialogue in films because he thought the talking would take away from the imagery. And to be fair, in many of the early talkies it did, because the sound recording equipment limited very heavily where you could place a camera and where and how you could move it. Which is why it is not surprising that you found the visual images in the second half of the film more compelling . . . .without the need for dialogue, his direction was more in his element and his camera free to move. It also explains the crappy dialogue, he just didn’t care for it all that much and in some ways stuck to what could be said with a title card in a silent film. Other films from this early sound era have exceptional dialogue (and a lot of it was very suggestive. Much more so than in this movie. Double entendre was the order of the day in the early talkies and some of it could be downright filthy). I’m also sure you won’t be surprised to know that he got some bad advice from Sandburg in how the story should be structured. Mix it all this together, and you get a crappy movie that did pretty lousy at the box-office. Audiences were looking for more sophisticated dialogue now that they were free from the silent era, and Griffith couldn’t deliver. Others did (some of my favorite films come from the era of 1930-32). He was a relic of the past.

    • Christian McWhirter · November 9, 2015

      Good stuff Glenn and I agree with almost all of it. We only differ in that I don’t think we can blame the dialogue on Griffith’s lack of enthusiasm. As in my review, I think the fault primarily lies with Benet, who surely should have known better. Maybe most of his stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, but I doubt it. I’ll blame Griffith for some awkward pacing and unimaginative visuals, but the words themselves were written by a skilled wordsmith, and they’re pretty terrible.

  3. Mike Kienzler · November 9, 2015

    Weirdly enough, Una Merkel was related to Abraham Lincoln, through both their mothers. http://www.sj-r.com/article/20121214/BLOGS/312149902

    • Christian McWhirter · November 9, 2015

      Her name rang a dim bell with me. Must have heard this somewhere before. Thanks for pointing it out.

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