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Out of the Vaults: “Abraham Lincoln”, 1930

By the 1920’s, director D.W. Griffith’s star was fading. His controversial but successful The Birth of a Nation was behind him and his later movies barely broke even at the box office, his cost overruns a regular feature of his filmmaking. But he pressed ahead to make his first talkie for United Artists, Abraham Lincoln in 1930, with a production budget of $1 million. It would be his penultimate movie, the film sold as “the biggest undertaking yet launched in talking pictures.” Griffith would say to the Pittsburgh Press of August 31, 1930 that “Abraham Lincoln, to my mind, is the finest thing I have ever done.” His title card on the film reads – ‘Personally directed by D.W. Griffith.’

Lincoln had been a character in The Birth of a Nation, and Griffith decided to devote a whole movie to him inspired by a 1926 biography by poet Carl Sandburg. The script was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, the Pulitzer Prize-winner in 1929 for his poem “John Brown’s Body.”

Griffith’s father had been a Confederate Army colonel in the Civil War, and Griffith was firmly on the Confederate side, sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan as demonstrated in Birth. In a filmed interview with Walter Huston (who plays the title role in Abraham Lincoln) shown as a prologue to the reissue of Birth in 1930, Griffith talks about his Southern sympathies. “I suppose it began when I was a child. I used to get under the table and listen to my father and his friends talk about the battles they’d been through and their struggles. Those things impress you deeply. And I suppose that got into Birth. Huston then asks him, “Do you feel as though it were true?” His answer is “Yes, I feel so … That’s natural enough, you know. When you’ve heard your father tell about fighting, day after day, night after night. And have nothing to eat but parched corn. And about your mother staying up night after night, sewing robes for the Klan. The Klan at that time was needed. It served a purpose.”

But in Abraham Lincoln, Griffith switches sides and portrays Lincoln as a hero. The film spans his entire life from birth to death, and the script takes pains to show Lincoln as a human being: a man in love, his depression at the death of his girlfriend, his humor and sense of camaraderie with his fellows, a devoted father and patient husband, and a steadfast commander-in-chief, determined to hold the Union together no matter the current cost if it meant a united country for future generations.

The film is episodic and shows vignettes from Lincoln’s life interspersed with a few battle scenes. It opens with a prologue on a slave ship (missing in some versions) in which the deplorable conditions of slaves below decks are shown, and one dead slave is tossed overboard. Then it goes on to Lincoln’s birth in the famous log cabin, shows him working at his rail-splitting job that supports his law studies, his love affair with Ann Rutledge who dies before they can marry and his subsequent depression, and his courtship of Mary Todd. Then we see him lamenting his failure to accomplish anything at age 50 to the partner of his law practice; his subsequent run for president; going head to head with Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee, and winning the presidency; the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Civil War and the dispatches he receives about its progress in the White House; the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation; his reelection that is mentioned in one scene; then his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in a scene recreated at the Ford’s Theater, similar to the one he filmed for Birth.

Huston, as mentioned before, plays Lincoln, with lifts in his shoes to replicate Lincoln’s height. The nuances of being on camera with audio for the first time were lost on the director and his stars – the declamatory acting style of the theater is maintained throughout the movie, stagy and awkward with long pauses between dialogue. One line – “the Union must be preserved” – is pronounced weightily at least ten times. In one scene, he wanders around the White House in bathrobe and socks, worrying about the war, still declaiming to Mary when she asks him to go to bed.  

The script does no one any favors with lines like “Yes, Abe, you’ve got your gingerbread,” which is Ann’s response to Lincoln’s proposal. Una Merkel, a respected stage actress doing her first talkie (and who would go on to a very good career), is Ann Rutledge, and comes across as simpering and coy, her intimate scenes with Huston cringeworthy. The unfortunate Mary Todd (Kay Hammond) is written as a self-absorbed shrew, and the villain Booth played by Ian Keith stops short of twirling imaginary mustachios but goes full steam ahead orating his lines with bulging eyes and clenched fists, all in heavy makeup which includes eyeliner. Huston himself has noticeable lipstick in some early scenes.

There are historical inaccuracies. The Lincoln-Douglas debates omit the subject of slavery altogether and focus on secession. In reality, the Union soldiers did not fire on Charleston, SC from Fort Sumter to start the Civil War, but the incident is portrayed as such though the reverse is true. The Secret Service delivers reports to Lincoln in the film, but it wasn’t established until after Lincoln’s death. And Lincoln delivers portions of his Gettysburg address at Ford’s theater just before he is killed – the entire Gettysburg speech completely missing from the film. And aside from the brief scene where he is showed signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the subject of ending slavery, Lincoln’s abiding obsession and his proudest accomplishment, is given short shrift. Griffith’s whole emphasis (and therefore his Lincoln’s) is on the subject of secession.  

There is one shocking scene that shows Griffith’s lip service to the subject of slavery. While in the prologue there seem to be actual Black men portraying slaves, in a later scene a ‘good Negro’ is played by a white man in blackface telling white Southerners that he wanted no part of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and that he threw away the gun he was given.

But technically, there is much to admire in this movie given the context. The roving camera in the war scenes is especially effective, particularly in the post-Bull Run montage and the Battle Cry of Freedom sequence. Griffith pioneered the fade-out, the close-up, and the use of miniatures, though his use of one of the Lincoln Memorial in the last scenes of the movie is not quite successful.

In his biography, Griffith wrote about the eight-week shoot: “a nightmare of mind and nerves.” He resumed his drinking habit, and the picture was edited without his input. When he asked the studio for changes to the cut, he was refused.

The film is now in the public domain as the original copyright was never renewed and many versions of it are online, some missing the prologue. There is a card that precedes the restored version that says: “This restored edition of Abraham Lincoln incorporates all known existing footage of D.W. Griffith’s film. Portions of the soundtrack of the first three reels have not survived. During these sequences, dialogue and music cues are provided by subtitles.” The original film was in sepia-tone and ran 97 minutes. Several versions are now seen in black and white with the prologue missing entirely, for example, the one on Amazon Prime, but the one on YouTube has it.

The restoration of the film was done by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation, the Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.