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Abraham Lincoln

09 Feb

Abraham Lincoln— directed by D.W. Griffith. Biopic. 97 minutes. Black and White 1930.

The Story: A child is born, falls in love with a pretty girl who dies, becomes a raconteur, lawyer, debates the issues of the day, jilts his fiancée on their wedding day, becomes President, moves into The White House with his bad tempered wife, conducts a war, is murdered at a theatre.
~
This is a first sound picture about the Civil War which those who had lived through it could hear. It is a Classics Comics Civics class lesson. It touches base with all the already salient points.

Every camera set-up is beautiful. But stalled. Probably because the microphones of 1930 could not move, the camera setups never do. So scenes, while perfect, look posed.

This matches the posed style of the acting. Each actor’s voice gazes off into clouds of white grandeur. Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth tenses his eyeballs and declaims like the histrionic blowhard we are told Booth was. Kay Hammond is simply peculiar as tittering Mary Todd. Una Merkle’s pecking voice begs the question of romance with her monotonous poetical recitative. Griffith had a good eye but a poor ear.

To look at silent film acting today is to find it was more often modern than it was old-fashioned. The female actors particularly—Pickford, Bow, Davies, Talmage—are realistic actors in the modern sense. Their stories date but their work does not date.

But Griffith’s actors are of a different style. They stuff themselves with the big gestures of the theatre, just as they did in his early films. Griffith was evidently not interested in acting or didn’t understand it or felt the big gestural style he had always used was right. So, because it is emotionally and visibly stagnant the movie mainly plays as a series of tableaux. It could have been rescued by the performances.

Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Daniel Day-Lewis have played Lincoln, but Walter Huston, the first to so in a leading role in a full-length sound film, is the one perhaps best suited to Lincoln. He brings to the part his six foot height and his forthrightness. He brings to everything he plays and to this Lincoln that rare immediacy to the audience which none of the other Lincolns possess. Nor do they possess Walter Huston’s uprightness, even-temper, fair-mindedness, and gentleness combined with rugged masculinity and a vocal technique that releases something deep in him. The classical singer, his sister Margaret Carrington trained Huston, a cheap vaudevillian, into a legitimate theatre actor when he was thirty-seven, a vocal training which also released in Huston, more than in any other actor to play him, Abe’s foundational quality: honesty.

However, Huston too plays in The Manner Orotund! Its cloud-capped nobility filters these qualities from the needful eye.

United Artists produced it beautifully, nor is it over-produced—so the interiors are just right. The battle scenes and military parade scenes are vivid and real and terrible. They are important for any director to behold so as to see how good things are done.

Lincoln was an enormously entertaining person. People gathered around him at parties because he was so much fun, and the movie includes a good many moments of Lincoln as he tells stories and jokes. Stephen Vincent Benét, who wrote the Civil War epic poem John Brown’s Body, wrote the script, were are told, so he knew the territory as well as anyone, but, about whomever it was that actually rewrote it the film’s big historical inaccuracies make one wonder.

This was Griffith’s first sound picture. He made one more and never made a full length film again. One can understand why. As a young man, Griffith had opened up the potential of the moving camera. He also understood the size of the screen to hold epic subjects. But he was a martinet who lacked a sense of humor and drank. Not a good combination for a director. Particularly one embarking on a fresh medium—sound—a year after The Crash, on a subject that needed something more intimate than a stereotypical version of a life everyone already knew. However, it was a box-office success.

The film was originally almost two hours long. United Artists pared it down to ninety-seven minutes. The shorter version is the one I saw.

 
 
 
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