Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

Dir. John Cromwell. Starring Raymond Massey, Gene Lockhart, Ruth Gordon

Why was Lincoln two and a half hours long when the only things that anyone cared about were Daniel Day-Lewis saying “Now! Now!” and that one dude speaking the greatest line in movie history? I am mostly kidding, because I do recall going to theaters to see that and enjoying the movie. I was bothered, as I think a number of critics and regular viewers alike were bothered, by an excessively dragged out ending. There’s this wonderful shot of Day-Lewis walking away from the camera, and we know that he’s headed to the theater that night where he will be assassinated, because all of us at least went to elementary school…and then the movie just kind of keeps going. The night is recounted, but not from Lincoln’s point of view. And then, it just kind of keeps going! Lincoln’s Second Inaugural shows up, which is one of my favorite Lincoln speeches, but it’s also the third ending of the last few minutes and when it faded to black, I expected something else to happen. I bring all this up not to pile on Lincoln or anything like that, but because seventy-some years before, they’d already made a movie about the guy which ends perfectly. I wouldn’t compare John Cromwell to Steven Spielberg, surely, but by the same token, I’m not sure Janusz Kaminski benefits from a comparison to James Wong Howe.

The movie ends with a version of Lincoln’s Farewell Address that he gives from the back of a train as it takes him away from Springfield, and that one is the speech, short as it was, that tells us something about Lincoln the man. In it he expresses his trepidation about the enormous job that he will need to do as president, although I don’t think anyone, including him, could have imagined what kind of a job it would turn out to be in the end. About half of it is a brief disquisition on the will of God, a topic he was fond of considering. And in the beginning, he notes how sad it is to leave his adopted city. The movie goes in a different direction with that speech—they keep some of the first half for old Abe,but they also add a lot more, including a section that rejects the idea of “This too shall pass”—but the effect is much the same. We know that when the train passes the Springfield city limits, he will have left it for the last time; it is one of the tidy tragedies of American history that like hundreds of thousands of others, the Civil War should have prevented Abraham Lincoln from ever going home again. The movie ends with a fade to black as well, but it comes after a stunning shot. Placed behind the first few rows of the throng that is now singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to their beloved fellow citizen (like you’re so historically accurate), the camera watches the train recede.

It’s a good shot for many reasons. For one, there’s something really lovely about how fake the studio lot is here, because all movies are just funhouse mirrors put together with spit anyway. The distance contained in the shot is also a wonder: assuming that really is Raymond Massey on the train (no doubt being pulled away by a car or horses or something), we can see the gap between crowd and president-elect. They rushed up to him when he was giving them his benediction, but now they keep a respectful distance. They do not run after the carriage, throwing hats or shouting goodbye. They can sense the sobriety of the moment, perhaps even feel the omen of doom that hindsight lets us in on. Lincoln reflects them alone, as any president necessarily does; he is no longer of this group, but is entirely separate from it because of his power and his responsibility. But most of all, I love how they light up the smoke, because it signifies so many different possibilities. In one sense, it’s like Lincoln is being driven to the scene of a fire to help put it out. The smoke is so puffy that it’s hard not to imagine clouds, as if the storm is about to envelop him. Or maybe it is the fog of war, the smoke which rises above a battlefield. And then the fade to black happens, and we see this:

That’s death talking. Either it’s the fires of Hell or the clouds around the pearly gates, but in the last second or two of light that the film has before “THE END” it’s about Lincoln dying. This is how your Lincoln movie ought to end, succinctly and with such an image that lingers after the movie is over. It’s such a jawdropping moment that it singlehandedly rescues a movie that doesn’t have much else going for it. Heck, I am only writing about this movie because that shot is so good.

If the financial history of Abe Lincoln in Illinois is any hint, people were apparently not all that enthused by seeing another Lincoln origin story. Young Mr. Lincoln, much the superior movie anyway, had come out the year before, and ten years earlier people had seen Walter Huston do a similar bit in the Griffith movie Abraham Lincoln, which also centers on the man while he was still an unassuming and lovelorn nobody in Illinois. (Feel free to rag on Lincoln, but you have to respect the ambition and freshness of portraying him as the president, not as the guy who would one day become president. Watching Ann Rutledge die this often is sort of like getting a bunch of movies where Uncle Ben gets shot by a criminal who Peter could have stopped without ever giving us much Spider-Man action.) That this is not really the one to see, either, doesn’t help much, although there are a number of decent performances if not necessarily decent scenes. Raymond Massey appears to be playing someone besides his own star image, which I’m not sure we can say of Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln, and while he’s not much of an entity in his scenes with other people, his declamations are stirring. The timbre of his voice doesn’t change much, and so there’s an interesting decision made to make Lincoln a mostly monotone character when he’s speaking his piece, almost like a human Bolero. But Massey is good enough to emphasize certain words, and his voice has the deep folksiness that I think most people want to imagine Lincoln had. As for just about everyone else in the movie, they’re…fine. I like Howard da Silva as a local tough named Jack who Lincoln beats in a wrasslin’ match (yes, this is one of the movies that emphasizes that Lincoln was a wrassler), and who later becomes a pal and enforcer for his more noble friend. In one sequence, while Lincoln is leading a review of his little company of soldiers so they can head off to the Black Hawk War, he confides in Jack that he has completely forgotten the command he’s supposed to give so the men don’t run into a fence, and Jack, who is only the sergeant, begs out of responsibility himself. There are adequate scenes with people like Ruth Gordon and Mary Howard as the women in Lincoln’s life, and if nothing else Gene Lockhart does a nice job being the straight man for some jokes at Stephen A. Douglas’ expense, but for the most part this is one of those costume dramas that basically puts everyone into costumes and fake beards and tells them to go for it. If there were no other movies about Abraham Lincoln, and especially about the pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the novelty of it would carry it over the finish line, but alas for Abe Lincoln in Illinois that its competition is just better in everything but the last ten seconds of the picture.

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