Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote “you can’t go home again” and I guess that sometimes applies to films. When I was a boy and a teenager I loved the film Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Released in 1940, the film was an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s broadway play. Raymond Massey gave a stunning performance as Abraham Lincoln which has remained with me, although I have not seen the film, other than Youtube excerpts, in probably 35 years. Recently I learned that the film had been released on DVD. Purchasing it, I watched it last Friday evening.
The film was certainly as powerful as I remembered it. Raymond Massey gave an eerily on target performance as Abraham Lincoln and Gene Lockhart was magnificent as Lincoln’s great antagonist, Stephen A. Douglas. However, in the intervening decades I had learned quite a bit about Lincoln and his time and several aspects of the film I found grating:
1. Historical howlers: Every Hollywood “historical” epic tends to commit sins against the historical record, but Abe Lincoln in Illinois had some egregious ones:
a. Jack Armstrong, one of Lincoln’s earliest New Salem friends, is shown as offering to throw a tomato at Stephen A. Douglas during one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. I assume it was his ghost since Armstrong died in 1854.
b. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry which occurred in 1859 is shown as taking place before the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Senate race.
c. Lincoln is shown as receiving a military bodyguard immediately after being elected. No such protection was afforded the president-elect by President Buchanan, even though Lincoln was deluged with death threats.
d. In an affecting scene, the citizens of Springfield begin singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic as Lincoln heads off to Washington in February of 1861. The song wouldn’t be written until November of that year and not published until 1862.
2. Ann Rutledge-The film spends a great deal of time depicting the romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. There is virtually no historical support for this charming old fable.
3. Lincoln the Reluctant-Lincoln is shown as a very reluctant politician. Rubbish! Lincoln loved politics and was an enthusiastic participant throughout his life.
4. Mary the Shrew-Mary Todd Lincoln is depicted in the film as a shrew who drives an ambitiousless Lincoln forward to fulfill his destiny very much against his will. Lincoln had quite enough ambition on his own. By most accounts the Lincolns had a loving marriage, with the usual ups and downs familiar to most married couples who stay together through good and bad times.
5. Billy Herndon-It is easy to see where the playwright got most of his misinformation about Lincoln: the memoir of Lincoln written by his drunken law partner William Herndon. Herndon’s work, while containing much of real historical value, is often unreliable, especially in regard to Mary Todd Lincoln who Herndon cordially loathed. He was also one of the earliest proponents of the Ann Rutledge myth. Springfield attorney Milton Hay, a contemporary of Lincoln and Herndon, sums up the actual Lincoln-Herndon relationship well: “He was a poor, forlorn fellow who got on the right side of Lincoln, and that
was one of Lincoln’s abounding traits, that if any person moved his sympathies he would go to their relief. It was Herndon’s poverty and hard luck that made Lincoln take to him. Now, you must remember that Mr. Lincoln had but little local practice in the city of Springfield. He went on what is called the
circuits, following the judges around through the counties. It was not of much consequence for him to have an office in Springfield. He took Herndon into
partnership, and put him in the office at Springfield to build up a local practice if he could, under the name of the firm of Lincoln & Herndon. He
did not give any of the depth of his intimacy of character to Mr. Herndon. He was tolerant and kind to him, but he did not go to him to pour out his soul and communicate his thoughts.”
6. Lincoln and the 1860 Election-Lincoln is depicted in the film as being a reluctant candidate for President, an almost unknown black horse chosen by wheelers and dealers within the Republican party. Actually Lincoln went into the Republican convention of 1860 second only to frontrunner Seward in delegate strength. He was a national figure due to the coverage given to the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and probably the odds on favorite for the nomination when consideration was given to the number of powerful enemies Seward had made within the Republican party.
Having said all that, as a work of art the film is a magnificent tribute to Lincoln and is at its finest in the scene below which captures well, not only the Lincoln-Douglas debate, but also the power of Lincoln as an orator: