REVIEW: Abe Lincoln in Illinois [1940]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: Approved | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: January 22nd, 1940 (USA)
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Director(s): John Cromwell
Writer(s): Robert E. Sherwood / Grover Jones (adaptation) / Robert E. Sherwood (play)

“And this too shall pass away”

Talk about destiny. If the tale woven by Robert E. Sherwood is to be believed—and I can’t find anywhere online that doesn’t exclaim Abe Lincoln in Illinois to be as accurate a telling as any—this humble young man bounced between Kentucky and Indiana before a fateful journey to New Orleans exposed the quaint town of New Salem, Illinois and its beautiful Ann Rutledge never wanted to be a politician let alone President. Sure, he didn’t want to be a farmer working alongside his father either, but to think he’d one day find the caretakers willing to give him an education and a future in law probably never crossed his mind. It seems ‘Honest’ Abe was merely too kind and generous to turn away.

Good luck finding a candidate in any race today where those two adjectives fit. Lincoln was a rare breed who stood for justice and equality knowing the sacrifices such a stance cost. So he stayed calm and collected in the background, unwittingly made the right connections thanks to friends and confidants, and positioned himself as a man the people would gladly vote for. And isn’t that the name of the game? When the party controls their candidates the main goal is simply getting elected. Then, in their minds, the victor is beholden to follow policy and do what it is they tell him. While an easy proposal in times of peace, Lincoln couldn’t afford such a luxury. His victory meant war; his reaction his alone.

But that’s for another story—see Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln for a glimpse. Sherwood and therefore director John Cromwell are interested instead with what made him into that headstrong man we know changed the face of this country for good. The American public was captivated by it too as the play for which this film is based found plenty of success on its way to a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Two short years later saw the entire country being able to watch it on the big screen. Sadly they didn’t comply and the picture was deemed a failure save two Oscar nominations (Cinematography and Lead Actor). The movie did find its footing in the classroom, however, and it does suit a venue of learning quite well.

With the use of Lincoln’s actual speeches, the piece stands as a worthwhile document of our 16th President’s ascent through the political machine. Whether Abe’s (Raymond Massey) inauspicious beginnings as a shop clerk turned Postmaster General always pining over an unavailable woman (Mary Howard‘s Rutledge) to the Assemblyman turned favorite son courted by Mary Todd’s (Ruth Gordon) childhood ambition to be First Lady, each step’s portrayed with meticulous care and careful foreboding. Lincoln’s fear of the big city as a result of believing he’d be killed can’t be taken as a mere throwaway notion. He knew what it was to keep a low profile and he’d have been happy to do exactly that. But standing in the shadows is no longer an option once political power is won.

Massey’s performance to that end is deceivingly fantastic. I was admittedly bored with the portrayal at first. He’d deliver lines with so little emotion that I wondered how he could have been nominated for an Academy Award. Then as things progressed I started realizing he was merely a shy young man trying his best to keep his nose clean like he had to back home with his father. Emotion wasn’t a high commodity in the rough Indiana wilderness and it remained something pushed aside later in life too. Instead we witness an ever-working mind weighing options and deciding whether to speak on an issue or let it lie. He’s so even-keeled normally that the moments for impact can be described as nothing short of powerful.

We get both sides of Lincoln: the regal intelligence debating and winning against a more seasoned adversary in Senator Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart) and the amiable demeanor of an everyman able to win over local judges and infamous hooligans in equal measure removed from the political sector. It’s the latter that I found most inspiring because his ideals and empathy made him a respected man and a feared one depending on whether you found him standing in your way. He was very much underestimated because of this, everyone believing him a pushover except those who knew him well (see Douglas). As Massey plays the role, there was always a fire burning inside Abe Lincoln. He simply needed outside help to feed it and let it spread.

With that said, I can’t help feel the film itself lacks panache. While perfectly suited for the classroom to disseminate factual history, it’s far from an engrossing work that audience members will exult upon leaving the theater. No, Abe Lincoln in Illinois is solid and little more: excelling at its term paper veracity but merely serviceable in entertainment value. However, despite my never saying, “I really want to watch Cromwell’s take on Lincoln’s campaign years again,” I will proclaim it deserves a look. Maybe that viewing is in school with a teacher painting a portrait of one of our nation’s favorite sons or the product of stumbling upon it on TV. Either way, it’s nice to see a politician depicted with integrity. Those are few and far between.

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