Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940): John Cromwell’s Biopic, Starring Raymond Massey in Oscar-Nominated Role

Nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Actor Raymond Massey in the title role, the other for James Wong Howe’s b/w cinematography, Abe Linclon in Lincoln was the second film within one year (the first was John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939) to deal with that president.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (film).jpg

Theatrical release poster

As the story begins, Abe Lincoln gets out of the woods for the first time, having been hired along with two friends by Denton Offutt (Harlan Briggs) to take a load of pigs to New Orleans. When the boat gets stuck at a New Salem dam, Abe meets and falls for Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard), the beautiful daughter of the local tavern keeper. When Denton offers him a job at a store set in New Salem, Abe readily accept.

Though Abe finds out that Ann already has a beau, he settles in, and makes himself popular with his good-natured humor and lessons from schoolteacher Mentor Graham. When his rival for Ann’s affections leaves, Ann waits for two years before getting a hesitant letter from him. Abe seizes the day and expresses love for her, but she is unsure of her feelings. She soon dies from brain fever, telling Abe on her deathbed that she could have loved him.

Asked to run for the State Assembly, Abe reluctantly accepts and wins, but after his first term in Springfield, he decides to study law.  When Mary Todd visits her sister Elizabeth Edwards (Dorothy Tree) and her influential husband Ninian (Harvey Stephens), a party is held in her honor. The eligible bachelors show up, including Abe’s fiercest political rival, Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart). However, it is the homely, unpolished Abe who catches Mary’s eye, much to her sister’s chagrin.

Sensing greatness in him, Mary is determined to drive Abe to his rightful destiny, despite his lack of ambition. Abe does ask her to marry him, but changes his mind at the last minute, discomfited by her drive. After thinking things over, however, he asks for her hand again, and she accepts.

With presidential election looming, Abe’s party is split and its leaders compromise on Abe Lincoln as “the dark horse.”  He engages in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, the opposing candidate over the main issue, slavery.

In a stirring speech, Abe contends that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and wins the election. As the film ends, Abe bids his friends goodbye and boards a train to Washington, DC.

Massey’s performance conveys Lincoln’s wit and charisma. but the film suffers from several historical inaccuracies and director John Cromwell’s overly melodramatic approach.

In the supporting role, Gene Lockhart gives a broad interpretation as Stephen A. Douglas, and critics at the time faulted Ruth Gordon for her aggressive interpretation of the doom-haunted Mrs. Lincoln.

Grover Jones’s screenplay is based on Robert E. Sherwood’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which Raymond Massey had originated the role. Lincoln became a signature role for Massey, who would again play him in the anthology Western, How the West Was Won.

Endowed with an impressive voice and strong physical presence, Massey played effectively other strong historical roles, such as abolitionist John Brown in the 1940 Errol Flynn’s vehicle, Santa Fe Trail and Seven Angry Men.  And Massey brought his historical role full circle, when he was cast as the father of Lincoln’s assassin, Junius Brutus Booth, in Prince of Players.

John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” with a terrific Henry Fonda in the lead, is a better picture than “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” though the Academy neglected to nominate Fonda, instead giving a nod to Lamar Trotti who wrote the Original Story.

Raymond Massey gave his last appearance as Abraham Lincoln in 1963 in How the West Was Won, reprising a part he had previously played in all three mediums: stage, screen, and TV (The Day Lincoln Was Shot).

Released in April of 1940, the film was not embraced by viewers, and RKO recorded a loss of $740,000, making it one of the studio’s biggest financial disasters.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actor: Raymond Massey
Camera (black-white): James Wong Howe

Oscar Awards:


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor was James Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story.” George Barnes won the Cinematography Oscar for “Rebecca.”


Directed by John Cromwell
Produced by Max Gordon
Written by Grover Jones

Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on the 1938 play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” by Robert E. Sherwood
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Edited by George Hively

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: April 19, 1940
Running time: 110 minutes
Budget $1,004,000
Box office $666,000