Lincoln on Screen: Celebrating National Heroes

Between 1938 and 1941, Hollywood produced a cycle of films about President Abraham Lincoln, a trend described by the critic Andrew Sarris as “obsessive reincarnation” of Lincoln in the national mythology.

The Depression was ending and, with the news from Europe indicating a world war, Hollywood thought that films about national commitment and sacrifice were in order. The mythology of Lincoln in American history could be understood on many levels, particularly his embodiment of small-town values. Lincoln stood for egalitarianism and democracy, reflected in the simplicity of the Gettysburg address. He preserved the Union and helped liberate the slaves, but this led to the Civil War.

As Sarris noted, there was also a personal dimension: his triumphs commingle with many tragedies (his first love, Ann Rutledge, died). However, this personal suffering made him a quintessential American hero, a martyr.

Of Human Hearts

Lincoln’s benevolence was evoked in MGM’s Of Human Hearts” (1938), an idyllic family saga, set in a small Ohio town. The story deals with a “rebellious” son, Jason Wilkins (James Stewart), who, defying his minister father’s restrictive code, attends medical school. Distinguishing himself as a surgeon in the Civil War, he fails to write to his mother, who thereupon thinks he is dead. But she appeals to Lincoln, who summons him from the front line and sends him home on a furlough.

In this rather sentimental piece of Americana, John Carradine played Lincoln, but it was Beulah Bondi who won acclaim and Supporting Actress nomination as Stewart’s mother.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois

In John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940), based on Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Lincoln was played by Raymond Massey, who recreated his stage role.

The film was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actor for Raymond Massey and Cinematography (black-and white) for James Wong Howe.

The part became a signature role for Massey, who had earlier appeared in the play on Broadway. And Massey repeated the part in John Ford’s Western anthology, “How the West Was Won.”

Young Mr. Lincoln

But it is John Ford’s epic, Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), an unusually effective biography, which captured the origins of Lincoln’s mythology. One of the decade’s most important films, it was admired by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein because of its embodiment of the national spirit.

See long essays on Ford’s movie, which was first “discovered,” analyzed, and admired by the French critics in Cahiers du Cinema.