Just as the last few years have produced a few Lincoln films (“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” and “The Conspirator”), several films about Lincoln came out in the dawning era of “talkies.” Then, just as now, the films drew crowds to their Washington premieres, which were covered in the Post. How do some of the other Lincoln flicks stack up?
“Abraham Lincoln,” directed by D.W. Griffith, with Walter Huston in the title role, was reviewed in 1930 by an unbylined Post reporter, who noted that it was Griffith’s “first all-talking picture.” “There are 150 speaking parts in the production, said to be the largest number in the history of talking pictures,” wrote the critic. “Griffith does not present Lincoln as a superman, but rather as a human being, with all a human being’s weaknesses — a man battling against the same difficulties as those which beset us all.”
John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” starring Henry Fonda, focused on Lincoln’s early life as a lawyer and debuted in Washington at the Lowe’s Palace Theater. In 1939, Nelson B. Bell wrote in his Washington Post column, “About the Showstops,” “It is fresh, intelligent and moving, and captures what most of us believe to have been the true spirit of the young Lincoln. The drama disclosed here is kindly, mildly prophetic and completely engrossing.”
Max Gordon’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” an adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning Robert Sherwood play, counted Eleanor Roosevelt among the audience in its Washington premiere at a theater called RKO-Keith’s. The Post’s Nelson Bell noted in 1940 that Roosevelt apologized for crossing a picket line of protesters to enter the theater, which was the target of a protest for its policy of excluding African Americans. “Police locked hands and forced a path through the crowd for Mrs. Roosevelt,” he wrote. “Everybody cheered.”
“It is the uncertain, wavering and distrustful young Lincoln, blind to the qualities of greatness his friends saw in him, who is depicted in this play and film,” wrote Bell. “It is a play, in whatever form, that every American should see, not once but many times, in order that its message may clearly be heard and fully absorbed. It is as imperishable as the stars and stripes.”
Just as all of these previous Lincoln biopics received high praise, so too did Steven Spielberg’s film, in theaters now. Read Ann Hornaday’s review here.