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Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Abe Lincoln in Illinois(1940)

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teaser Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

On Feb. 12, 1940, RKO released Abe Lincoln in Illinois a mere nine months after Twentieth Century Fox had released Young Mr. Lincoln. Both pictures covered the same events in Lincoln's life, and both featured major stars portraying the President - Henry Fonda in the Fox film, Raymond Massey in the RKO film.

Ironically, Young Mr. Lincoln was the more successful of the two and is better known today even though Massey's performance as Lincoln is the one for which he will forever be remembered. Massey had perfected the role on Broadway in Robert Sherwood's masterful play, which opened in October 1938. The play had special resonance in Depression-era America; Lincoln's determination to fight for the moral principles upon which the United States was founded felt urgent and timely. As the play became a huge hit and won the Pulitzer Prize, Hollywood took notice, even though the industry knew that Fox was already in production on Young Mr. Lincoln. Offers for the movie rights started pouring in.

Massey did not hold out much hope that he would get to reprise his role because, as he later explained, "In the twenties and thirties a stage actor was hardly ever chosen to repeat his role on the screen. Good plays were reserved for the many stars on contract. In trade papers and gossip columns, about the only star who was not mentioned as a probability for the screen Abe was W.C. Fields." But as it turned out, independent producer Max Gordon wound up with the film rights (for $250,000, a hefty sum in those days) and chose Massey to play the role. Massey was still performing on Broadway and agreed to do it with the assurance that he would rejoin the original Broadway cast for a touring production once shooting was over.

The picture was shot mostly in Hollywood with three weeks on location in Oregon, doubling as Illinois. Writing in his memoirs, Massey recalled sharing the screen in Oregon with many barnyard animals, including "fifty pigs which the young Lincoln managed to deposit in the McKenzie River when, by his inexpert navigation, a raft carrying the pigs careened over a waterfall. It was a scene which could only be shot once a day, for it took some eight hours to get the raft back above the waterfall. But without any rehearsal, the pigs entered into the spirit of the scene and all gave superb performances, acting with porcine abandon. They were all tilted into the river and showed the onlooking salmon how swimming should really be done. We got it on the first take with all the cameras."

All that work on the pig sequence resulted in about one minute of screen time. By contrast, the crew shot the Lincoln-Douglas debate scene, one of the highlights of the movie, in a single night on the RKO lot - resulting in 13 minutes of finished film.

When the release print was ready in December 1939, Massey was touring with the stage company in Detroit. He saw the film there and was surprised to see that a key scene of the story had been deleted: "the prairie scene with the beautiful prayer for the sick boy, the scene which explained Abe Lincoln's recognition of his destiny. Without it the story had become a documentary, a procession of episodes." Massey called Robert Sherwood, who was "heartbroken" about the cut but had resigned himself to it. Determined to fix the problem, Massey then called the film's producer, Max Gordon, but all he got was a terse, "You've been paid, mind your own business!" That was that.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois debuted in Washington, D.C. The night before the official premiere, Massey, Sherwood and their wives had dinner at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, followed by a special screening for the President. Massey remembered, "Bob and I sat next to President Roosevelt. He was in jovial spirits and seemed to enjoy the picture. He muttered, 'He wrote those speeches himself!'" Critics loved Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Raymond Massey was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar®. James Wong Howe also was nominated for his black and white cinematography. But the public stayed away and the studio took a $750,000 loss. Perhaps they'd just been Lincolned out.

Massey would play Lincoln again in the movie How the West Was Won (1962), the play The Rivalry, and on TV and radio.

Producer: Max Gordon
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, Grover Jones
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: George Hively
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Ruth Gordon (Mary Todd Lincoln), Gene Lockhart (Stephen Douglas), Mary Howard (Ann Rutledge), Dorothy Tree (Elizabeth Edwards).
BW-110 min. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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teaser Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)

Cinematographer James Wong Howe garnered the second of ten Academy Award nominations for his evocative cinematography in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), directed by John Cromwell. Raymond Massey stars as Lincoln in this episodic film biography that traces the life and times of America's 16th president from his humble beginnings to his first sweetheart and early law practice through his final years in the White House.

The film was based on the popular Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood. While Sherwood was still writing the play, he didn't have any specific actor in mind for the part of Lincoln. However, one night in 1936, Sherwood's friend actress Ruth Gordon gave him opening night tickets to the Broadway play Ethan Frome in which she was starring opposite Raymond Massey. Sherwood immediately recognized Massey's talent and striking physical resemblance to the gangly Lincoln. According to Gordon's 1976 memoir My Side, Sherwood excitedly phoned her after the play saying, "You've found my Abe Lincoln for me! Ray's a friend, but I never thought of him."

When the stage version became a success in New York during the fall of 1938, offers to buy the movie rights began pouring in from all the major studios. However, Massey held little hope of being asked to reprise his role on the big screen since Hollywood usually preferred to use big name movie stars. When producer Max Gordon offered him the film role, he was elated. Massey kept his approach to playing Lincoln simple. "I had done no research beyond reading Carl Sandburg's The Prairie Years," Massey recounted in his 1979 autobiography, A Hundred Different Lives, "and the Lincoln books that everyone reads." Instead, he based his characterization primarily on Sherwood's screenplay.

The first three weeks of shooting took place on location in Oregon. It was slow going, according to Massey, due to a lack of cooperation from the various animals being used in the early farm life scenes. The filming of the first scene was disrupted by renegade chipmunks that were "liberated" at the word 'Action!' and bit the property master on the set. And it took two days to shoot a scene in which fifty pigs on Lincoln's raft careen over a short waterfall--a scene that ended up lasting roughly one minute on film. According to Massey in his autobiography, the Oregon production crew ended up with only "an astonishing small amount of finished footage, about 8 percent of the total picture. But once back in the studio we really made progress. In only one night on the RKO back lot, in a stifling temperature of 101, we shot the Lincoln-Douglas debate scene. That was about thirteen minutes of finished film." More than anything, Massey enjoyed working with his fellow actors Gene Lockhart (as Stephen Douglas) and former Ethan Frome co-star Ruth Gordon (as wife Mary Todd Lincoln).

All in all, Massey was pleased with his work on Abe Lincoln in Illinois but when he saw a preview of the film during the editing phase, he noticed something was missing: "I realized that an entire scene had been cut, the prairie scene with the beautiful prayer for the sick boy! The fulcrum of the stage play...the scene which explained Abe Lincoln's recognition of his destiny - that scene had been excised from the picture!" He pleaded his case to the director but finally let the matter drop when producer Max Gordon shouted at him, "You've been paid, mind your own business!"

When Abe Lincoln in Illinois was completed and ready for release, Washington D.C. was chosen as the logical place for the film's world premiere. At first RKO, who was releasing the film, had wanted Massey to arrive by train in full Abraham Lincoln costume and makeup. Producer Max Gordon vehemently rejected the idea, and it subsequently didn't happen. Instead, Massey escorted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the Keith's Theater as his guest for the preview. Her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had watched the film the night before at a private White House screening and, according to Massey, Roosevelt seemed to enjoy it. "He wrote those speeches himself!" Roosevelt reportedly muttered in admiration during the movie.

The 16th president was a source of popular interest when Abe Lincoln in Illinois was released in 1940. Less than a year before, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) had come out covering much of the same material and starring Henry Fonda in the title role. The positive values that Lincoln represented lent optimism to Americans, as the threats of Hitler and Totalitarianism were very much in the public consciousness. In addition to James Wong Howe's nomination for cinematography, Abe Lincoln in Illinois also received an Academy Award nomination for Raymond Massey as Best Actor. Though he went on to star in many other films, Massey always remained best known for this performance.

Producer: Max Gordon
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, Grover Jones
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: George Hively
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Ruth Gordon (Mary Todd Lincoln), Gene Lockhart (Stephen Douglas), Mary Howard (Ann Rutledge), Dorothy Tree (Elizabeth Edwards).
BW-110 min.

by Andrea Passafiume

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