Between the early 1910s and the early 1920s, Griffith had done more than any other single filmmaker to transform cinema from a diversion into an art form, reaching the peak of his achievement in technically brilliant melodramas like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920). But as the 1920s proceeded, his sentimental stories and old-fashioned attitudes undermined his popularity and reduced his standing in the industry he had helped create. At the end of the '20s he had a contract with United Artists that studio president Joseph Schenck would have been happy to cancel. Griffith was exhausted, his films were only breaking even at the box office, and he was drinking a lot to ease the pain. He might never have made another picture if the idea of an Abraham Lincoln biopic hadn't occurred to him, probably inspired by the first two volumes of an eponymous biography by author and poet Carl Sandburg, which had been published to much acclaim in 1926. Lincoln had figured in The Birth of a Nation, and Griffith saw promise in giving the sixteenth president a movie of his own.
Griffith contacted Sandburg about collaborating on the project, and although they couldn't strike a deal, Griffith evidently absorbed the poet's advice that the movie should be "a series of personality sketches." Abraham Lincoln is a highly episodic film, continually jumping from one set piece to another, with Walter Huston's rangy Lincoln at the center of every one. Honest Abe is born in the legendary log cabin; studies law while working at outdoor jobs; loses first love Ann Rutledge to a fatal illness; marries Mary Todd and opens a law office; considers himself a failure at 50; accepts an invitation to run for president; presides over the Civil War because he's determined to keep the country whole; signs the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery; wins a second term as president in 1864; and gets assassinated by John Wilkes Booth a few months later. These and other famous events are presented like tableaus in a historical pageant; in some of them Huston gives Lincoln a spark of real feeling mooning over Ann, winning a fight, brooding over the future but the net result is more a history lesson than a human drama, and not a particularly good history lesson at that. The film avoids the more complicated aspects of Lincoln's life, such as his deep depressions, and reduces the momentous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 to a few alternating close-ups of the speakers uttering what we now call sound bites. The speed and swirl that Griffith had spoken of are rarely evident.
The mediocrity of Abraham Lincoln is not entirely Griffith's fault. Schenck greenlighted the production, but according to Richard Schickel's biography D.W. Griffith: An American Life, the UA chief was fed up with Griffith and decided, consciously or unconsciously, to "fuss the life out of [the] enterprise," assigning staff producer John W. Considine, Jr., to ride herd over it as "story and production adviser." Considine began by making the screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benét, turn in a long series of needless drafts and revisions. "If I don't get out of here soon I'm going crazy," Benét wrote home. "Perhaps I am crazy now. I wouldn't be surprised." Principal photography lasted for eight weeks, all of it "a nightmare of mind and nerves," in Griffith's description. While preparing the project he had successfully quit drinking, but under the accumulating stress he withdrew to a Texas spa where he'd gone before to get off the bottle. The picture was edited, scored, fine tuned, and previewed in his absence, and when he asked for a couple of changes after eventually seeing the studio's cut, UA turned him down despite earlier promises to respect his suggestions.
All this notwithstanding, reviews of Abraham Lincoln weren't bad. Writing about "Mr. Griffith's First Talker" in The New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall said he was reminded of The Birth of a Nation by certain touches, which he found "very effective" in some instances although "tinctured with old-fashioned melodrama" in others. Overall, the film struck him as "a worthy pictorial offering with a genuinely fine and inspiring performance by Walter Huston," who spoke with "firm and pleasing...diction." Douglas Watts, Jr., of New York's influential Herald Tribune also gave Huston high marks, calling his performance "beautiful, tender, humorous and entirely touching." Huston had gotten ready for the role by reading Lincoln's letters and speeches and trying "to think like Lincoln," so he was surely gratified by such praise. (Today's viewers are likely to be distracted, however, by the inch-deep makeup, complete with rouge and lipstick, that Griffith piled on the 45-year-old actor for his young-man scenes.) Watts hailed the picture as a whole, calling it "a handsome, dignified, and frequently moving photoplay," and the Evening World critic said it placed Griffith "in the van of present-day leaders." But box-office returns were "very spotty," in Schenck's words, and as Schickel points out, Griffith was unable to parlay the good reviews into a lasting comeback.
Now as when it was new, Abraham Lincoln is most impressive in scenes where no sync-sound dialogue had to be recorded citizens demonstrating, soldiers riding off to war, troops clashing on the battlefield, and the like. Freed from the cumbersome burden of early recording equipment at these moments, the camera can glide, track, and leap to unexpected positions in vintage Griffith fashion, creating the kind of visual excitement for which he's justly celebrated. The rest of the picture is often static and stagy, but while its telling of history is rarely exciting, Schickel accurately conveys the movie's own place in history when he calls it the sound era's first major historical production and a turning point in the effort to reclaim the past in cinematic terms.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Adaptation: Stephen Vincent Benet; continuity and dialogue by Stephen Vincent Benet and Gerrit Lloyd
Cinematographer: Karl Struss
Film Editing: James Smith
Settings: William Cameron Menzies
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
Cast: Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln), Una Merkel (Ann Rutledge), W.L. Thorne (Tom Lincoln), Lucille La Verne (Mid-wife), Helen Freeman (Nancy Hanks Lincoln), Otto Hoffman (Offut), Edgar Deering (Armstrong), Russell Simpson (Lincoln's Employer), Charles Crockett (Sheriff), Kay Hammond (Mary Todd Lincoln), Helen Ware (Mrs. Edwards), E. Alyn Warren (Stephen A. Douglas, General Grant), Jason Robards (Herndon), Gordon Thorpe (Tad Lincoln), Ian Keith (John Wilkes Booth), Cameron Prudhomme (John Hay, Secretary to the President), James Bradbury, Sr. (General Scott), Jimmie Eagle (Young Soldier), Oscar Apfel (Secretary of War Stanton), Frank Campeau (General Sheridan), Hobart Bosworth (General Lee), Henry B. Walthall (Colonel Marshall)
by David Sterritt