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Abraham Lincoln as Hollywood leading man

The 16th president has been portrayed for decades in films, including Steven Spielberg's new 'Lincoln.' Here's a look at some of the depictions.

November 11, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln in a scene from the film 'Young Mr. Lincoln', 1939. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln in a scene from the film 'Young Mr. Lincoln',… (Archive Photos )

Abraham Lincoln went from historical icon to film star when cinema was just in its infancy, in such long-forgotten silents as 1908's "The Life of Abraham Lincoln," 1909's "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" and 1915's "The Life of Abraham Lincoln."

Hollywood's love affair with the 16th president of the United States has continued unabated over the decades in countless films, from D.W. Griffith's 1915 "The Birth of a Nation" to Steven Spielberg's historical epic "Lincoln," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which opened Friday to rave reviews.

He's also been a mainstay in TV movies and miniseries, such as 1974-75's "Sandburg's Lincoln," starring Hal Holbrook in his Emmy Award-winning performance — Holbrook also appears in Spielberg's film as a conservative Republican legislator — and 1988's "Lincoln," based on Gore Vidal's bestseller, starring Sam Waterston.

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"He has a whole life narrative that can be drawn from," said USC professor and cultural history expert Leo Braudy. "There is so much in the Lincoln story — the idealized version of Lincoln, the by-your-bootstraps coming out of the log cabin, the redefinition of the America in the Civil War, the assassination, domestic drama and political drama."

And a lot of comedy. Honest Abe has popped up in the1989 cult comedy "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," was featured in the main titles of the classic 1982 comedy series "Police Squad!" shooting it out with his assassin John Wilkes Booth, and was cleverly parodied by comedian Louis CK on a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live." Lincoln even has gone supernatural this year, encountering threats more dangerous than the Confederate Army in "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

Each generation, it seems, reinvents Lincoln to fit the times. But has Hollywood gotten the Great Emancipator right?

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Not according to UCLA history professor Joan Waugh, author of "U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth." She can't think of "one good film on Lincoln." (She had not seen the Spielberg film). "Hollywood wants a good story, and they have never let history interfere with a good story. You wouldn't want to get your history from films. It is the filmmaker who shapes the Lincoln he or she wants people to see...."

Here's a look at some of the films depicting the 16th president.

"The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln" (1924): Also known as "Abraham Lincoln," this silent drama starring George A. Billings as Lincoln won the Photoplay Award for the top film of the year (the Oscars weren't in play yet). However, the biographical drama penned by Oscarwinner Frances Marion — one of the top female screenwriters of the era — no longer exists in a complete print.

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"The Birth of a Nation" (1915), "Abraham Lincoln" (1930): The first important film to portray Lincoln was Griffith's controversial historical epic, which examines the Civil War from the Confederate point of view. One dramatic high point is Griffith's vivid re-creation of the assassination of the president by Booth at Ford's Theatre. Fifteen years later, Griffith directed Walter Huston in the creaky biography "Abraham Lincoln."

"One of the striking things about D.W. Griffith is that he appears to revere Abraham Lincoln," said Waugh. "But it was Griffith's Abraham Lincoln. It wasn't the Abraham Lincoln of history."

"Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939), "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940): Henry Fonda has the title role in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln," a biopic that chronicles his early years as an attorney and his love affair with Ann Rutledge. Raymond Massey earned an Oscar nomination for the "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," based on Robert Sherwood's 1938 play — in which he also starred — that covers his early career until his election to the presidency in 1860. Massey would also play Lincoln in 1962's "How the West Was Won."

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"I like the sense of becoming in those films — how do you become a hero?" noted Braudy. "How do you become somebody who steps outside of their background? They are a parable of upward mobility."

Though Waugh feels Fonda gave a great performance in "Young Mr. Lincoln," the film is not "tied to reality. In the 1930s, filmmakers were more captivated by the romance that Lincoln was supposed to have with Ann Rutledge, of which there is no evidence," than his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd.

The depictions of Lincoln during the Depression, noted Waugh, have more in common with the idealized "man of the people who rode above politics" that Frank Capra depicted in such films as 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" with James Stewart.

"Lincoln was a master politician," she said. "He was, from a very young man, obsessed with the electoral process. He wasn't corrupt the way that many [politicians] were, but he certainly skirted the line a number of times."

Lincoln the tough-minded politician is a focal point of Tony Kushner's script for the new Spielberg film.

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