For Reel

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
March 3, 2012, 7:01 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: John Cromwell

Nine months after Fox released John Ford’s masterful Young Mr. Lincoln came RKO’s adaptation of the successful Broadway play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”. Reprising his role as Honest Abe was Raymond Massey – a surprising choice, considering that any number of legitimate screen stars could have been more bankable. Although Ford’s shadow has largely rendered the latter film obsolete – save for its beloved, Oscar-nominated performance from Massey – it should be regarded as yet another dynamic, unexpectedly somber assessment of the presidential icon. Henry Fonda’s Lincoln was wrought with a level of uncertainty, but more significantly he was cocksure – his frequent gesture of resting his feet on his desk is not so much a suggestion of his naive small-town roots, but rather a demonstration that he doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten himself into and only in time will he grow to understand the importance that he can have on the nation’s future. Massey’s depiction, on the other hand, is self-loathing and passive, almost frustratingly so. In her debut screen performance, Ruth Gordon plays Mary Todd Lincoln with an embittered propensity for nagging, attempting to do whatever she can to motivate her husband out of apathy and elicit within him the confidence that he needs. This Lincoln never wanted to be anything but a nice, wholesome Midwestern boy, however uniting the country had become his calling. With America on the brink of World War II, the film is not so much riddled with blindly patriotic optimism, but rather it suggests the importance of involving oneself with an active resistance against great evils.

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