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Lincoln's Screen Legacy, Decidedly Larger Than Life

Nov 5, 2012
Originally published on November 5, 2012 5:49 pm

He's a statue in many a monument, a profile on the penny, a face on the $5 bill, and an animatronic robot at Disneyland. He's even carved into a mountain in South Dakota. So, of course, Abe Lincoln has been a character in the movies — more than 300 of them, in fact.

For a while, playing Honest Abe was enough to make an unknown actor a star, as 24-year-old Ralph Ince discovered in 1911 after appearing in beard and stovepipe hat in The Battle Hymn of the Republic. His performance struck such a chord with audiences that he was drafted to don that costume again and again in other silent films.

That was at a time, remember, when some moviegoers would still have recalled seeing Lincoln in the flesh. Nineteen years later, when talkies gave Honest Abe an on-screen voice for the first time, in the 1930 drama Abraham Lincoln, that would have been less likely — so it's nice that he spoke in the richly oratorical cadences of Walter Huston.

Notable Lincolns that followed included a brash Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln; a stentorian Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois; an understated Sam Waterston in the TV miniseries Lincoln; the resonant, distinguished Gregory Peck in TV's The Blue and the Gray; and this year's Benjamin Walker, revealing a little-known facet of the Lincoln presidency — its pursuit of the undead — in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

All those actors have reasonably deep voices, so the question arises: Do they sound like the 16th president? We'll never know for sure; Lincoln died 12 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. And we tend to think of this embattled president as a baritone, not least because that suits the weight of the things he said.

But historians say he was more likely a tenor. Folks who heard his speeches wrote that his voice was high, even "shrill." For that reason, Daniel Day Lewis, whose own voice is deep, has elected to raise it a bit in Steven Spielberg's new screen portrait, Lincoln.

The voice he's chosen — or one very like it — is said to have been off-putting to 1850s crowds at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, until the cadence and meaning of his words took hold. That may be why this eloquent president penned his speeches with short sentences and vivid phrasing. He was writing to be heard, not read.

Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner follows that lead when inventing words for him to say.

"We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure," Kushner's Lincoln declares.

More important than the voice, of course, is what's being said, and that, as always with Hollywood, comes filtered through our own time. The film industry always strives to give audiences the Lincoln it thinks they want — and happily, he said enough that they can pick and choose from among his political positions for one that works.

In the 1930s, with America clawing its way out of the Great Depression, Fonda's Rail Splitter ran for office at least partly to protect American jobs, saying things like, "I'm in favor of a national bank, an internal improvement system, and high protective tariffs."

In the 1940s, Massey's Lincoln was speaking more to a public that was increasingly uncomfortable standing idly by as Europe was engulfed in World War II. In talking of tolerance for the institution of slavery, he uses language that could as easily be applied to isolationists just before America's entry into the war: "This is the complacent policy of indifference to evil," Massey's Lincoln laments, "and that policy, I cannot but hate."

Later Lincolns have also been products of their times. In the 1980s, with a popular Republican named Reagan in the White House, TV was broadcasting traditional portraits of the Great Emancipator, while the movies came up with a time-traveling Lincoln joining Bill and Ted on an Excellent Adventure that was more in step with the younger generation.

Twenty-three years later, Spielberg and Kushner are taking a decidedly different tack — one that sticks pretty close to the historical record. Their new Lincoln depicts an embattled president, who in a time of turmoil, must fight and fight to get things through a recalcitrant Congress. And how attuned to our times is that?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

On this last day before the elections, we're going to take a break from the politicking to tell you about a new movie about politicking. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" opens on Friday. It's set after our 16th president won his contentious bid for reelection. It's also the perfect excuse for Bob Mondello to look back at Honest Abe through the lens of Hollywood history.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He's a statue in many a monument, a profile on the penny, and an engraving on the $5 bill, and an animatronic robot at Disneyland. He's even carved into a mountain in South Dakota. So, of course, Abe Lincoln has been a character in the movies, more than 300 of them, in fact. For a while, playing Honest Abe was enough to make an unknown actor a star, as 24-year-old Ralph Ince discovered in 1911 after putting on a beard and stovepipe hat in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: He was drafted to don that costume again and again in other silent films. That was at a time, remember, when some moviegoers would still have recalled seeing the real Lincoln in the flesh. Nineteen years later, when talkies gave a screen version of Honest Abe a voice for the first time, real world recollection would have been less likely. So it's nice that he spoke in the richly oratorical cadences of Walter Huston.

WALTER HUSTON: (as Abraham Lincoln) We've got to win this war. This is a duty we owe the South as well as the North.

MONDELLO: Notable Lincolns that followed included a brash Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG MR. LINCOLN")

HENRY FONDA: (as Abraham Lincoln) All I've got to say is I can lick any man here hands down.

MONDELLO: A speechifying Raymond Massey in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS")

RAYMOND MASSEY: (as Abraham Lincoln) There can be no distinction in the definition of liberty.

MONDELLO: Understated Sam Waterston in the miniseries "Lincoln."

(SOUNDBITE OF MINI-SERIES, "LINCOLN")

SAM WATERSTON: (as Abraham Lincoln) I have not the authority to abolish slavery in the Union.

MONDELLO: Distinguished Gregory Peck in TV's "The Blue and the Gray."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY")

GREGORY PECK: (as Abraham Lincoln) The world will little note and long remember what we say here.

MONDELLO: And this year's Benjamin Walker, revealing a little-noted nor long remembered facet of the Lincoln presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER")

BENJAMIN WALKER: (as Abraham Lincoln) Eighty miles from here Gettysburg will decide whether this nation belongs to the living or the dead.

MONDELLO: Or the undead. This is "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." You'll note that all those actors have reasonably deep voices. Do they sound like the 16th president? We'll never know for sure. Lincoln died 12 years before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. But while we tend to think of this embattled president as a baritone, because that suits the weight of the things he said, he was more likely a tenor.

Historians say folks who heard his speeches wrote that his voice was high and even shrill. For that reason, Daniel Day Lewis, whose own voice is deep, has elected to raise it a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come.

MONDELLO: That voice, or one very like it, is said to have been off-putting to the 1850s crowds at the real Lincoln-Douglas debates, until the cadence and meaning of the future president's words took hold. That may be why he wrote his speeches with short sentences and vivid phrasing. He was writing to be heard, not read. And the new film's screenplay follows that style in inventing words for him to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure.

MONDELLO: Daniel Day Lewis combines this voice with a remarkable physical likeness. But what matters most in the "Lincoln" portrayal is what the great man says on screen. That, as always with Hollywood, gets filtered through current sensibilities as the film industry strives to give us the Lincoln it thinks we'll buy at the box office at any given moment.

And that changes in the 1930s. With America clawing its way out of the Great Depression, Henry Fonda's Honest Abe ran for office at least partly to protect American workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG MR. LINCOLN")

FONDA: (as Abraham Lincoln) I'm in favor of a national bank, an internal improvement system, and high protective tariff.

MONDELLO: In the 1940s, Raymond Massey's Lincoln was aimed more at a public that was growing uncomfortable with standing by as Europe got engulfed in World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS")

MASSEY: (as Abraham Lincoln) This is the complacent policy of indifference to evil. And that policy, I cannot but hate.

MONDELLO: Later Lincolns have also been the product of their times. In the 1980s, another popular Republican named Reagan was in the White House, so TV was giving us traditional portraits of the Great Emancipator. The movies, meanwhile, came up with a Lincoln more in step with the younger generation.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE")

ROBERT V. BARRON: (as Abraham Lincoln) Four score and seven minutes, we, your forefathers, have brought forth upon among a most excellent adventure.

MONDELLO: Bill and Ted's gain was perhaps history's loss. But every era has its own take. Twenty-three years later, Steven Spielberg sticks close to the historical record, while still emphasizing aspects of the era that resonate today, a chief executive at odds with a divided Congress, his legacy at stake, everything right on whether the House of Representatives will go along.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) Even if every Republican would see us, we'd still be 20 votes short. I am the president of the United States of America. You will procure me these folks.

MONDELLO: Now, how attuned to our times is that? I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.