by Rick Bretz
A recent viewing of Raymond Massey’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln brought on a recollection of the actors trying their craft being Lincoln on the screen. Many actors have attempted to flood the screen with the essence and character of our sixteenth President of the United States. Three films stand out for capturing Lincoln’s personality on film.
Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor, in the movie “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and released in 1940, shows the young politician’s ability to relate to people from every social and financial status. Massey’s Lincoln tones down the ambitious side of the rising potential of the young lawyer in favor of his agreeable nature and storytelling expertise. He’s almost the reluctant politician in this movie.
The death of his first love interest, Ann Rutledge, is an important part of the movie and makes the audience aware of how important an event the death had on him for the rest of his life.
The selection of a young actress Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd Lincoln is perfect. She realizes the young Lincoln will go places and understands him from the beginning. Gordon gives the audience and idea of how the relationship between the two must have been and how Lincoln handled his equally ambitious wife. Massey’s voice is deeper than Lincoln’s from what historians have written, but the actor’s gangling frame gives the movie audience a sense of how he moved and how coordinated he was socially and physically. The movie ends after Lincoln is elected President as he and his family boards the train to Washington, DC, to begin the long, stressful work dealing with a rebellious south and a civil war.
Another movie has Henry Fonda showing us how effective a public speaker and lawyer Lincoln was during his travels in Illinois as an attorney.
“Young Mr. Lincoln“, released in 1939, has Lincoln defending two suspects accused of murder. It also introduces Ann Rutledge and Mary Todd as his love interest and future wife but the story centers on Fonda’s playing Lincoln in the courtroom. It seems when producing a movie about Lincoln it is mandatory to show his storytelling skills. This movie is no exception but this movie also demonstrates his ability as a critical thinker and in the courtroom while cross examining witnesses on the stand. Fonda captures Lincoln’s affable personality while also giving us a hint of his ambitious nature. Fonda’s Lincoln has more confidence and the feeling that he is destined for great things and that he is in control of his surroundings.
The third and recent version of Lincoln is performed by Daniel Day-Lewis as “Lincoln“, released in 2012.
Day-Lewis, from what historians gather, has Lincoln’s voice close to the real Lincoln pitch. He gives a performance showing a worn down Lincoln, after shouldering the responsibility of a long civil war, and enduring the grief of losing two of his children. Day-Lewis shows Lincoln managing the many personalities of his cabinet as well as anger and other emotions that come with being the President of the United States.
Daniel Day-Lewis said of playing Lincoln, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that’s, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him… I wish he had stayed (with me) forever.”
The three movies show the many facets of Lincoln’s personality and ability to relate to people. It’s daunting task to take on a role from history’s greatest figures. If you overplay it or make a mistake in the acting, then it misses the mark or worse, you can look foolish on screen. The actors hit the mark.
Walter Houston-Abraham Lincoln-1930