Lincoln in Film

Anticipation is building for the November release of Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, it covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life. The trailer appears quite promising and this is one we will NOT WAIT until it comes out on video. Lincoln has been depicted in scores of Hollywood films most of which appear from time to time on cable TV. One you will never see is “The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln”, produced in 1924 by First National (Warner Brothers). It starred George A. Billings, ran 12 reels (3 hours), was directed by Phil Rosen and employed the services of the leading scenario writer of the silent era, Frances Marion. Like many silent films, no copies exist anymore. We have seen publicity stills from the film offered on eBay and recently acquired a souvenir program. While the film probably would not hold up to today’s standards, vis-a-vis acting and production values, we were struck by the striking resemblance to Lincoln exhibited by Billings. The actor who played Edwin Stanton also was a dead-ringer. The film was well-researched and had the benefit of access to people who knew Lincoln, such as Grace Bedell, who could relate their experiences. The program features an interview with Cornelius Cole, a 101-year old resident of Hollywood who was United States Senator from California in the 40th, 41st and 47th Congresses. He talks about attending a reception in the East Room of the White House, visiting Lincoln in the company of Schuyler Colfax on the day of the assassination, as well as the Gettysburg Address.

We find that reminiscence particularly enlightening, as it reputes an assumption we have held for some time; namely, that Lincoln had a Southern accent. We once met a lifelong resident of Champaign, Illinois (close to Springfield) who we mistook for a Southerner and assumed that Lincoln sounded likewise. Senator Cole relates: “I sat on the platform at Gettysburg when President Lincoln made his immortal speech and my experience was the same as nearly all of us there assembled. We were all surprised at the brevity of the President’s speech and I do not think any of us, except Edward Everett, orator of the day, fully realized the greatness of Lincoln’s speech at that time. He was an easy speaker and his platform presence was most engaging… Though of southern birth, Lincoln sounded the letter ‘R’ as plainly as anybody and he did not talk like a Southerner at all, though he may have done so in childhood. This is a point I have never known to have been brought up before.”