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Lincoln Biopic, Considered Lost for 88 Years, Surfaces

July 5, 2021

Given the critical acclaim accorded Steven Spielberg’s recently released film biography of “Lincoln” (reviewed on this site), it should be kept in mind that it is just the latest in a long line of films dealing with our greatest president. Lincoln has been a popular subject for film makers since the days of Thomas Edison. While most Lincoln films dating from the advent of sound still exist, the majority of those produced during the silent era are lost, with no copies extant. 

“Railsplitter” Editor Don Ackerman was recently surfing the pages of eBay and noticed a listing for a single reel of 16 mm. film that housed “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” starring Frank McGlynn. The movie was one he did not recall viewing, despite seeing literally thousands of silent movies over the last 50 years. Offered at a nominal “Buy-It-Now” price, he made the purchase.  He recognized the name Frank McGlynn as one of many actors who specialized in portraying Lincoln. Doing some on-line research, he discovered “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” was produced in 1924. McGlynn first appeared in a 1915 film bio of Lincoln made by Thomas Edison, He then starred in the Broadway play “Abraham Lincoln” by John Drinkwater, which opened in 1919 to much critical acclaim. In 1924, he agreed to replicate the role in a film version titled “The Life of Abraham Lincoln”. That same year, First National came out with a feature film titled “The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln”. It starred George A. Billings, another Lincoln specialist, and was First National’s most ambitious and expensive film to date. According to “The Films of Abraham Lincoln”, published in 2009, the “Life of Abraham Lincoln” is a lost film… there are no copies known. Two other on-line sources confirm this (“The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln” is also lost). Even more interesting is the fact that “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” was a SOUND film produced by Lee De Forest using his “phonofilm” process. De Forest is considered the father of radio broadcasting as well as sound  films. In 1924-1925, he produced a series of novelty shorts featuring famous actors, vaudevillians and politicians, all recorded using De Forest’s optical sound invention. Several of these innovative films still exist, but the venture failed for a variety of reasons. 

Don was anxious on several counts and worried about the quality of the print, its completeness, whether it was on silver nitrate stock (highly flammable and unstable) or safety stock and whether it had the original optical sound track. Once received, it was partially unwound and carefully examined. The title frame indicated this unique copy was issued by Cosmos Pictures, rather than Lee De Forest. There is no information available on this obscure company which likely re-issued old films for educational institutions and second-tier theaters. The film was printed on Gevaert Safety stock. The quality of the print appeared excellent. The original film ran around 20 minutes. This reduction copy runs perhaps four minutes. Unfortunately, there was no sound track. This was a silent version with inter titles. It’s possible De Forest issued both sound and silent versions in 1924.

What are his plans for the film? In the near future, he plans to have it transferred to DVD and will post it on the Railsplitter web site so that all movie buffs with an interest in Abraham Lincoln can view it for no charge. You’ll have to provide your own popcorn and musical accompaniment, though.