The Sunday Intertitle: Unsung Mr Lincoln

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D.W. Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN is one of only three sound films the Abusive Father of Film made, including the proto-soundie DREAM STREET and the gloomy, location-shot THE STRUGGLE, which dealt with alcoholism. That film, with its autobiographical overtones, marks a fitting cap to the long and troubling career of the great innovator and popularizer of American cinema, but ABRAHAM LINCOLN, his penultimate movie, deserves attention too — at least it’s a kind of antidote to BIRTH OF A NATION.

(At around this time, Griffith re-released BIRTH with a prologue in which he discussed, rather laboriously, the film’s origins with LINCOLN star Walter Huston. He also re-released BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and my grandmother Dora saw it at that time — she thought it ludicrously dated.)

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These intertitles, which appear after Huston’s Honest Abe has just buried his daughter, show the fatuous, greeting-card side of Griffith’s sensibility at its worst. And indeed, much of the film’s stodgy dialogue is typical of the early talking film as history recorded it, flaccid, stilted and ssllloooowww — but his Lincoln improves as the movie goes on, even if he never displays his later lightness of touch. Griffith stages some striking, fluid wordless sequences with a fast-gliding camera — the slave ship, with its rocking, drifting movements and deafening soundtrack of asynchronous yammering, is powerful, and I love the scenes where we crab-crawl across tabletop miniatures of wintry forest — these shots are used for time transitions (the film bites off every second of the Pres’s lifespan, from the instant of his birth to his assassinations and then right up to its own release date) so they have a pleasing air of fantasy.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN doesn’t strike me as more flawed than other films of the era like APPLAUSE, which is held up as an innovative and agile piece of early sound cinema. LINCOLN’s better moments suggest that had his personal demons not overwhelmed him, or had Hollywood offered more support, Griffith could have been as exciting a director in sound pictures as he had been, at various times, in silents.

The movie has been restored and can be enjoyed on Blu-ray, as a kind of alternative or companion piece to the logey hagiography by Spielberg ~

D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln [Blu-ray]

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This has been a presentation of the Late Films Blogathon.

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5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Unsung Mr Lincoln”

  1. Abraham Lincoln is an impossible figure for anyone to attempt a film about , be they D.W. Griffith, John Ford or Steven Spelberg. I discuss the matter Here, and Here.

  2. The idea that Lincoln didn’t have sex or sleep or take any time off pretty much rules out any possibility of portraying him as human. And then the idea that he couldn’t suffer from depression and achieve what he did… well, what about Churchill?

  3. The writers of the famous Cahiers du Cinema “Collective Text” on Young Mr. Lincoln compare him to a figure out of Murnau.

  4. Nosferatu? That would fit with Gore Vidal’s theory that Lincoln’s melancholy, his wife’s madness and his children’s deaths could all be tied to syphilis — Coppola’s Dracula equates vampirism with syphilis (and hence to AIDS). So Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is really in search of… himself!

  5. Very Alain Robbe-Grillet.

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