The film is based on a 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Robert E Sherwood. Massey played the role of Lincoln in the original Broadway production as well, which supposedly caused a bit of a stir over having a Canadian play such a great American president. It tells the story of Lincoln’s life from his arrival in the central Illinois settlement of New Salem to his leaving Illinois to assume the Presidency in Washington DC. At first, it seems like the film is going to be a typical over-idealized biopic. Historical accuracy has never been a matter of great importance for filmmakers. In dealing with such a revered subject as Lincoln, his portrayal as being a near flawless member of the New Salem community was somewhat expected. But a change happens when the story reaches the death of Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard). Whether or not Lincoln and Rutledge were ever really romantically linked is a topic still debated by historians, but here it provides an opportunity for Massey’s portrayal of Lincoln to shift. A vulnerability and underlying depression creeps into the performance and it’s quite amazing to watch.
Massey isn’t the only one who turns in a great performance. Midway through the film, Ruth Gordon enters the picture as the future first lady, Mary Todd. Gordon won an Academy Award later in her career for her performance in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Based on this film, one might think that Mary Todd Lincoln WAS Rosemary’s Baby. She is portrayed as a woman consumed with her own status, pushing Abe towards her desired outcome. I’m not sure how much of this is historically accurate…it is well-known that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from mental health issues throughout her life. It’s a challenging character, for sure, and Gordon gives a performance that is worthy of just as much praise as Massey’s is. At times, Mary comes across as the villain of the story…nagging and insulting Abe to pursue her goals for him. But there are other times where she gives a sense that she knows what lays ahead for the country, and that he is the only one who can save it. We, the audience, end up siding with her, to some degree, because we do know what lies ahead.
There are elements of the film which could’ve been been better. Having been based on a play, there are several sequences that feel a bit too much like they simply filmed actors on a stage. It doesn’t make the sequence bad, they just could’ve been made a bit more cinematic. There’s also too little screen time given to Gene Lockhart as Lincoln’s political rival Stephen Douglas. He puts in a great performance in the brief moments he has, but considering that Douglas not only ran against Lincoln for Congress and President, but also courted Mary Todd for a time…I think a lot more could’ve been done with that character.
I’m sure historians would have their own complaints about “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” but I found it to be an intriguing film. Though we have no recordings or film of the actual Lincoln, Raymond Massey fooled my brain into thinking that was what I was watching, and that’s quite and achievement.