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By Phil Hall | November 16, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 454: “Abraham Lincoln” (1930 drama directed by D.W. Griffith).

LAST SEEN: An unrestored version is on YouTube and Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Issued by several labels specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Ah, there is good news to report!

Earlier this week, Kino Lorber announced the Blu-ray release of a restored HD version of the 1930 feature “Abraham Lincoln,” directed by D.W. Griffith. While this release was obviously timed to coincide with the theatrical presentation of Steven Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln,” it also helps to bring new attention to a curious work by a pioneer filmmaker.

“Abraham Lincoln” came 15 years after Griffith jolted American popular culture with “The Birth of a Nation.”  However, a great deal occurred in Griffith’s career in the period between these Civil War dramas. Although “The Birth of a Nation” established the filmmaker as a major force in the motion picture industry, he was never quite able to top that provocative and controversial achievement. His follow-up film, “Intolerance” (1916), was a major commercial failure, and his later work took on an inconsistent hit-or-miss pattern, at least in terms of box office performance. His attempt to establish himself as an independent producer resulted in significant debt, and by the mid-1920s he was forced to accept a contract at Paramount Pictures. Alas, his output at the studio was not successful with audiences, and Griffith’s reputation hit a low by the end of the silent movie era.

By 1928, producer Joseph M. Schenck recruited Griffith to return to United Artists – a studio that Griffith helped to create in 1918. But by this point in time, the silent cinema was being replaced by sound film technology. Eager to test the new medium, Griffith sought to adapt Stephen Vincent Benet’s Civil War-inspired prose poem “John Brown’s Body” – an interesting choice, to be certain, that was probably made by Griffith in order to atone for the accusations of racism that clouded the release of “The Birth of a Nation.” However, Schenck was uncomfortable with the commercial prospects of that endeavor, and he steered Griffith to a less controversial biopic on the life of Lincoln. Griffith, still eager to work with Benet, tapped the writer to produce a screenplay, but most of Benet’s output would later be jettisoned by Schenck.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine Benet having anything to do with “Abraham Lincoln,” since the film is so thick with blatant historical errors. There are two major mistakes that frame this production. The first comes early in the film, with the melodramatic vision of the long-discredited myth that young Lincoln fell madly in love with a cutie named Ann Rutledge, who conveniently died right before they would have married. It doesn’t help that Ann Rutledge is played by Una Merkel in a coy, squeaky voiced manner that seems inspired by Betty Boop cartoons. Indeed, her deathbed sequence could easily set off laughs from the more jaded members of the viewing audience.

The second major crazy mistake comes at the inevitable conclusion of the Lincoln life story, when the president arrives at Ford Theatre. For no clear reason, Griffith decided to completely rewrite history by having Lincoln interrupt the theatrical company’s production of “Our American Cousin” by delivering a hack-chopped mix of his Gettysburg Address and second inaugural speech. Alas for Honest Abe, the applause from his oration was short-lived, literally – John Wilkes Booth fatally shoots the president right after the chief executive takes his seat in his private box overlooking the stage.

There are other jarring little rewrites of Lincoln’s life story – the film falsely claims that Lincoln originally failed to show up for his wedding to Mary Todd, it presents Gen. Winfield Scott as a clown, and it imagines that Lincoln came to rely on Gen. Ulysses Grant in an Oprahesque a-ha moment of clarity. And the film also suffers from the problem that plagued many early sound films: the limits of the still-new technology resulted in films that seemed stodgy and stagnant in comparison to the innovative editing and cinematography of the silent era’s peak works.

But these problems are easy to overlook due to the film’s one key asset: Walter Huston as Lincoln. While too much of the film’s ensemble cast overplayed their role, Huston brought a steady, intelligent approach to the part. His Lincoln was a man of gentle humor, extraordinary patience and quiet strength. In watching Huston’s body language and eyes, one could easily feel his Lincoln carrying the weight of the world on his long, lanky frame. While many great actors have played Lincoln, few have captured the physical and emotional power that Huston brought to the film.

At the time that “Abraham Lincoln” opened theatrically, Griffith also coordinated a re-release of “The Birth of a Nation” with a synchronized music score and sound effects. Griffith and Huston shot a sound prologue to accompany this re-release, which was meant to call attention to their new work while deflecting concerns that audiences might have for paying to see a 15-year-old silent movie.

The re-release of “The Birth of a Nation” proved to be a major commercial hit, and the film stayed in theatrical circuits well into the 1950s. “Abraham Lincoln,” however, was not so lucky, Critics approved of the work, but Depression-era audiences were uninterested. Griffith would only direct one further film, the 1931 melodrama “The Struggle.”

In the 1940s, “Abraham Lincoln” re-emerged as a 16mm educational staple in U.S. schools. But over time, “Abraham Lincoln” was viewed with indifference and scorn. In 1978, “Abraham Lincoln” was unfairly included by the snarky Medved Brothers included it in their best-selling book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.” It didn’t help that decent prints of the film were impossible to find. Because the film’s copyright lapsed, crummy prints were haphazardly duped from the 16mm educational release. Many of these prints had damaged soundtracks, with a constant hiss and crackle and frequently inaudible dialogue.

The aforementioned Kino Lorber HD version is based on a 35mm restoration coordinated by the Museum of Modern Art. This version includes several minutes of footage that was absent from public domain prints. However, the audio elements of this footage no longer exist, so subtitles are used to fill in the missing dialogue.

If anyone is even remotely curious about “Abraham Lincoln,” I would recommend staying away from the third-rate dupes and check out the new HD version. This restoration may not turn “Abraham Lincoln” into a great movie, but at least it will be a better-looking flick than what has been previously available.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Tim Hulsey says:

    With ABRAHAM LINCOLN, D.W. Griffith became the first American director — that I’m aware of, anyway — to show the Middle Passage on film. (It’s one of the scenes in the prologue for which the audio has been lost.) If there’s an earlier depiction in cinema history, I’d like to know about it.

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