Abe Lincoln in Illinois is one of the best movie biographies that I’ve ever seen, bar none – a riveting biography, with excellent acting by Raymond Massey, who literally becomes the title character – highly recommended.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) starring Raymond Massey, Gene Lockhart, Ruth Gordon
I try not to gush when doing movie reviews, but I’m prepared to set that to the side. Abe Lincoln in Illinois is one of the best movie biographies that I’ve ever seen, bar none. It tells the story of Abe Lincoln from his days as a young man, to his early career, to his introduction to politics, leading to his famous debate with Douglas over the issue of slavery, and ending with his election to the White House. It’s not a boring documentary. It’s a riveting movie, showing Abe Lincoln’s character, both good and bad, with action both physical and verbal. Oliver Stone, and other modern “documentary” filmmakers could learn much from watching this film. It goes without saying that I truly enjoyed Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and recommend it without reservation. I rate it a rare 5 stars.
Product description of Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Among the most masterful matchups of actor and role in screen history is this stirring film of Robert E. Sherwood’s beloved play taking a thoroughly human look at the early years of our 16th President, with all his frailties and strength of character. Best Actor Oscar nominee Raymond Massey (who originated the role on stage) wonderfully plays the future Great Emancipator in a chronicle of his backwoods childhood through his first romance with Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard) to his phenomenal rise to President-Elect, besting the great orator Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart).
Ruth Gordon also does memorable work as driven, ambitious Mary Todd Lincoln, whose vision of Abe’s leadership destiny will not be denied by anyone — including her often reticent husband. There’s also no denying the enduring emotional power of this simple, magnificent movie.
Movie quotes from Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Mentor Graham: Well, Abe, there are always two occupations open to those who have failed at everything else: school teaching and politics.
Abraham Lincoln: [discussing why he can’t face Mary Todd before his marriage to her] I’d have to tell her that I have hatred for her inferno ambition. That I don’t want to be ridden and driven onward and upward through life with her whip bashing me and her spurs digging in me. If her poor little soul craves importance in life let her marry Stephen Douglas. He’s ambitious too. I want only to be left alone.
Sarah Hanks Lincoln: Wherever you go, whatever you do, you remember what the Good Book Says: — The world passeth, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever. —
Abraham Lincoln: I’ll remember, maw.
Abraham Lincoln: [after a particularly hysterical outburst by Mary, he comes up to her; her back is to him] Why do you take every opportunity you can to make a public fool out of me and yourself? It’s bad enough when you act like that in the privacy of our own home, but here in front of people! You’re not to do that again, do you hear? You’re never to do that again!
Mary Todd Lincoln: [she turns to face him amazed, then] You never spoke to me like that before. You lost your temper, Abe … you’ve never done that before.
Abraham Lincoln: I’m sorry.
[He turns and walks away from her]
Abraham Lincoln: I still think youn should go home rather than stay here and endure the strain of this Death Watch.
Mary Todd Lincoln: [slowly goes to the door, opens it, pauses, then turns back to him] This is the night I dreamed about when I was a child … when I was an excited young girl and all the gay young gentlemen of Springfield were courting me … and I fell in love with the least likely of them. This is the night I’m waiting to hear that my husband is become President of the United States … and even if he does, it’s ruined for me.
[He turns to stare at her]
Mary Todd Lincoln: It’s too late.
[She slowly leaves]
Trivia for Abe Lincoln in Illinois
- Based on Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
- Raymond Massey and Howard Da Silva repeat their roles from the original Broadway production in this film.
- Herbert Rudley repeats his role from the original stage production.
- Film debut of Herbert Rudley and Ruth Gordon.
- Director Cameo: Director John Cromwell played the role of abolitionist John Brown. In his next film role, Santa Fe Trail (1940), Raymond Massey portrayed John Brown.
- The original Broadway production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert E. Sherwood opened on October 15, 1938 at the Plymouth Theater, ran for 472 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1939.
- After his success playing Lincoln in the film and on Broadway, Raymond Massey began to assume the character in real life. He often appeared at social gatherings dressed in Lincoln-esque attire, assuming a Lincoln-like manner and speech. His friend, the playwright George S. Kaufman, observed, — Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him. —
- Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 22, 1940 with Raymond Massey reprising his film role.
- — Theater Guild on the Air — — broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on February 9, 1947 with Raymond Massey reprising his film role.