Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidents' Day, part 1

The third Monday in February is Presidents' Day here in the US. I wanted to recommend The Best Man, since this political convention drama starts off with a montage of all the US presidents up to the time the movie was made (during the Lyndon Johnson administration), but it's not available on DVD. So, we'll kick off the week with one of the many movies about Abraham Lincoln, since it's 200 years ago this month that he was born. The highly original title (spoken with tongue firmly in cheek) is Abraham Lincoln.

Walter Huston stars as the rail-splitting president in what is meant to be an ambitious look at the man's life. Huston does a commendable job. The major events in Lincoln's life are there, from those rail-splitting days to his time as a lawyer, to the Lincoln/Douglas debates (those were when the two were running for US Senate, not for President, and were superfluous, as Senators were elected by state legislatures at the time), through the Civil War and his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. As such, it's more complete than the studio system's two best-known films on Lincoln. Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln only focuses on Lincoln's time as a lawyer, while Raymond Massey's Abe Lincoln in Illinois ends with the presidential election.

Abraham Lincoln was made in 1930, by director D. W. Griffith. Herein is where the movie's big problems lie. Griffith was an acclaimed silent movie director, but already by the time of his last movie with the Gish sisters, 1921's Orphans of the Storm, his techniques were considered dated and not pushing the envelope of what film could do. Worse, in between then and the time of Abraham Lincoln, sound had come to the movies, making life difficult for all the directors, who had to learn new ways of doing things. Griffith tries, but isn't all that successful. The movie comes off as being very slowly-paced and stagey.

Still, it's well worth watching as a piece of movie history and for learning about the techniques of movie making. (That, and for Huston's performance.) It is available on DVD, but apparently it's only been released as part of a box set of Griffith's movies. If you only want to see Abraham Lincoln, you'll be better off renting.

No comments: