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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Civil War Battlefields With Sound

Griffith Takes Up Talk with Abraham Lincoln (1930)

D.W. Griffith effort at talkie comeback has gotten razz from critic/historians since time it was new, but rehab comes with Blu-Ray access and wherewithal to see/hear the thing properly. It's a 96 minute stride through key moments of a known-well life, vignettes done brief so as not to dawdle over familiar ground. This is vivid instance where quality makes all the difference. I sat through UHF-PD squalor in the 70's when that was all you got of Lincoln and assumed from there it was largely a dud --- well, what wouldn't be, given that sort of squint down a coke bottle? DWG compositions are the usual great and he moves his camera besides, Abraham Lincoln even or well ahead of talkies done in that uncertain year. Abe took $576K in domestic rentals against $720K spent on the negative (don't know foreign, but it likely wasn't great for this Americana subject). Was 1930 patronage cool to US history topics? The Big Trail came out a same year to similar fate. I wonder if the Birth Of A Nation sound reissue (also '30) might actually have done better. Walter Huston looks and walks the Lincoln part; we could speculate too on what or how many details of his performance were shaped by Griffith. What a difference it might have made had this been a hit. Would there have been a new cycle of DWG epics? ... remakes of his silent classics, but now with talk? Awkward scenes in Abraham Lincoln are outnumbered by many that play splendid. I'm hopeful the pic will win new laurels now that HD has rode to Griffith's rescue.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts has some interesting observations re "Abraham Lincoln":


The first time I saw ABRAHAM LINCOLN was on PBS in the 1970's, it was shown on
FILM COMMENT, the Charles Champlin (who passed away this week)-hosted show that
ran a lot of the Janus catalog, and apparently Janus was distributing LINCOLN
then. It was a beautiful print with good sound and I was impressed with it at
the time. I later turned up a good-quality 16mm print with decent sound, so it
has never been a pariah in my estimation. The Stephen Vincent Benet dialogue
could be a bit less stagey, but Griffith's work is solid, especially considering
it's his first talkie, and the cast makes it.

The more of Walter Huston's early talkie work that comes to light, the easier it
is to understand why he made such an impact in the early days of sound. From his
first feature appearance in GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS (1929), an amazingly
well-done early talkie (the first Paramount made at Astoria),he displays a
charismatic naturalness that just grabs your attention unlike so many actors in
early sound that come off stiff and stagey. Huston works his way around some
pretty flowery lines in LINCOLN and makes them sound immediate, it's only his
fourth sound feature (following PRESS, THE LADY LIES, and THE VIRGINIAN, all of
which he is terrific in) and he keeps the whole thing afloat with the help of a
pretty-good group of actors in the smaller parts.

And of course there is a nice bit of nostalgia with Griffith returning to the
Civil War, especially the scene with Henry B. Walthall as Colonel Marshall and
Hobart Bosworth as Robert E. Lee (Bosworth was one actor I wished had worked
more with Griffith). All in all, I think both ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Griffiths
next/last sound film, THE STRUGGLE (1931) are better films than any of his late
silents, and it is indeed too bad that Griffith didn't make more.


12:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reports on seeing "Lincoln" then (local TV) and now:

I'd also made my acquaintance with Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln" in the early morning hours of my first enthusiasm with film, glad that I had but somewhat disappointed by the experience. Many years later, I saw it to better effect on TCM. It is not a great film, but one can tell that it was made by a great man. And it could have been much better. The writer of the screenplay, Stephen Vincent Benet, wrote to his wife that the film would prove to be "a half-baked opus, neither one thing nor another--and then they'll wonder why it failed." He'd been watching the minions of Joseph Schenck fuss with and bother Griffith until the power and grace of the film was largely dissipated. What remains are some tableaux-like scenes which are lovingly composed, and from which one can still hear the lingering echoes of a kind of poetry that should have formed the film as a whole around it. These are best early on, when Griffith is dealing with aspects of Lincoln's life which were less familiar then, such as his love affair with Ann Rutledge. He seems to have lost confidence in the film as it went on, though, and evidently felt the need to turn a minor incident in the War Between the States, Sheridan's ride during the Battle of Cedar Creek, when he rallied his troops after a surprise attack, into the turning point of the war. It did make Sheridan into a popular hero and may have helped Lincoln to re-election, but the fate of the Union hardly turned upon it. The speech given Lincoln for a Ford's Theater scene, just before his assassination--a conflation of lines too well-known from the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Speech, introduced with the words, "Again I say to you"--were also unfortunate. I don't know that "Abraham Lincoln" failed commercially and certainly it has its merits artistically, but Schenck hadn't obtained the return he anticipated in the four films he'd produced for Griffith, and he no longer wanted to back him. After this came "The Struggle," financed by Griffith himself and a debacle on several levels, and the fading applause for a career which had no following acts.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Interesting -- no mention of Griffith in that newspaper ad.

I saw the movie on PBS on the early 70s, too, and was unimpressed. They showed a deleted prologue on a slave ship, unfortunately narrated by somebody -- Champlin, perhaps -- which was more powerful than anything else that followed.

Still, I remember how much more impressive The Jazz Singer was after its restoration a few yeas back. Maybe I'd think the same way about Abraham Lincoln.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Approach a soupy public domain copy with zero historical context and this one may seem more than a little clunky (Yes, it made the Medved-Dreyfuss 50 Worst Films of All Time list. Sigh.) But it's wonderful that a top quality presentation is now available for thoughtful re-evaluation.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Considering how determined many are to remove Griffith from his rightful place the miracle is that anyone is restoring his films.

There was a determined effort at the dawn of the sound era to get the great silent directors out of pictures. Rex Ingram quit the business completely.

That said, neither this film nor THE STRUGGLE were the sort of subjects that could or would have given Griffith the clout he needed at the box office. Too bad he had not the wisdom to film DRACULA. That would have done it.

6:09 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Whoops, make that FILM ODDYSEY, not FILM COMMENT, so much for typing before the coffee kicked in this morning.


6:22 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I had a copy of the Medved brothers' "50 Worst Films" (both Harry and Michael wrote it, but only Harry was credited, with Randy Dreyfuss) and one scene in "Abraham Lincoln" they snarked over was young Abe's rail-splitting, "ludicrously portrayed by Huston hammering a tiny peg into a gigantic log." Um, haven't they heard of a splitting wedge?

Interestingly, Ian Keith, who played John Wilkes Booth, would later appear in "Prince of Players," the Edwin Booth biopic with Richard Burton (and John Derek as John Wilkes Booth, in another reenactment of Lincoln's assassination).

8:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Splitting a rail."
Oscar Hammerstein III said, "Being knowing and blase is really the sign of a very unsophisticated person. The most sophisticated thing one person can say to another is, 'I know nothing about that. Please tell me.'"

Being knowing and blase is a hallmark of young students. I run into it constantly. One of the films included in THE 50 WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME is Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE which is among the greatest films of all time. One thing it is not is a popcorn movie. Neither is this film nor THE STRUGGLE.

6:56 AM  

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