The transition to sound film had a strange effect on filmmaking in Hollywood. It was an effect that was unique to this particular technological innovation. For the first and only time, films took a step backward in terms of technical quality. Directors, technicians, artisans and craftsmen had to “start over”, and re-learn everything as quickly as possible to bring back the quality that had marked American films of the late silent era.
Abraham Lincoln is a good example of a film that falls somewhere between the artistic heights of the silent era and the static, creaky early talkies of the early 30s. D.W. Griffith took his first stab at directing a sound film with “Abraham Lincoln” in 1930. The film provides an interesting look at what happened not only to Griffith but to American filmmakers in general during the transition to sound. Griffith’s career had been on unstable ground since hisAmerica did poorly at the box office in 1924. Since that time, Griffith had taken on much smaller scale projects, designed to maximize box office potential. In a sense, this film marked a return for Griffith to the historical spectacle that made him one of the finest filmmakers of this or any other period.
The plot of Abraham Lincoln is quite involved. It attempts to cover the entire life of the nation’s 16th president. The story is told chronologically using individual sequences to cover major events in Lincoln’s life. We see the birth of Lincoln, his marriage to his first wife, and major events of his presidency. This approach to the story is not terribly innovative, but it does manage to cover a lot of ground. The film could have probably benefited from a longer running time than its allotted 97 minutes (although current prints of the film run 89 minutes).
Griffith infuses the film with strong elements of the silent film era. There are attempts at the kind of mobile, sweeping cinematography. The film opens with a traveling shot through the woods of Kentucky, trucking along until it comes upon the cabin in which Lincoln is born. This sequence, however, is an example of the problems presented by the addition of a soundtrack. The swirling, echoing sound effects of the wind are overdone, serving to distract for a modern audience, at least. The absence of music also seems rather noticeable throughout the film.
The film’s biggest asset is the performance of Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln. Huston was by this time a veteran stage actor, and unfortunately this sometimes works to the detriment of his performance in this film in that he tends to over-emote during some sequences. His scenes that are handled silently, without any dialogue, are quite good, and contain excellent, expressive acting, impressive in its minimalism. Other performances, unfortunately, come and go too quickly to really establish much of an impression onscreen. Mention should go to Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge. She brings a good amount of personality and life to her role in this film, and her performance is easily a standout in the film. Many of the supporting roles are taken by veteran silent screen actors, including Henry B. Walthall, who was so memorable as the little colonel in Griffith’s earlier masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation(1915).
Abraham Lincoln can hold its place among the other films made in that difficult transitional period between silence and sound. The year after this film was released, film would start to really re-gain its artistic momentum with such films as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, among others.
I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln but mostly as a technical example of filmmaking of its time. I also enjoyed it in terms of seeing what Griffith did with the material, how he handled the addition of a soundtrack to the visuals, and also for the performance of Walter Huston. The film lacks the epic scope really necessary for depicting the life of one of the most interesting figures in history. However, to his credit, Griffith manages to handle an extraordinary amount of material quite well working with the technical limitations and challenges he was presented with.