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Films >> Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) >>

The reviews of Abe Lincoln in Illinois were very mixed. While some critics found the story realistic, others found it too much like a folk tale. Some praised the cast and director John Cromwell, while others tore apart their performances on the film. The reviews travel across the board, from excellent to average to dismal, but, despite the differences of opinion of the movie, no one disagrees about the iconic value of Abraham Lincoln as an American hero.

"Abe Lincoln on the Screen: Massey Film Version Matches Power of Broadway Drama." Rev. of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. Newsweek 19 Jan. 1940: 32-33.
In this two-page review, complete with a full-page spread of photos of the cast in character, the anonymous author gives Abe Lincoln in Illinois and its cast positive reviews, calling it "A distinguished film version of a brilliant and moving play." The reviewer first praises Raymond Massey's performance, then gives a synopsis of the film as it goes through Lincoln's life prior to his inauguration as President. The reviewer also admires the factuality of the film and the realistic portrayals of the characters by a good cast.
"The Current Cinema." Rev. of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. New Yorker 12 Feb. 1940: 59.
The New Yorker gives positive reviews to Raymond Massey and to playwright Robert Sherwood for their key roles in the outcome of this film. The reviewer says "We see probably as successful a transference to film of a serious and ambitious stage production as has ever been managed," giving credit to screen writer Grover Jones. The reviewer praises Massey as the best actor to ever portray Lincoln. He also cites the well delivered performances of Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd and Gene Lockhart as Douglas. However, the reviewer finds the audience "smacked by the frontier " scenes, and he doesn't like the portrayal of Ann Rutledge, although he notes that no film or play has been able to satisfy this part of the story.
Ferguson, Otis. "Attitude Towards Legend." Rev. of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. New Republic 4 March 1940: 308.
Ferguson writes a scathing review, beginning by complaining that this story of Lincoln lacks reality, claiming it to be more like fable. To make this statement, Ferguson compares it to the 1939 film Young Mr. Lincoln, which Ferguson finds far more pleasing and realistic. He goes on to criticize the cinematography for relying too heavily on close ups of the actors, therefore ignoring the scenery, and accuses the cast of not even trying to act, while the extras try too hard. He even says of Ruth Gordon's portrayal of Mary Todd, "she didn't try to be funny," claiming she was laughable as the pushy and unstable Mrs. Lincoln. The rest of the acting is also bad, sans Gene Lockhart as Douglas. Although Ferguson likes Massey better as Lincoln, he still does not extend any praise. Ferguson also accuses Cromwell with trying too hard to direct a perfect film, causing him to "lack conviction," a flaw, he says, of most Hollywood directors of the era. Overall, the film as a whole is bad, and there is really no way for it to be saved.
"Movie of the Week: Abe Lincoln in Illinois." Rev. of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. Life 12 Feb. 1940: 74-79.
Life gives the film a glowing review, placing it in "the small company of American films that merit the label masterpiece." Although the review itself is short, a mere three paragraphs, there is a six-page spread with stills from the film, including captions that further praise the film. These stills and captions also somewhat trace the plot of the film and chronology of Lincoln's life. The reviewer also has the highest regard for Raymond Massey's performance as Lincoln, especially in the scene where Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas for the senate seat for the state of Illinois. Although Lincoln loses his bid for senate, it is in this speech that Lincoln utters the famous lines "A House Divided Cannot Stand"; it is about this scene that the reviewer says, "By sheer eloquence and superb Massey acting, this speech becomes one of the most thrilling sequences ever screened." Massey and "Abe" get the highest regard from Life.
"The New Pictures." Rev. of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. Time 5 Feb. 1940: 60.
The anonymous author of this article views Abe Lincoln in Illinois as a film the audience should pass up. He describes the first part of the film, in which Lincoln goes from being a frontiersman in Kentucky to a shopkeeper and lawyer in Illinois, as faltering and struggling. He then paints a negative picture of Mary Todd and the Lincolns' marriage portrayed in the second half of the film, complaining about its representation of the couple. The reviewer compares the film to the play, not giving positive reviews to either, and wraps up by criticizing Ruth Gordon's portrayal of Mary Todd as uninformative and calling Raymond Massey's performance the only reason the movie was worth seeing. The reviewer also incorporates an anecdote about a woman who met Lincoln as a child and complained about Massey being clean shaven, implying she did not think that Lincoln could be or should be represented before his bearded term as president. Overall, the Time review wants more out of the film that it does not find and does not encourage audiences to see this film.
Nugent, Frank S. "The Screen In Review : The Music Hall Celebrates Washington's Birthday With a Brilliant Edition of Sherwood's ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois', with Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon". Rev. of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, dir. John Cromwell. New York Times 23 Feb. 1940: 21.
Nugent praises Abe Lincoln in Illinois not only for its cinematic achievements and performances but also for its ability to tell the true and honest story of "the greatest American of all time." Nugent begins by comparing Lincoln and his predecessor George Washington, on whose birthday the film opened. He compares their wariness for the position that they were to fill and the sacrifices they made, setting up his discussion of Abe Lincoln and his life. This is a story, he says, that is not presented in the film the way we expect it to be but, instead, honestly and perhaps surprisingly. Nugent goes on to compare the film to the play on which it was based, the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, by Robert Sherwood. He holds the film in higher regard and gives credit to screenwriter Grover Jones and Director John Cromwell for achieving an even higher standard of excellence. Nugent then praises the performances of Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd and Raymond Massey as Lincoln, saying of the latter, "He looks the part, he is the man, he speaks the lines as Lincoln must have spoken them…you will simply think of him as Lincoln." Nugent gives overall high praise to the film, encouraging audiences to see it, and injecting both synopsis and criticism (if such positive response can even be called criticism) into his short and informative review.