Monday, August 17, 2009

Lincoln at the Movies, Lincoln on TV

Motion pictures have not been around for a very long time but they have come a long way since Lumière’sExiting the Factory” (1895). Lincoln’s image would appear on film for the first time in 1901 in an Edison Film Company production called The Martyred Presidents which shows a female mourner at an altar upon which the images of all the assassinated Presidents up to that time (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) appear in turn—then it gets strange for the last few seconds where a figure is begging for something before a statue of Justice. The Edison Film Company would also be the first to use Lincoln’s image in a drama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903). Since the first use of Lincoln in 1901, according to Mark S. Reinhart’s research, Lincoln has been a character in “at least 300 productions.”

Despite that sizeable number, Lincoln has not appeared as the main character very often since the 1940s. The next film slotted to feature Lincoln is Stephen Spielberg’s much delayed (now due out 2011) Lincoln biographical film which is set to star Liam Neeson as Lincoln. Over the years Lincoln has been played on screen by famous actors such as Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln-1939), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois-1940; The Day Lincoln Was Shot-1959; How the West Was Won-1961), and Sam Waterston (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln-1988), singer/actors such as Kris Kristofferson (Tad-1995) and also by Lincoln impersonators such as Charles Brame (Happy Gilmore-1996; Zoolander-2001; The Man Who Invented the Moon-2003). The quality of presentation in terms of resemblance to Lincoln and accuracy of the narrative of Lincoln on screen varies widely of course. The best hope on both elements is still the documentary form and there have been two very good ones this year, PBS' Looking for Lincoln and KET's Lincoln: I, too, am a Kentuckian.

It is impossible to say for certain what Lincoln would have thought about his depiction as Snake Plissken in the picture above this post, but Lincoln had seen worse representations of himself in his day. The defaced currency is typical of the nature of how Lincoln is most often seen in contemporary American society, which is to say, not seriously. Lincoln appears much more often on television than in film. It seems that Lincoln always comes up for humorous effect suddenly and then disappears in these TV sightings, such as this recent Family Guy episode. Professional historians might balk at the inaccuracies of the short scene at Ford’s Theatre in the brief clip from the cartoon show. However, to ignore or decry such portrayals of Lincoln based on the false information contained within them misses the point—these events are meant to be entertaining. Beyond that, it might be important to ask why the silly Lincoln gets laughs or why writers would even imagine that viewers would crack up at seeing Lincoln. Is it because most Americans carry around an image of a sober, albeit simplistic (since he loved to tell jokes and humorous stories), Lincoln? And further, perhaps the preformed ideas about the serious Lincoln not only open up the contrast for comedic purposes but also show that Lincoln’s prestige is safe, even if it is not high as it once was.

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