Tuesday, 7 May 2013

ABRAHAM LINCOLN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Review of Museum of Modern Art Restoration of D.W. Griffith's first sound (and second last) film on Kino-Lorber BLU-RAY

Abraham Lincoln (1930) **** (for D.W. Griffith completists only) *** (for others)
Dir. D.W. Griffith
Starring: Walter Huston, Una Merkel

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Audiences not used to any movies made before last Monday often have blinders on with respect to anything made during the first 80-or-so years of cinema's 125-ish years on this planet. Sadly, one of the great pioneers, D.W. Griffith, frequently evokes catcalls, unintentional laughs and derision for even his best work. Abraham Lincoln, his first sound movie and second last movie period, is not an example of his best work and for many viewers, you can probably replace any or all of the aforementioned negative responses with snores due to the film's stately pace and Griffith's fondness for a gorgeously composed frame and long-ish takes. Running a mere 93 minutes, the Herculean Museum of Modern Art restoration, does occasionally feel twice as long, even, I suspect, to Griffith fans (and apologists of all stripes and, uh, shall we say, colours).

The movie's a bit of a patchwork quilt in that Griffith is clearly struggling with the transition from silent cinema to sound and he's resolutely tied to Victorian-styled storytelling elements which, even in 1930, probably felt dated. That said, Griffith's "dated" quality is pretty much his style, and if you can't embrace that, you probably never will. Besides, the film is still worth seeing - certainly for Griffith aficionados, but also for anyone seriously committed to experiencing a wider range of what the medium has to offer than what comprises the highest contender for last weekend's Friday-to-Sunday grosses.

Unlike Steven Spielberg's bloated overrated Lincoln which focuses almost solely on the fight to end slavery, Griffith's equally bloated, though sadly neglected effort sticks closer to a tried and true biopic structure. Though I'm usually a huge fan of Spielberg's own brand of sentimentality, he mutes it for the apparent benefit of the tale he's chosen to tell. Griffith on the other hand, pulls out all the familiar stops. His movie is replete with the gushing geyser force of old-style Americana and sense of myth. The movie actually begins with Honest Abe's old log cabin and as the film progresses, Griffith indulges in his penchant for quaint romanticism. He also delights in presenting some of Lincoln's bigger political moments in his historical "recreation" mode.

Walter Huston's performance as the Great Man Himself is pretty broad, but it's still a lot of fun seeing a kind of clod-hopping backwoods boy bluster his way into the role of politician and saviour of the little guy. Huston seems to be at his best in the early going, too. Granted, he chews the scenery admirably all the way through, but there's something sweet about the scenes where he's courting Ann Rutledge (played so delightfully by the wonderful Una Merkel) and after her death, Huston genuinely evokes real pain and despair over losing his first true love. Griffith seems less interested in the eventual First Lady and places emphasis on Lincoln's post-Rutledge thoughts of suicide, and mixed feelings to the point where his courtship of Mary Todd (Kay Hammond) even includes the completely fictional sequence where the bearded beanpole has left his bride-to-be abandoned at the altar.

Griffith gives us plenty in the way of debates emphasizing secession and, not so much slavery. I personally don't think this was a bad or even racist choice on Griffith's part. Spielberg, for example, gets to have his cake and eat it too by placing a fair degree of emphasis upon the literal back-room horse-trading which, in addition to the purely economic incentives of ending the war and "reconstructing" the south in the north's own image feel somewhat out of step with the race issue. In Spielberg's film, while muted, it's more of a case of well, yes, we really need to do all this to end slavery - completely downplaying the reality that ending the war was ultimately going to be better for business and would allow for greater expansion into the south, not to mention industrialization and out-and-out theft.

Particularly troubling to modern viewers (and less so, I think in 1930) is how Griffith has one of the few speaking roles of an African American played by a white actor in blackface. In a contemporary context, I think it's less disconcerting than it is just really a strange sight to our eyes and sensibilities. Also, given the historical context and just how "recent" the Civil War was to the timeframe of 1915 to 1930 that both Birth of a Nation and Abraham Lincoln rest within, I've always suspected Griffith was less a racist and more influenced by the prevailing attitude that Southern landowners were indeed exploited during the Reconstruction period. which, in spite of their exploitative use of slaves prior to the war, is far from some sort of tit-for-tat punishment. The shady profiteering off the "losers" of the war simply cannot be ignored.

What's more telling to me in terms of Griffith's moral and political position on slavery rings especially loud and clear within the context of The MOMA Abraham Lincoln restoration, which for example, adds a powerful opening scene aboard a slave ship that includes any number of harrowing and horrifying images of slavery. How a racist could infuse this sequence with such power is, frankly, beyond me.

All in all, Abraham Lincoln is hardly the artistic disaster many have declared - Griffith even uses his unfamiliarity with sound technology to his advantage by staging simple, but often effective single-shot tableaux of dialogue scenes.

As a big, by-the-numbers bio-pic, Abraham Lincoln is, finally a check list of events, but WHAT A CHECKLIST!!! Griffith delivers most of the major historical set-pieces, visits to battlefields (including a terrific battle montage), a genuinely great scene where Lincoln pardons a deserter, John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) maniacally plotting to take the president out and, of course the assassination. There is, finally, much in the picture that's spectacular, dazzling and romantic. I frankly like it a whole lot more than Spielberg's take on everyone's favourite stovetop hat-adorned president.

And that, my friends, ain't nothin' to sneeze a wad o' snuff at.

For all lovers of Griffith and anyone serious about the width and breadth of film history, the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray is an excellent addition to one's film library. The restoration by MOMA, the transfer an the extras make it an absolute must.