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John Cromwell
Raymond Massey, Gene Lockhart, Ruth Gordon
Writing Credits:
Robert E. Sherwood

Young Abraham Lincoln leaves home and eventually finds his way into politics.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 9/13/2022

• 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast


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Abe Lincoln in Illinois [Blu-Ray] (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 23, 2022)

Given its title, no one should expect a full biographical tale from 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois. As implied by that moniker, the film offers a look at the 16th president in his younger days.

We first meet Abraham Lincoln (Raymond Massey) in 1831 as a 22-year-old. He leaves home to pursue life on his own, which initially leads him to riverboat work.

When he meets Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard) along the way, he settles in New Salem, Illinois, where he remains for years. As a resident, Abe gets involved in various romances – including with eventual wife Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon) – and he also makes forays into the world of politics.

As mentioned, Illinois opens in 1831, and it concludes in 1860 after Lincoln won the presidency. Note that Lincoln was 22 in 1831.

Raymond Massey’s age during the movie’s production? 43!

Look, I get that films often cast much older actors in younger roles, and obviously Massey “ages into” Abe as the tale runs. By 1860, Lincoln was 51 and no longer out of Massey’s range.

Still, the sight of Massey as 20-something Abe threw me for a loop, and it didn’t help that 43-year-old Massey looked more like a man in his mid-to-late 50s. Again, this makes him appropriate for the movie’s “later stage” view of Lincoln, but his aged appearance means it becomes difficult to swallow him as the younger man.

If Illinois followed “early Lincoln” for only a short period, this wouldn’t cause much of an issue. Unfortunately, we get him in that range for a lot of the film, so Massey only becomes “age appropriate” for the final act or so.

Perhaps I wouldn’t focus on Massey’s inability to play a convincing 20-something – or 30-something – if Illinois delivered a more compelling experience overall. Unfortunately, the end product tends to feel perfunctory and without real punch.

Mostly, that is. Illinois does come to life briefly when Mary Todd enters the story.

The New England-raised Gordon feels a bit wrong as a Southern belle – she can’t pull off the accent at all - but otherwise she excels. As the conniving, upwardly-mobile Mary, Gordon delivers real bite to the part.

This makes the scenes in which Abe and Mary court easily the film’s best. We get some real drama and impact in these segments.

A lot of that comes from Gordon’s tart performance, but even Massey shows greater range. Abe goes through the movie’s only real internal conflict, and Massey manages to bring dimensionality to the part.

Before and after this sequence, though, Illinois delivers a fairly mediocre experience. We get a standard bio-pic that covers the expected highlights but fails to find any real depth.

In particular, the third act falters, as it feels more like a collection of “star moments” for Massey. We spend a lot of time with the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and these come across less as an attempt to develop the characters and more an excuse to allow Massey to deliver speeches to earn Oscar consideration.

And it worked, as Massey received a Best Actor nomination. Too bad the narrative grinds to a halt for these scenes.

Honestly, a movie wholly focused on the early days of Abe and Mary would be the more interesting experience. As depicted here, Illinois provides a watchable but lackluster biopic.

The Disc Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B-/ Bonus C

Abe Lincoln in Illinois appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became an erratic presentation.

Because Warner Archive has earned my trust, I assume they worked with the best elements they could find for Illinois. Nonetheless, the end result seemed iffier than usual for their releases.

Sharpness became the main casualty, as delineation seemed up and down. While many shots came across as accurate and well-defined, others felt a bit softer than one might anticipate.

No issues with jagged edges or shimmering materialized, and I saw no edge haloes. Light grain appeared through the film, and I noticed no specks or marks.

However, at 18:38, I encountered a missing frame, and that recurred later in the movie. This led to some awkward jumps, and a few other minor anomalies popped up a couple times.

Blacks seemed fairly deep and rich, though whites could seem a little strong at times. Low-light shots came with generally positive clarity. Given the movie’s age, I felt it deserved a “B-“, but it seemed less impressive than most Warner Archive releases.

The DTS-HD MA monaural audio of Illinois appeared fine for its era, and speech felt appropriate. The lines showed age-related thinness, but they were always perfectly intelligible and without edginess.

Effects resembled the dialogue. Those elements lacked much depth but they were without notable problems.

Music was acceptable for its age, as the score tended to be a bit tinny. There wasn’t much range to the music, but again, that stemmed from the limitations of the very old source. This became a perfectly adequate mix for its vintage.

One extra appears here: an April 22, 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast adaptation of Illinois. It runs 59 minutes, 57 seconds and brings back Raymond Massey to reprise his role as Lincoln, while Fay Bainter takes over for Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd.

That replacement becomes the biggest problem here, as Bainter’s soft performance lacks the bite Gordon brought to the role. At least Massey fares better when we can’t see that he’s too old for the role much of the time.

A fairly bland and by the numbers bio-pic, Abe Lincoln in Illinois occasionally sparks to life. Too much of it feels perfunctory, however. The Blu-ray comes with generally positive picture and audio as well as a vintage radio show. Though not a bad movie, Illinois fails to find much to make it memorable.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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