Abe Lincoln in Illinois (film)

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Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Cromwell
Written by Grover Jones
Screenplay byRobert E. Sherwood
Based on Abe Lincoln in Illinois
1938 play
by Robert E. Sherwood
Produced by Max Gordon
Starring Raymond Massey
Gene Lockhart
Ruth Gordon
Mary Howard
Minor Watson
Alan Baxter
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Edited by George Hively
Music by Roy Webb
RKO Radio Pictures
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • April 19, 1940 (1940-04-19)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1,004,000 [2]
Box office$666,000 [2]

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a 1940 biographical-drama film that depicts the life of Abraham Lincoln from his departure from Kentucky until his election as president of the United States. In the UK, the film is known by the alternate title Spirit of the People. [3] The film was adapted by Grover Jones and Robert E. Sherwood from Sherwood's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. It was directed by John Cromwell.


The film stars Raymond Massey and Howard da Silva, who reprised their roles from the original Broadway production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois , playing Abe Lincoln and Jack Armstrong respectively. Herbert Rudley, who had portrayed Seth Gale in the play, also repeated his role in the film version. The film also marks the screen debut of Ruth Gordon in the role of Mary Todd Lincoln. [4]

The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Raymond Massey) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (James Wong Howe).


Abe Lincoln leaves home for the first time, having been hired along with two of his friends by Denton Offutt to take a load of pigs by water to New Orleans. When the boat gets stuck at a dam at the settlement of New Salem, Abe sees and loses his heart to Ann Rutledge, the daughter of the local tavern keeper. When Denton later offers him a job at the store he has set up in New Salem, Abe readily accepts.

Abe discovers, however, that Ann already has a beau. Nonetheless, he gets settled, making himself the most popular man around with his ready, good-natured humor and taking lessons from schoolteacher Mentor Graham. When his rival for Ann's affections leaves to improve himself, Ann waits for him two years, then she receives a letter from him in which he states he does not know when he will return. Abe seizes the opportunity to express his love for her; she is unsure of her feelings for him and asks for a little time. She soon dies from "brain fever", telling Abe on her deathbed that she could have loved him.

Abe is asked to run for the Illinois General Assembly. He reluctantly accepts and wins, but after his first term in Springfield, Illinois, he decides to study the law. When Mary Todd visits her sister Elizabeth Edwards and her wealthy, influential husband Ninian, a party is held in her honor. All the eligible bachelors come, including Stephen Douglas, Abe's fiercest political rival. However, it is the homely, unpolished Abe who catches Mary's fancy, much to her sister's chagrin. Ambitious, Mary senses greatness in him, and she is determined to drive him to his rightful destiny despite his lack of ambition. Abe does ask her to marry him, but changes his mind at the last minute, discomfited by her drive, and he leaves town. After reflection, he asks for her hand again. She accepts. Years pass, and they have several children.

Lincoln runs for the US Senate, and engages in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, the opposing candidate. A main issue is slavery. In a stirring speech, Abe contends that "a house divided against itself cannot stand".

With a presidential election looming, Abe's party is so split that the favorites are unacceptable to all. The party leaders compromise on "dark horse" Abe Lincoln. He is opposed by three other candidates, including Douglas. Abe wins the election, bids his friends goodbye and boards the train to go to Washington, DC.



Filming took place in Eugene, Oregon. [5]


The film recorded a loss of $740,000, making it one of the big financial disasters in RKO's history; however, in the states of Illinois and Indiana, where it was heavily promoted, it was the highest grossing film in most theaters. Nationwide, it was not a financial success, losing attendance to a number of high-grossing films such as Rebecca , Foreign Correspondent , Pinocchio , The Grapes of Wrath , Fantasia , The Sea Hawk , Our Town , Santa Fe Trail , The Letter , Northwest Passage and Pride and Prejudice . [2]

The film was nominated by the American Film Institute for its 2006 list of most inspiring movies. [6]

Adaptations to other media

Abe Lincoln in Illinois was dramatized as an hour-long radio play on a broadcast of Lux Radio Theater on April 22, 1940, again starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln. It also was adapted to a broadcast from the Ford Theatre on February 8, 1948.

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  1. "Abe Lincoln in Illinois: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 12, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931–1951', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994, p. 58
  3. 'Radio Times Guide to Film 2017'
  4. Higham, Charles; Greenberg, Joel (1968). Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited. p. 108. ISBN   978-0-498-06928-4.
  5. "Filmed in Oregon 1908-2015" (PDF). Oregon Film Council. Oregon State Library. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  6. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-04-02. Retrieved 2016-08-14.