Everyone loves a winner, which may account for the continuous battle over who owns the Lincoln story. Three states — Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois — claim to have been crucial influences upon Abraham Lincoln during his formative years. The Illinois General Assembly wisely adopted the slogan “Land of Lincoln” in 1955 and had it placed on license plates, ensuring its wide promotion. To make certain that no other state would infringe on the claim, Congress passed a special act that same year giving Illinois the exclusive use to the phrase “Land of Lincoln.”
Writers have also been territorial about the Sixteenth President. John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary, was incensed at Ida Tarbell in the 1890s when he discovered that she intended to write a popular biography of Abraham Lincoln. Nicolay, having recently finished a 10-volume Lincoln biography with John Hay, protested to Tarbell that “you are invading my field.” His real concern was that a competing Lincoln biography diminishes “the value of my property.”
Perhaps only a handful of Lincoln books have made the kind of sales that give one pause. Carl Sandburg, David Herbert Donald, and Doris Kearns Goodwin come immediately to mind. The recent announcements that two feature-length films are now in production — Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a loosely based adaptation of the Goodwin bestseller — recalls an earlier era when two other Lincoln films were in production at the same time.
Starring Raymond Massey, Robert Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a Broadway hit in the fall of 1938. New York critics and audiences applauded Massey’s dramatic interpretation of a young Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood frequently took Broadway hits and quickly turned them into motion pictures. RKO Pictures wasted no time in purchasing the film rights and began production. Little did they know that screenwriter Howard Estabrook had written a screenplay in 1935 for Fox Film Corporation entitled Young Lincoln. But production ceased when Fox merged with Twentieth Century to become Twentieth Century-Fox. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti, who had finished production of a biopic on Alexander Graham Bell in November 1938, then began rewriting Estabrook’s script, which had taken on the new title Lawyer of the West. Darryl Zanuck, the producer of the film, changed the name of the film to Young Mr. Lincoln.
The competing Lincoln films resulted in a lawsuit in which Robert Sherwood sued Twentieth Century-Fox. Sherwood claimed that the Twentieth Century-Fox film was a blatant facsimile of Sherwood’s play, using the same plot elements, a similar title, and similar promotional campaign, and drawing upon the popularity of Lincoln created by Sherwood’s play. Sherwood said that “there was little public interest in any portion of the life of Lincoln” until his play generated a widespread public awareness. In many respects, Sherwood’s assertions were similar to those of John G. Nicolay: “you are invading my field” and diminishing “the value of my property.”
Twentieth Century-Fox countered with the obvious fact that Lincoln’s historical life was in the public domain. All of the facts and events relating to Lincoln’s life would be similar in any biographical film. Moreover, the claim that Lincoln was unknown to the larger public until Sherwood’s play appeared was easily dismissed with an abridged listing of films and major plays and books published on Lincoln from 1900 to 1939. Among those dealing with Lincoln’s early life were Carl Sandburg’s 2-volume work The Prairie Years (1926), D. W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, and John Drinkwater’s 1919 hit play Abraham Lincoln. The court sided with Twentieth Century-Fox, allowing the John Ford film that starred Henry Fonda to move toward release a year before Abe Lincoln in Illinois. And Sherwood need not have worried, since both films were eagerly embraced by audiences.