Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, due out in November 2012, may prove Oscar-worthy, given its stellar cast of previous Academy-Award winners: Daniel-Day Lewis and Sally Field as Abraham and Mary; Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. But three earlier biographical Lincoln features offered excellent acting too, and they all fared poorly come Oscar time.
Despite Walter Huston’s fine performance, D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) received no nominations. John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), starring Henry Fonda, could muster only a nomination for best Original Story, and it lost in that category to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The sole Lincoln best-actor nominee — Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) — lost out to Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story.
On one occasion, however, the Motion Picture Academy did give a best-picture award to a Lincoln film. The Oscar for best two-reel (20-minute) short subject of 1955 went to an unpretentious little documentary called The Face of Lincoln. You can watch the video below.
The Face of Lincoln was a labor of love for sculptor Merrell Gage of the University of Southern California’s Department of Fine Arts. Born in Topeka in 1892, he began sculpting Lincoln in 1916. The Seated Lincoln he completed that year was installed at the Kansas State House in 1918, and it conveyed the same fondness for the president that Gage exuded four decades later in the film.
In the statue, Lincoln is not presiding from on high; he’s seated on a low chair, bending toward the spectator in an informal, welcoming posture. Many sculptors had tried to elicit Lincoln’s humanity. Gage went after his warmth. (You can see the statue here.)
Beginning in 1928, Gage took his clay and sculpting tools into public halls and let audiences watch as he created Lincoln’s head from scratch. While working, he would relate stories of Lincoln’s life. By the 1940s, despite his many other sculpted works, his one-hour Lincoln show had become his main claim to fame. Naturally, when he approached retirement in the mid-1950s, USC’s Department of Cinema Studies decided to preserve his act on black-and-white film.
In 1956, the Motion Picture Academy nominated The Face of Lincoln in two categories: best two-reel short, and best documentary short. Though it lost in the documentary contest to Disney’s Men Against the Arctic, it beat out the two-reel competitors — one of them The Battle of Gettysburg, which featured the voice of “Lincoln” reading the Gettysburg Address. It thus became the only Lincoln production ever to win a best-film Oscar.
The Face of Lincoln begins with Gage holding up sculptor Leonard Volk’s 1860 life mask of the 51-year-old Lincoln, running his fingers over it to show the difference between the left and right sides of his face. For Gage, facial features revealed character and aptitude.
On the left side, Lincoln’s skin is stretched tight, exhibiting Lincoln’s power and decisiveness. It gives Lincoln his “firm, true look,” indicative of his “legal ability.” On the right side, a relaxed muscle makes the corner of his lip protrude slightly, suggesting gentleness, the look of the “humanitarian and philosopher.”
With these homespun findings out of the way, Gage gets to the true business at hand: digging into the clay with his fingers, thumbs, and implements, conversing all the while about the flatboat trip to Louisiana in 1831, the Black Hawk war, and a dozen other iconic moments from Lincoln’s life story. He spends almost two minutes on little Grace Bedell’s suggestion that the presidential nominee would look better with a beard.
The seductive storytelling can draw our attention away from what else is happening: with his hands and voice, Gage is expressing his affection for Lincoln. He’s speaking to him as much as speaking of him. He’s modeling the face of Lincoln, but he’s also modeling an intimate bond with his hero.
Gage’s attachment to the president is touchingly visualized when Gage briefly mentions the Ann Rutledge story. The camera pans slowly around the back of Lincoln’s head as we learn that he experienced “what we would call a nervous breakdown” after her sudden death in 1835. The camera stops to let us join Lincoln in gazing at Gage. The sculptor is describing the care Lincoln required from “his friends the Bowling Greens” after Ann’s burial. Gage seems to be comforting his sorrowing friend too, by smoothing out his lapels.
When the Civil War arrives, Gage makes Lincoln’s face age rapidly. He digs at the hollows of the cheeks and the wrinkles above the eyes. Gage’s fingers are working hurriedly by the time he gets to Appomattox and Lincoln’s final week of life. His voice slows down for the trip to Ford’s Theatre, even as his hands rush to complete the crow’s feet beside his eyes and the creases around his mouth.
“You know the rest of the story,” says Gage. He swivels Lincoln’s head away from the camera as he adds, “you know how the assassin’s bullet forever turned his face from us.”
Millions of Americans saw The Face of Lincoln on television or in school in the mid-twentieth century, and, thanks to the United States Information Agency, millions of people around the world saw it too, with the soundtrack dubbed in their own languages. It’s a rarely seen work today, but half a century ago audiences knew it embodied the reverential feelings that Lincoln routinely evoked.