Young Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln falls into reverie on porch, ignoring Mary.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Abe’s stepmother bids him goodbye as he leaves Kentucky to ferry pigs to New Orleans.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. The judge’s wife bids Abe a silent farewell as he leaves for the legislature.

Young Mr. Lincoln. Mary pays attention to Abe at parade, prompting an introduction.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Douglas admires the dress Mary brought her sister from Louisville.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Mary makes a witticism at Douglas’ expense.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Mary raptly gazes at Abe.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Mary follows Abe across room to seek his company.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Mary’s behavior angers her sister.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois. Mary swears she will shape Abe’s destiny.


Lincoln and the Law

By contrast, in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the law is a predominant theme woven through the narrative, which highlights the relation of the “moral right” to legality and political manipulations. The Emancipation Proclamation is discussed in one Cabinet scene and Lincoln notes that it may not legally stand if the war ends before the Thirteenth Amendment is passed. Lincoln explains that he was using a war powers act to deprive the enemy of useful property, i.e., the slaves, and if peace is declared, that action may be abrogated.

Through his Secretary of State, Seward, Lincoln hires “skulky men” to do the actual vote trading and distribution of patronage. The pragmatism of this action cynically reinforces a false distinction between morality and politics: that to do the right thing, one must be willing to be underhanded. The scenes of the “skulky men” wheedling lame duck Congressmen for yay votes on the Amendment through job promises are set up as humorous interludes featuring physical comedy and light-hearted fiddle music. By positioning the audience to find these scenes amusing, the film shuffles aside the potential to examine the serious nature of doing politics through patronage and corruption.

Through sequences like these, and the infamous Lincoln storytelling scenes in the script, this film does its own work to mythologize Lincoln. Lincoln’s stories are generally humorous, such as a story about a talking parrot he recites to petitioners from Missouri, or funny and vulgar, like a story about an Englishman who hangs a portrait of George Washington in his water closet. Such recitals lend strength to the popular myth of Lincoln as a folksy man using legal and quasi-legal tactics to produce the right, regardless of whether it allows misgovernance in the name of morality.

The maternal realm

In Young Mr. Lincoln, the maternal is clearly associated with Abigail Clay and her daughters-in-law. Sarah, the elder daughter-in-law is married to Matt Clay and has a baby. The younger woman, Cassie is engaged and eager to be married to Adam, the younger son. Some ruffians, including a deputy of Springfield, bother Sarah at the parade, and later that night, the deputy and the two brothers fight. The deputy’s friend, John Cass, jumps into the fistfight, but White ends up dead. Cass accuses the sons, displaying a knife that he claims is the murder weapon. The sheriff arrives, and asks Mrs. Clay which one of her sons killed White. She refuses to answer.

Mrs. Clay projects a stately serenity alternating with panic when questioned about the identity of the son that killed Deputy White. She can’t choose, of course, and much is made visually and dialogically of her struggle. Abe doesn’t want her to be forced to tell because, of course, she is Mother, as such cannot be expected to choose between her sons because that would violate natural Law. He paints her as a simple woman during the trial, capitalizing on the positioning of class and gender to create a kind of condescending masculinized empathy in the all-male jurors. The empathy clearly rests upon affirming the class status of Mrs. Clay as a poor, uneducated farmwoman. This separates her from the figure of Mary Todd, who sits with Steven Douglas in the spectators’ gallery.

Before the trial, Lincoln tells Mrs. Clay that she reminds him of his deceased mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. These three women clearly stand on the side of the family and reproduction, and the narrative emphasizes their multiple relations with laws of the family and laws of nature, the double sign under which motherhood resides.

Mary Todd lingers in figurative margins waiting silently for Lincoln to notice her. The film, Young Mr. Lincoln excludes her from the category of Woman in Nature by associating her with the gentry, and with her sister’s wealth. Lincoln treats her with a type of polite disregard, nodding and responding politely when they meet in town, acceding to her invitation to a dance, and awkwardly dancing with her. However, when they retire to the porch from the dance, Lincoln falls into a reverie while gazing upon the river, which primarily symbolizes the spirit of Ann Rutledge and the Law according to Cahiers. Mary moves to a bench in the background, ignored. Accepting this abstract category of Woman limits the reading of the film to one that positions woman/Woman in a predetermined and fairly stable category, the implications of which are not considered in the Cahiers analysis.

The maternal appears silently in yet another goodbye, after Abe is elected to represent New Salem in the Illinois legislature. Abe has apparently been boarding with a judge, and as they carry out his trunk, he shares a silent farewell with the judge’s wife, whose neat but plain dress, and hair pulled into a bun visually echo the stepmother’s earlier farewell.

Young Mr. Lincoln associates Mrs. Clay, her daughters and Ann with nature but also with labor, productivity, self-reliance, and (as noted by most writers) the formation of the family. The Clay family women are imbricated in a web of relations among Law, Nature and Gender as noted by the theorists. They dress plainly and work hard on their family homestead. They are primarily seen in nature/frontier settings: a covered wagon, porch of their farmhouse, camping outside Springfield. The only indoor scenes featuring the Clay women are those that occur during the trial of the two sons.

However, it is a specific construct of Nature that they occupy in Young Mr. Lincoln, one which differs vastly from, for example, the 1970s conception of “the natural woman” embedded in a web of notions of alternative culture, not the Nineteenth century pioneer ethos. The 1970s “natural woman” was an outgrowth of 1960s hippie mentality. This style was a very simple look, eschewing artificial adornments like heavy makeup, and breaking conventions by letting body hair grow. It was one of several “looks” that can be found in fashion magazines of this era, in contrast with the disco look that featured more extravagant clothing, makeup, and hairstyles. This concept does associate women with Nature but as an alternative to the proper bourgeois woman whose images alternated between homemaker and the career woman. While the 1970s natural woman is closely associated with a retreat from bourgeois civilization, the 19th century natural woman of Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln In Illinois is associated heavily with white civilization taming a savage land through reproduction (the maternal realm).

Mary Todd Lincoln

This leaves one woman to consider: Mary Todd. She receives scant attention in Young Mr. Lincoln, remaining on the periphery of the narrative. She is omitted from the category of woman in nature by virtue of her association with the gentry and her sister’s wealth. Mary Todd is away from her family home but ensconced in a branch of her paternal family, leaving her neither without nor within the patriarchal family structure. She does not labor, and through the richness and luxury of her sister’s home, she is associated with the gentry and by extension, with slave holders in the South. The only black faces in this film are servants in Todd’s sister’s residence, and their presence recalls the absence of overt mentions of slavery.

Mary Todd initiates every interaction with Lincoln, and all are executed awkwardly. They meet at the Fourth of July parade; Lincoln is polite but oblivious to Mary’s sidelong glances and attempt to engage him in conversation. Mary invites him to her sister’s house for a formal dance. He accepts but lingers outside the ballroom to exchange jokes with some men, which results in Mary asking him to dance. They dance poorly together, and a removal to the porch results in Abe staring in fascination at that river, presumably thinking of change and of promise lost in Ann while Mary sits ignored in the background. Visually this shot positions her as tangential to Abe’s calling, to a loving relationship with him, tangential to his progress through an understanding of law and questions of right and wrong. However, she is also disassociated with the natural realm, which in Young Mr. Lincoln seems a precondition for aiding the male protagonist onto his ordained path. This exception implicitly labels Mary Todd as “wrong” for Lincoln.

Public understanding of Mary Todd Lincoln in the first four decades of the 20th Century would have informed such a portrayal of her “wrongness” as a wife for Abe, and audience reception of that role. Mary Todd Lincoln was widely regarded in the public memory as “insane,” an image that doubtless was influenced by her 1875 insanity trial, which led to her commitment to an institution in Batavia, Illinois. The existence and timing of the possible onset of a mental illness is an open question. Some date the existence of mental illness to that 1875 commitment while some contemporary acquaintances’ letters mention tendencies to mental illness existing prior to Lincoln’s assassination. Benjamin French, who oversaw the redecorating of the White House during the Lincoln administration, stated,

“I think the tragical (sic) death of her husband has made her crazyer (sic) than she used to be.”[12]
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Her sister Emilie noted that Mary spoke of visions of her dead son Willie as early as 1863.[13] Psychiatrists have written 20th century defenses of her, attributing her behavior to excessive grief from losses beginning with the death of her mother when Mary was six years old, the deaths of her sons, and finally triggered by Lincoln’s death. Other attempts at diagnoses of Mary Todd Lincoln exist, including depression, migraine-triggered hallucinations, syphilis, and psychosis. The possible existence of an insane wife became part of the Lincoln mythology.

In Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Mary Todd occupies much more screen time, and the film represents her as a somewhat prickly, aggressive young Kentucky “belle” who knows her own mind, a bit like Scarlett O’Hara in the previous year’s Gone With the Wind. The privilege and wealth remain, indicated by the fact that dialogue reveals she brought her sister’s ball gown to her “all the way from Louisville.” Unlike the Mary Todd of Young Mr. Lincoln, this Mary seems ambitious and sassy. Ruth Gordon gives a mannered performance, endowing Mary with strength of will, using extremely precise bodily gestures that yield to less controlled ones in moments of frustration.

Mary’s aggression toward men and toward Lincoln in particular annoys her sister, who obviously wants to marry her to Stephen Douglas. But unlike Mary in Young Mr. Lincoln, this one engages Lincoln in a conversation about his dead mother, Nancy Hanks, invoking the realm of the maternal while continuing to invoke notions of power.

Her search for power emerges through Mary’s dialogue. She states that she does not want a typical bourgeois marriage, but one in which she can aid a man to great success, preferably on the national stage. She wants to “shape a new life, and will shape Lincoln and make him face his power and fulfill his destiny.” This mixture of motherhood and aggressive ambition introduces a theme of Mary’s instability into the text. After hearing this speech, Mary’s sister Elizabeth calls her “one shade from madness” for harboring such ambitions. Associating ambition and aggression with mental instability fits in with the nineteenth century thinking about women’s mental and physical disorders. The label of madness would be applied off and on to Mary Todd throughout her life, through histories and through popular culture. It is certainly one that Steven Spielberg draws upon when he weaves the themes of the maternal and madness together in his recent film Lincoln. I am not going to argue the historicity of this element of Todd’s biography but rather to pull it into the rapidly escalating series of discourses that surround her cinematic representation.

Ruth Gordon in Abe Lincoln In Illinois and Sally Field in Lincoln bring distinct star images to their performances. Gordon’s reviews in films of this era noted her vivid onscreen presence, with New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent noting that he believed camerapeople did not light her performance in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet; that instead, she brought her “own incandescence” to the screen.[14] Nugent commented that her Mary Todd upstaged Raymond Massey in scenes, with her “eyes crackling with cold ambition.”[15] Certainly, her Mary Todd becomes a focus of attention in her scenes, and this energy and personal charisma certainly helped construct a particular version of Mary: aggressive, ambitious, and for a woman of the 19th Century, “forward” in social settings.

Sally Field brings a different image to her portrayal of Lexington belle turned First Lady Mary Todd. Field has played a variety of roles, with several Southern women prominent among them: the working class Norma Rae, farm woman Edna Spaulding in Places in the Heart, and M’Lynn, the “steeliest of the Steel Magnolias, another woman prone to anger and frustration at the things she cannot change, and who has trouble maintaining proper appearances in grief.”[16] Her resumé of strong Southern women, a definite part of her star image, did not make her a shoo-in for the casting. She had been attached to the Lincoln project for several years, but when the male lead dropped out, her casting was in jeopardy. On the David Letterman show, Field explained that she had to fight to retain her role as Mary after Liam Neeson, originally slated to play Lincoln, dropped out of the project. Spielberg is said to have thought her too old for the part.[17]

In Abe Lincoln In Illinois, Mary’s aggressive behavior escalates in impassioned speeches about Lincoln’s role in public life, discussions that make him distinctly uncomfortable. They become engaged, even though Lincoln is shown to be unhappy about his choice. Finally he jilts Mary, saying.

“if her poor little soul wants greatness, she’d better marry Steve Douglas.”

Following this scene, Lincoln returns to New Salem and experiences the auditory and visual memories of Ann and his stepmother that make him return to ask Mary’s forgiveness. God, mother, Ann in all her complexity, and Mary’s active agenda for Abe combine to put Lincoln’s feet on a path to “greatness.”

Mary continues to express her frustrations with political process in rather violent outbursts. On the night of the Congressional election, Mary becomes highly agitated while at headquarters. She is distraught at the wait for the returns, and makes wild claims about Lincoln hating her and all her friends. He sends her home. Mary in Abe Lincoln In Illinois exists in the phallic realm, but this scene explicitly shows her expulsion from politics to the realm of home and family. The film’s script heavily emphasizes behaviors that reduce Mary Todd to the level of a conniving woman who seeks reflected greatness in a man. However, it is her political perspicacity that identifies great potential in Abraham Lincoln, potential he seems to wish to deny, constantly claiming that he just wants to be left alone. However, the implicit notion here is that her presence inside the realm of law is unnatural and leads to her expulsion and confinement in the male fantasy of feminine madness.

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