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Monday, January 14, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Lil' Bit About Lincoln

The latest Hollywood offering about one of America's most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln, has been drawing much attention with its slew of award wins and nominations. Director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on the life of the 16th leader of our nation as he fought for abolition in the midst of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis, surprise-surprise, was incredible in his portrayal of one of the most iconic men in history and won the Golden Globe for his performance last night at the award ceremony.

Henry Fonda puts his oversized dogs up in his portrayal of 
the adored Commander in Chief in Young Mr. Lincoln.

Yet, Day-Lewis is but one of many in a long line of people to portray "honest Abe." Henry Fonda contributed to cinema's examination of this figure during his youthful, early days in politics in Young Mr. Lincoln, Joseph Henabary gave his interpretation in the epic and controversial Birth of a Nation, and who could forget Robert V. Barron's rendering during Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: "Be excellent to each other!"

Benjamin Chapin brings Lincoln to life on stage.

However, few are familiar with the name Benjamin Chapin, the man who performed the role of Abraham Lincoln for years in vaudeville. Bearing a very strong resemblance to the former president, Chapin put the coincidence to use and played to packed houses in "A Day with Abraham Lincoln" at the turn of the century, merely 30 (or so) years after Lincoln's assassination. A dedicated researcher, he devoted his life to learning all he could about Lincoln's life, and in time wrote his own play, which he entitled "Lincoln" and put on the stage in Hartford, CT in 1906. In the words of noted Hollywood biographer E.J. Fleming

"Each act was a different Civil War event: the Fall of Fort Sumter, the Battle of Gettysburg, the end of the War, and the last day of Lincoln's life... told amid the tale of two soldiers in love with Mrs. Lincoln's neice, Kate Morris, one a loyal Union soldier and the other a Confederate spy."

It was a huge success, and Chapin's portrayal was highly revered. He and his company traveled from city to city, playing in increasingly respectable theatres, and were often in competition with the antithesis to the work-- the more racist play "The Clansman," soon to become the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation. Chapin too would make some films by serializing his play. After forming Charter Features Corp. in New Jersey, he eventually churned out over ten pictures. Interestingly enough, the infamous writer/producer/director Paul Bern would work with him in 1917. He would direct several of his two-reelers, including My Mother, The Spirit Man and Myself, The Lincoln Man.

When Lincoln Paid, with Francis Ford as the Prez (1917).

Unfortunately, just as Chapin was hitting his stride in pictures, having landed a contract with Famous Players, he passed away after a bout of tuberculosis. He was but 43-years-old. This marked the end of the first, major Lincoln player in cinema, but there would be many more. The story of Abe's life seems to grow only more fascinating as the years pass and as scholars and historians chip away at the complications and passions beneath his gentle soul. Thus, from D.W's 1930 film Abraham Lincoln to the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, we continue to remain enthralled and enthused by a man who represented all that was good, just, and honorable in our always struggling, always striving, democratic nation.


  1. Excellent write-up! All in all, I thought Spielberg's Lincoln was fantastic, and so have been on a bit of a Lincoln kick lately. I've never even heard of Chapin, but man, that picture is uncanny! Thanks for the intro!

    1. Thanks, Lady! I'm glad you found it as interesting as I did. :)

  2. Wow - what a performance Benjamin Chapin as Lincoln must have been - perhaps similar (though not as amusing) to Hal Halbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight." A tour de force! Too bad we will never see Chapin's work, but thank you so much for introducing us to him (that picture is amazing in its resemblance to Lincoln)! Those who are not forgotten never really die.

    1. What a lovely thought, and so true. Yes, the similarity is uncanny, isn't it? I guess he was born to play him!