Illinois can lay claim to four Presidents. Ulysses S. Grant lived in Galena before the Civil War and after his Presidency. Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico and lived in Dixon until he was 22. Barack Obama is undoubtedly the most successful community organizer in Chicago history. We're proud of them all.
But our most favorite Favorite Son is Mr. Lincoln. Abe. His name is everywhere, even on our Land of Lincoln license plate. As a school girl in Chicagoland, I studied him. My family often took weekend trips to Springfield to see where he lived and worked before heading for Washington DC and immortality. As an adult, I've returned to Springfield, just to walk where he walked.
Because I'm such a big fan of both Abe and Springfield, I love Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). For audiences today who are familiar with Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal in Spielberg's Lincoln, this is a wonderful prequel.
Based on Robert Sherwood's play, it opens in 1831, when Abe leaves Kentucky to strike out on his own, and ends on February 11, 1861, when he says his heartfelt farewell to Springfield as his train departs for Washington DC.
Raymond Massey* is terrific in the role he originated on Broadway. His Abe is humble and honest, plainspoken but eloquent, wise yet flawed. A good man on the precipice of becoming a great one. And he came of age in Illinois.
Early in the movie, Abraham Lincoln makes his inauspicious arrival in New Salem, IL. Transporting pigs along the Sangamon River, his barge got caught in a dam. Chasing one of his porcine charges, he lands at the feet of Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem tavern owner. He's smitten, by the town and the girl, and decides that this is where he wants to put down roots.
His romance with Ann goes nowhere because she is engaged to another man, and he's no more successful as a merchant or postmaster than he was as a lover. But New Salem's townspeople are drawn to his warmth, kindness, and almost inexhaustible stockpile of stories. He's also admired for his intelligence and integrity. His neighbors convince him to run for the State Assembly, which takes him the 20 miles or so to the state capital, Springfield.
After his term ends, he stays in Springfield, studying and then practicing law. He also meets and courts socially prominent Mary Todd, who sees his potential. They make a formidable team, starting a family and establishing themselves in legal and political circles. His career really takes off in 1858, when he debates Mary's former beau, Senator Stephen Douglas. It puts Mr. Lincoln in the national spotlight. He wins the Presidency in 1860 and leaves Illinois to preserve the Union.
If you want to visit the sites shown in the movie, these remain. Before you hit the road, call first. Between the coronavirus and restorations, public access is unpredictable.
• Abraham Lincoln's home. In the movie, you'll see Ruth Gordon, in her movie debut, as Mary Lincoln, reigning supreme in the only house the Lincolns ever owned.
• The Lincoln-Herndon Law Office. It features prominently in the movie. Here's the window seat you see Massey/Lincoln lounging in on the poster.
• The Lincoln Depot. The last scene of the movie, where Lincoln bids farewell "to this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young man to an old man ... I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return ..."
Nearby New Salem has been recreated. In one of the movie's more poignant scenes, Abe returns to find once lively New Salem a ghost town. History tells us it was abandoned around 1840, when the townspeople drifted to larger towns. In the 1920s, the town was reconstructed as a tribute to Mr. Lincoln, and you can see the road where, in the movie, he pined for Ann.
If you can't get behind the wheel and head on down to Springfield, you can still spend 110 inspiring minutes with Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It turns up often on TCM, and is available on Hulu.
*Neither of the Oscar-recognized actors who played Mr. Lincoln were American. Nominee Massey was born in Canada, and winner Day-Lewis is British.