Celebrate Lincoln's Birthday with Lincoln!
By Edward Epstein
Feb. 2, 2022
Critics agree: 1917's "Lincoln Cycle" was a noteworthy accomplishment for the young art of silent movie making. We'll all get to to see if we agree.
As noted previously on this blog, the Lincoln Group is co-sponsoring a showing of the surviving eight portions of 1917's "Lincoln Cycle," a recently restored series of short films about the life of Abraham Lincoln.
The star and producer was Benjamin Chapin, in the photo at left, who spent a long career appearing as Lincoln on stage and vaudeville before playing him in these movies.
The films will be shown on two appropriate dates: Lincoln's Birthday, Saturday Feb. 12, and Presidents Day, Monday Feb 21, starting at 2 p.m. on both days. Parts one through four will be shown on the 12th and five through seven and part 10 on the 21st. The other two parts are lost, as so many silent films are.
Our host will be the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) at its spacious theater at 8633 Colesville Rd., in Silver Spring, MD.
The two-reel films, which means each is 15 to 24 minutes long, have been restored by the Library of Congress and were shown a few times in the years before the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. Our plan to show them in March 2020 at the AFI was scuttled at the last minute, among the first screenings canceled by AFI as the COVID lockdown hit.
In 2019, they were shown at the Lincoln Center in New York City, and the film critic Michael Sragow, writing in the magazine Film Comment, reacted enthusiastically. "The film has a singular vision that is accessible and entertaining," he wrote.
Chapin was inspired to make the films by the success of D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, which today is much scorned for its favorable portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and its denigration of African Americans. The "Lincoln Cycle" premiered in Washington, D.C., right around the time of President Woodrow Wilson's second inaugural in March 1917, and business was boosted significantly amid the patriotic fervor surrounding America's entry into World War I just a month after the premiere.
Chapin credited himself as actor, producer, writer and director. He plays Abraham; his father, Thomas Lincoln; and the future president's grandfather, who was also named Abraham. The actual director, John M. Stahl, disputed Chapin's claim that he directed the cycle, but their dispute went unresolved because Chapin died of tuberculosis in the summer of 1918.
However, film historians say there is no doubt that Stahl, who went on to a long career in Hollywood well into the talkie era, directed the Lincoln Cycle.
Tickets are $13 for both days. Live organ accompaniment will be provided by Andrew Simpson, one of the leading practitioners of the vanishing art of playing along for silent movies. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or in advance at afisilver.afi.com.
Proof of vaccination is required to enter the theater complex.