And the Oscar Goes To …… The Face of Lincoln
© Richard Wightman Fox 2014
Daniel Day-Lewis ran away with the best-actor Oscar for his 2012 performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film also received a best-picture nomination, but at Oscar time it came up empty. That result was in keeping with Hollywood tradition. None of the three earlier major studio films about Lincoln had even gotten a best-picture nomination.
Despite a fine performance by Walter Huston, D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) received no nominations at all. 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 before Daniel Day-Lewis-- 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 it at https://archive.org/details/face_of_lincoln and other websites.
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’d been sculpting Lincoln since 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.
Gage’s statue shows Lincoln seated on a low chair, bending toward the spectator in an informal, welcoming posture. This is not a president presiding from on high. Many sculptors had tried to elicit Lincoln’s humanity, but Gage went after his warmth. You can see the statue at http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/art/KSgage.htm.
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 renown. 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.
The short subject shows Gage chatting genially as he molds Lincoln’s face, enumerating a good dozen of the of hero’s iconic moments, from the flatboat trip to Louisiana in 1831 to Appomattox in 1865. (Gage 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 how one develops an intimate bond with the nation’s exemplar.
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
In recent years, some online viewers of The Face of Lincoln at <archive.org> have remembered the impact the film exerted on them as children in the 1950s and 1960s. Others have praised Gage for his captivating narrative and the skill of his sculpting. A present-day sculptor found his method “inspiring”: going at the clay with his hands and fingers as well as implements. That’s the key point. Gage is caressing Lincoln’s head even as he shapes it.