DALLAS — An abridged early 1920s Abraham Lincoln biopic, “The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” one in the long line of cinematic interpretations of Lincoln’s life leading up to Steven Spielberg’s recently released “Lincoln” – a film receiving critical accolades across the board – and one long thought lost to history, recently re-surfaced in the hands of Don Ackerman, a Dallas collector and a resident expert at Heritage Auctions, who bought a print that was casually bring offered on eBay.
Now Ackerman is considering his options for what to do with this piece of cinematic and American history.
Lincoln has been a popular subject for filmmakers since the days of Thomas Edison and, while most Lincoln films dating from the advent of sound still exist, the majority of those produced during the silent era are lost, with no copies extant. One of the most notable of those early Lincoln biopics, “The Life of Abraham Lincoln,” starring Frank McGlynn, was among those thought gone forever – until Ackerman’s recent discovery.
Ackerman, a collector of presidential campaign items for Lincoln and his opponents, actively collecting since 1964, is also a serious film buff, even having studied film production at UCLA and NYU. While he never realized his dream of becoming a Hollywood director or screenwriter, he does fully employ his love of history as consignment director in the Historical Department at Heritage Auctions, the world’s third largest auctioneer and the largest auctioneer of high-end collectibles. His two main interests, Lincoln and old-time movies, converged recently when he was surfing the pages of eBay and noticed a listing for a single reel of 16 mm film that supposedly housed “The Life of Abraham Lincoln.”
“This was one movie I don’t recall viewing,” Ackerman said, “despite seeing literally thousands of silent movies over the last 50 years. When it was offered at a nominal ‘Buy-It-Now’ price, I bought it right away.”
His plans were to copy it to DVD and make it available free of charge on the website for the historical journal “The Railsplitter,” where Ackerman is a contributor and long-time editor.
Recognizing the name of McGlynn as one of many actors who specialized in portraying Lincoln, he did his research and discovered that “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” was produced in 1924 but that McGlynn first appeared in a 1915 film bio of Lincoln made by Thomas Edison, also starring in the Broadway play “Abraham Lincoln” by John Drinkwater, which opened in 1919 to much critical acclaim.
“In ’24, he agreed to reprise the role in a film version titled ‘The Life of Abraham Lincoln,’ said Ackerman. “It was competing with First National’s feature film ‘The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln,’ with George A. Billings, another Lincoln specialist. It was First National’s most ambitious and expensive film to date. The McGlynn film was produced as a novelty short by film pioneer Lee De Forest, using his ground-breaking invention ‘phonofilm’ which incorporated an optional sound track printed on the film stock itself.”
According to “The Films of Abraham Lincoln,” published in 2009, “ ‘The Life of Abraham Lincoln’ is a lost film . . . there are no copies known.”
Ackerman became concerned about preserving the reel soon after he received it.
“I was worried about the quality of it, its completeness, whether it was on silver nitrate stock, a highly flammable and unstable substance,” said Ackerman, “or if it was on safety stock and whether it had the original optical sound track.”
Upon receipt, he carefully partially unwound and examined it. The title frame indicated this unique copy was issued by Cosmos Pictures, about which there is no further information available, though it is likely one of several companies that re-issued old films for educational institutions and second-tier theaters. He soon discovered it was printed on Gevaert Safety stock and the quality of the print appeared excellent.
“One of the most important things I quickly realized it that, while the original film ran around 20 minutes, this reduction copy runs perhaps four minutes,” said Ackerman. “Unfortunately, there was no sound track – this is a silent version with inter-titles. It’s possible both sound and silent versions were issued in 1924, but we just don’t know. So far this is as close as anyone has gotten to uncovering this lost treasure of cinema and history.”
While disappointed that there’s no sound track and that it’s a highly-abridged version, Ackerman realizes that what he has is better than the alternative.
“I’m pleased to be able to do my bit for film preservation,” he said. “Given that this is the only copy known, my curiosity will take a back seat to caution. There’s already a small burn mark in an early frame so any viewing will have to wait until the film can be placed in the hands of professional preservationists and digitized. I’m not a film collector and would probably sell it to the right person. Ultimately, however, I want to see it made available to the general public. Sooner or later, I’m going to see this film.”
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