Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Glutton for Punishment: THE LINCOLN CONSPIRACY

by JB
“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”

The Lincoln Conspiracy is from Sunn Classic Pictures, the studio that held something of a monopoly on a certain type of movie when I was growing up. For three weeks before these movies opened, non-stop television commercials would ballyhoo the films, including a breathless voice-over announcer trumpeting all of the small towns the films would be playing. Permanently recorded in my twelve-year-old memory bank is some anonymous man shouting, “Saturday and Sunday only in Ottawa, Streator, and Peru!”
This is because the majority of Sunn Classic Pictures only played a single weekend. Sunn Classic pioneered and perfected the craziest method of film production ever conceived. They targeted an underserved demographic: families that did not go to the movies very often. (“Finally some movies for us!” said the people who don’t like movies.) Sunn Classic sought the family audience by only releasing G-rated films. The company did up to $90,000 of audience research for every film, including telephone surveys and audience polling, to determine the subjects that these families would actually pay money to see. They made the films cheaply and efficiently at their own studio in Park City, Utah… and then spent three to four times the film’s budget on marketing and advertising. Sunn Classic perfected the exhibition technique of “four-walling,” renting theaters outright for the entire weekend for a set fee, and keeping all of the box office receipts. After “block booking” their films into hundreds of rented theaters for a single weekend and advertising them relentlessly on TV and radio, Sun Classic would count the money and leave town before anyone could spread the word that the film itself was terrible. Surely, this is the work of Mormons on cocaine.

Some Sunn Classic masterpieces include The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams; The Outer Space Connection; In Search of Ancient Astronauts* (made to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Erich von Däniken’s best-selling “book” Chariots of the Gods?); In Search of Historic Jesus; In Search of Noah’s Ark; and In Search of Higher Profits. Okay, I made the last one up, but it’s hardly a joke. Most of these films cost less than four million dollars, including audience research and advertising, and the majority of them grossed 25 to 30 million dollars each. It was a winning business model. The company was started as a subsidiary of the Schick Razor Company (I can envision a new single-weekend, four-walled masterpiece being released: In Search of the Perfect Shave.) Sunn Classic was later sold to Taft Enterprises for millions. The final Sunn Classic Picture (though it was distributed by Warner Brothers): Cujo.
The Plot In Brief: Abraham Lincoln (John Anderson) is president of the United States during the Civil War. Popular actor John Wilkes Booth (Bradford Dillman) leads a secret group of conspirators bent on kidnapping the president. Chief of National Police Lafayette Baker (John Dehner) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Robert Middleton) also hatch a scheme to kidnap Lincoln, blame it on the South, and reap the rewards in a country now ready to really punish the South. When Booth learns that his kidnapping plans have been usurped, he ups the ante considerably by vowing to kill the President. SPOILER ALERT: He does. (That Wilkes is shown actually shooting Lincoln is one of the few historical details this film gets right.) Several Confederate families help a fleeing Booth along his escape route. Meanwhile, knowing this assassination business will lead back to them if Booth’s diary is ever found, Baker and Stanton make it possible for Booth to escape the country, and for an innocent patsy WITH THE SAME INITIALS, James William Boyd, to be shot at Garrett’s farm and buried as Booth.

This is both sensationalistic nonsense and utter bullshit. In real life, ten witnesses—including his mother, brother, sister, physican, friends, and work associates—identified the body as Booth, a fact the film fudges by never mentioning it and making up something else. Apparently, Booth sported an unusual scar on his neck and a tattoo of the initials “JWB”—which he had given to himself when he was a child—so identifying his corpse shouldn’t have been too complicated.
The performances in The Lincoln Conspiracy are… mixed. I could swear I had seen John Anderson before and, sure enough, he was a popular character actor with more than 250 film and television credits. I recognized him from his performance as “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” in John Sayles’ terrific film about the Black Sox scandal, Eight Men Out, but he also played “California Charlie,” the used car salesman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho! Anderson’s portrayal of Lincoln is workmanlike and seldom rises above the high standard established by the Animatronic Lincoln in the Disneyland Hall of Presidents.

Bradford Dillman shamelessly overacts as Booth; I would say he only lacks a moustache to twirl, but he has a moustache. John Dehner and Middleton are stuck reading lines from an out-of-print history textbook from another dimension. Fred Grandy—yes, Gopher from Love Boat!—briefly appears as co-conspirator David Herold and is quickly hanged.

The Lincoln Conspiracy stands as the ultimate Sunn Classic Picture. It is terrible. It is boring and slow, but it is rated G! The director seemed to have but one aim in mind: to stretch this thin material out to 89 minutes so that it might qualify (in length only, mind you) as a feature film. The film was based on a controversial bestselling book conveniently released by the publishing division of… wait for it… Sunn Classic Pictures. According to Wikipedia and historian Edward Steers, “The Lincoln Conspiracy was greeted with hostility and derision from real historians. Many objections were raised against the book’s sensational theories and the authors’ use (and misuse) of source materials.”

So Sunn Classic Pictures releases a book, of which they have already made a film, waits for the expected reaction because the book is Grade A bullshit, then swoops in and releases the film to exploit the publicity and controversy. The cynicism on display is monumental…
Irony alone cannot begin to describe the pedestrian, monotonous film that resulted. The Lincoln Conspiracy is more like one of those Coronet Education Films from the 1950s, or the taped-from-television video cassette of some PBS special your seventh-grade social studies teacher would throw on whenever he was hung over or sad about his recent divorce.

I am neither a historian nor a screenwriter, but a cursory glance at the actual facts surrounding Lincoln’s assassination reveal so much rich irony and drama that it begs the question, “What if the Sunn Classic filmmakers had just turned to real history, not bullshit history, upon which to base their film?” Here are a few tidbits I discovered while researching this column:

• Part of John Wilkes Booth’s hatred for Lincoln and love of the South may have been due to sibling rivalry. His older brother Edwin, a more talented actor by all accounts, was a tireless abolitionist.

• Booth was an astonishingly popular actor in his time and was often called “the handsomest man in America.” He may have been the first actor in American history to have his clothes torn off by his adoring public upon leaving the stage. He had played Ford’s Theater before his date with destiny, in the play The Marble Heart, and Lincoln had been in the audience. Lincoln invited Booth to his box at intermission, but a haughty Booth ignored the invitation.

• One of Booth’s most popular roles was a famous historical assassin—Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

• Most people believe that Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage of Ford’s Theater from Lincoln’s private box after shooting. This is not true. During his escape, Booth’s horse reared up, threw him, then fell on him. The horse apparently supported the North.

• Though he was engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, when he was killed authorities found photos of no fewer than five girlfriends in Booth’s pockets.

• The assassination of Lincoln shattered Edwin Booth’s acting dynasty. Imagine having to go out onstage night after night and face the anger and sadness of an entire nation in mourning over the actions of your brother.

* In Search of Ancient Astronauts is one of the only films I have ever walked out of. I was twelve years old but possessed a highly advanced bullshit detector.

2 comments:

  1. the story of the studio is fascinating. the movie sound less interesting

    ReplyDelete
  2. At least the Coronet films are not 90 minutes.

    Actually, I find the educational films made by Coronet, Centron, and Sid Davis endearing. I have passed many happy hours learning about appropriate behavior in school, the rules of dating, the dangers of marijuana and how to drive safely.

    ReplyDelete