D. HUSAR: Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum plays supporting role in new Spielberg film

Posted: Nov. 8, 2012 8:30 pm Updated: Jan. 31, 2013 10:15 pm


The secret's safe with James Cornelius.

He won't say exactly how "Lincoln," the new Steven Spielberg film that debuts today in limited release and nationwide Nov. 16, incorporates the sound of the original Lincoln-Herndon law office clock in Springfield provided by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

"There isn't a scene in the Lincoln-Herndon law office. The film all takes place in the White House years at the end of Lincoln's life," Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection, said earlier this week. "They worked in a way to make the law office clock seem appropriate. I don't want to spill the beans on that, but it involves Mary Lincoln."

Listen closely during the film, and you might hear the sound of the dinner bell from Robert Lincoln's dining room table in Chicago, with a similar sound and look to what his parents used, but Spielberg couldn't think of a way to incorporate the sound of Mary Lincoln's music box into a movie scene.

Cornelius and other Lincoln Library and Museum staff played a key role in adding authentic touches to the film, from the recorded sounds to the mood of Springfield and Lincoln's world and costume details.

The costumer for Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the title role, "sat down with me in our reading room and spent about half a day looking at all the photos of Lincoln and talking about how he wore his clothes, what slightly different variations in the clothes Lincoln wore over the years, (like) carrying glasses on a chain in the vest pocket, when he carried his hat, when he wore his hat, how he walked," Cornelius said. "We had, I hope, a beneficial role in the way Lincoln dressed, the way he carries himself, some of his mannerisms."

That meeting took place a little more than a year ago, part of the drawn-out process in bringing the film to life. The movie uses "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the best-selling book by Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, as a jumping-off point for the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner and focuses on the last months of Lincoln's life.

"It's easy to talk about Lincoln. We're always happy to talk to anybody at all, first-graders and Hollywood directors, and do what we can to improve their knowledge of Mr. Lincoln and his times, the people who worked around him and shaped his thinking," Cornelius said.

"We know there will be historically inaccurate or inexact things in it. This is not a documentary. This is a story. But it's important that he's making this movie about an important political event, the passage of the 13th Amendment on abolition of slavery. It's good he can bring that to the big screen to entertain and educate us."

The Lincoln Library and Museum staff already has some Hollywood experience with work on "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," released June 22. The book was very well-researched, but "the movie turned into more of a vampire movie than a Lincoln movie," Cornelius said.

"We spent a lot of time helping with props for the movie," he said. "They wanted to know details -- how many people came to Lincoln's wedding, what newspapers did he read, who really were his beat friends, questions like that."

Staffers also work on a fairly regular basis with television shows such as "History Detectives" on PBS and "Auction Kings" on Discovery, as well as documentary-style films or shows, but "Lincoln" upped the star power.

Day-Lewis and actor Liam Neeson, who originally was going to play the title role, both visited the library museum for inspiration. Both met with officials and tried to walk through the museum "and do so anonymously to appreciate it, just as tourists and students of it, but were almost immediately recognized by the crowds," Cornelius said.

Buzz about the new movie already has generated plenty of phone calls from old friends wondering whether Cornelius got to meet Day-Lewis.

"I shook his hand. That was it," he said.