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Lincoln remains a film attraction

Four score and seven years ago, the largely forgotten actor Frank McGlynn Sr. was appearing in the short "Abraham Lincoln," an early sound-on-film experiment in which the 16th president was shown reading a poem. Even in 1925, it was hardly the first time Lincoln had appeared on screen. And it sure wasn't going to be the last.

Tall, dark and, no, not that handsome, Abe Lincoln has been portrayed by Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey (more than once), Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston (more than once), Gregory Peck and the aforementioned McGlynn (three times). His co-stars have included Porky Pig (in the 1939 cartoon "Old Glory," in which a slightly ominous Abe helps scare Porky into respecting the Pledge of Allegiance). He's the closest thing to a movie idol the road to the White House has produced (Ronald Reagan doesn't count; he was a movie star before the White House).

Feb. 12 would have been our perhaps greatest president's 203rd birthday, and it's worth looking at the resilience of Lincoln the film attraction, especially considering two upcoming projects that will be casting him in -- to put it mildly -- starkly disparate lights.

In what has to be the most obvious casting move in early 21st century cinema, Daniel Day-Lewis will play the Great Emancipator for director Steven Spielberg in "Lincoln," which is due out around the end of the year and will feature Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Sally Field as crazy Mary Todd, Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Party leader Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Based on the book "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and with a screenplay by Paul Webb, John Logan ("Hugo," "Coriolanus") and Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), "Lincoln" seems destined to be a serious entry in the annals of Honest Abe-ism and will treat the great man with the Spielbergian sobriety he so richly deserves.

Not so much another film, which will arrive much sooner and with a much eerier agenda: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" opens June 22, based on the pop novel by Rockville Centre's Seth Grahame-Smith, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie, which stars Benjamin Walker (of Broadway's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") and indicates the elasticity of Lincoln as pop icon.

"All art is metaphor," said Jim Lemley, who, with Tim Burton and Russian-Kazakh film director Timur Bekmambetov ("Day Watch," "Night Watch"), is producing "ALVH."

"Abraham Lincoln kind of represents the best of what people strive to be. He literally was that, but he also represents it in an esoteric way. In some ways, he was the original superhero, who was also a human being, so you're getting in Batman territory, with a real person, flesh and blood, not flying around."

In "ALVH," the young Lincoln discovers that his mother, Nancy Hanks, was killed by a dose of vampire blood, and vows to kill as many as he can. His lifelong battle against the ghouls culminates in the Civil War, instigated by Southern vampires. The war is won only after the president issues the Emancipation Proclamation and convinces ex-slaves to join the fight against the rebels.

Lemley, whose films as a producer include "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Red Eye," said that he, Burton and Bekmambetov all got an email about the project the same morning more than two years ago and, as producers, leaped at it.

"Normally, I wouldn't be interested," Lemley said. "Tim and Timur are more vampire guys. But this was a no-brainer. And along the way, Timur said he wanted to direct, which was great, because he'll bring something fresh to it. An American would be trapped by the mythology."