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In his otherwise excellent book, Lincoln in American Memory, the historian Merrill Peterson calls Young Mr.Lincoln a "boring, dreadful, film". This amazingly wrongheaded analysis simply proves that great historians are rarely fine film critics. I am working on a doctoral dissertation on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As part of my preparation for writing the dissertation, I made a careful analysis of this film, and of Tag Gallaghers brilliant interpretation of it in his seminal book on Ford. Young Mr. Lincoln comes out that culminating year of the first phase of Ford's cinematic authorship, 1939.In that greatest of Hollywood years, Ford directed three superb, still not fully appreciated films: Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach,and Young Mr.Lincoln. It might seem odd to say that Stagecoach is not fully appreciated, all but the most purblind of critics must perceive that it is one of of the greatest Westerns, and perhaps even one of the hundred greatest films of all time. However, what is NOT fully appreciated is that these three films work together as a kind of trilogy-a triptych, in fact. Ford is creating a sort of mythic history of America on screen. Drums Along the Mohawk is the Revolutionary War. Young Mr.Lincoln is pre-Civil War America.Finally, Stagecoach is Post Civil War America. What the three films have in common is that they are an extended meditation on the American Adam and his "errand into the Wilderness". What are the Psychic and social costs of American manifest destiny, as America strives to build a new human city in the wilderness?Lincoln symbolizes Americas journey, as he seeks to reconcile the civilizational inmpulse (law), with the freedom of the wilderness.Young Mr.Lincoln is not history, ( It is full of historical "howlers'-as both Ford and Trotti were well aware), but myth. This is Lincoln, the symbol of justice and mercy, Lincoln, the man of the wilderness, striving to found a civilization within himself, and to become the "remarkable lawgiver' of young America. Young Mr. Lincoln is not history-like James Agee's long forgotten teleplay about Lincoln, and like Sandburgs biography, it is an epic poem...a very beautiful epic poem.
1939 is universally accepted as the greatest year in Hollywood history,
with more classic films released than in any other, and John Ford
directed three of the best, "Stagecoach", "Drums Along the Mohawk", and
this beautiful homage to frontier days and a young backwoods lawyer
destined to eventually save the Union, "Young Mr. Lincoln".
With the world plunging into a war that America dreaded, but knew it would be drawn into, Abraham Lincoln was much on people's minds, in 1939, as someone who had faced the same dilemma in his own life, and had triumphed. On Broadway, Robert E. Sherwood's award-winning "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", with Raymond Massey's physically dead-on portrayal, was playing to packed houses (it would be filmed in 1940). Carl Sandburg's continuation of his epic biography, "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years", was published, and quickly became a best seller. President Roosevelt frequently referred to Lincoln in speeches, and the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., became the most popular landmark in town (a fact that Frank Capra made good use of, in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington").
All this was not lost on Darryl F. Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox; as soon as he read Lamar Trotti's screenplay of Lincoln's early days as a lawyer, he designated it a 'prestige' production, and assigned John Ford to direct, and Henry Fonda, to star.
Fonda did NOT want to play Lincoln; he felt he couldn't do justice to the 'Great Emancipator', and feared a bad performance would damage his career. Even a filmed make-up test, in which he was stunned by how much he would resemble Lincoln, wouldn't change his mind. According to Fonda, John Ford, whom he'd never worked with, cussed him out royally, at their first meeting, and explained he wasn't portraying the Lincoln of Legend, but a young "jackanape" country lawyer facing his first murder trial. Humbled, Fonda took the role. (John Ford offered a different scenario of the events, but the outcome was the same!) Obviously, they found a chemistry together that worked, as nearly all of their pairings would produce 'classics'.
Unlike the introverted, melancholia-racked Lincoln of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", Ford's vision was that of a shy but likable young attorney, who made friends easily, and misses the mother he lost, too young (resulting in a bond with a pioneer mother that becomes a vital part of the story). Injustice riles him, and he speaks 'common sense' to quell violence, interlaced with doses of humor. Both productions play on Lincoln's (undocumented) relationship with Ann Rutledge; in Ford's version, the pair are truly in love, and committed to each other. After her death, Lincoln would frequently visit her grave, to share his life with her 'spirit' (a theme Ford would continue in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon").
A murder trial is the centerpiece of the film, and shows the prodigious talents of the star and director. Fonda deftly portrays Lincoln's inexperience, yet earnest belief in justice tempered with mercy, and Ford emphasizes the gulf between the big-city 'intellectuals' (represented by pompous D.A. Donald Meek, and his slick 'advisor', Stephen Douglas, played by a young Milburn Stone), and the informal, rule-bending country sense of Lincoln. With Ford 'regular' Ward Bond as a key witness, the trial is both unconventional, and riveting.
With the film closing as Lincoln strides away into the stormy distance, and his destiny (dissolving into a view of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial), audiences could take comfort in the film's message that if a cause is just, good would ultimately triumph.
"Young Mr. Lincoln" is a truly remarkable film, from an amazing year!
Young Mr. Lincoln marks the first film of the director/star
collaboration of John Ford and Henry Fonda. I recall years ago Fonda
telling that as a young actor he was understandably nervous about
playing Abraham Lincoln and scared he wouldn't live up to the
John Ford before the shooting starts put him at ease by saying he wasn't going to be playing the Great Emancipator, but just a jack-leg prairie lawyer. That being settled Fonda headed a cast that John Ford directed into a classic film.
This is not a biographical film of Lincoln. That had come before in the sound era with Walter Huston and a year after Young Mr. Lincoln, Raymond Massey did the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Robert Sherwood Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Massey still remains the definitive Lincoln.
But as Ford said, Fonda wasn't playing the Great Emancipator just a small town lawyer in Illinois. The film encompasses about 10 years of Lincoln's early life. We see him clerking in a general store, getting some law books from an immigrant pioneer family whose path he would cross again later in the story. And his romance with Ann Rutledge with her early death leaving Lincoln a most melancholy being.
Fast forward about 10 years and Lincoln is now a practicing attorney beginning to get some notice. He's served a couple of terms in the legislature, but he's back in private practice not really sure if politics is for him.
This is where the bulk of the action takes place. The two sons of that family he'd gotten the law books from way back when are accused of murder. He offers to defend them. And not an ordinary murder but one of a deputy sheriff.
The trial itself is fiction, but the gambit used in the defense of Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan who played the two sons is based on a real case Lincoln defended. I'll say no more.
Other than the performances, the great strength of Young Mr. Lincoln is the way John Ford captures the mood and atmosphere and setting of a small Illinois prairie town in a Fourth of July celebration. It's almost like you're watching a newsreel. And it was the mood of the country itself, young, vibrant and growing.
Fans of John Ford films will recognize two musical themes here that were repeated in later films. During the romantic interlude at the beginning with Fonda and Pauline Moore who played Ann Rutledge the music in the background is the same theme used in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for Vera Miles. And at a dance, the tune Lovely Susan Brown that Fonda and Marjorie Weaver who plays Mary Todd is the same one Fonda danced with Cathy Downs to, in My Darling Clementine at the dance for the raising of a church in Tombstone.
Lincoln will forever be a favorite subject of biographers and dramatists because of two reasons, I believe. The first is he's the living embodiment of our own American mythology about people rising from the very bottom to the pinnacle of power through their own efforts. In fact Young Mr. Lincoln very graphically shows the background Lincoln came from. And secondly the fact that he was our president during the greatest crisis in American history and that he made a singularly good and moral decision to free slaves during the Civil War, albeit for some necessary political reasons. His assassination assured his place in history.
Besides Fonda and others I've mentioned special praise should also go to Fred Kohler, Jr. and Ward Bond, the two town louts, Kohler being the murder victim and Bond the chief accuser. Also Donald Meek as the prosecuting attorney and Alice Brady in what turned out to be her last film as the pioneer mother of Cromwell and Quillan. And a very nice performance by Spencer Charters who specialized in rustic characters as the judge.
For a film that captures the drama and romance of the time it's set in, you can't do better than Young Mr. Lincoln.
Why does this movie get so little attention? Maybe because it came out in
that overstuffed great-movie year, 1939 (Wizard of Oz, Dark Victory, Grand
Illusion, GWTW [which I can't stand]). But I really think it's because YML
is a transitional film for Ford -- it's stuck between his early
expressionistic period ("The Informer") and his classic Western period, with
one stylistic foot in each. And it's unabashedly patriotic, only hinting at
the dark reimagining of the American experience that the Master would come
to in "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" -- but still
hinting at it enough to turn off the McVeighs among us.
Maybe that's why I love it. You can see Ford coming to terms with the grand, Griffithesque vision of America through its most complicated avatar, Lincoln. Ford's love for his country was more like Lincoln's than Griffith's, anyway: like Lincoln, he acknowledged the genius of the democratic experiment, but he was also aware of its dangers: mob rule and self-satisfaction. YML's greatest scenes are all about this.
First, there's the local parade Abe attends, surrounded by yahoos whom he loves but also sees for what they are. (We see him in another scene accepting a legal case from one of these -- and warily biting the coin offered him for a retainer.) Veterans of the recent War of 1812 and Indian Wars march through; the crowd is wild for them, Abe merely respectful.Then a agon of old men in tricorners is pulled through the parade route. No one seems to know who they are. Lincoln quietly informs his friends that they are veterans of the War for Independence -- and gravely doffs his stovepipe hat. His friends, mildly ashamed (it appears) of their prevous jingoistic glee, follow suit, and stand silent and hatless as the old men pass.
Then the mildly ludicrous plot -- about two brothers accused of another man's murder -- kicks in, and Abe goes to work. The scene where he confronts a lynch mob, putting his foot up against the log they're using for a battering-ram against the jailhouse door, is a classic by any standard. But note how Abe talks to the mob on its own level while remaining, in spirit, resolutely on his own higher plane. After appealing to their macho impulses by offering to "lick any man here," he delivers a house-divided speech that soothes their savagery and leaves them confused and irresolute. "Dontcha wanna put that log down now, boys?" he asks when they have been flummoxed by his eloquence. "Ain't it gettin' a mite heavy?"
Throughout Ford indulges in shameless historical foreshadowings that would have made Stephen Vincent Benet blush. Abe meets Mary Todd and Stephen Douglas; he rides down a dirt road with a bumpkin who's playing a new tune called "Dixie" on a jaw-harp. "Kinda makes you feel like marchin'!" says the bumpkin, as he and Abe ride through a muddy patch in the road.
The ending is impossible to describe without inviting derision, but I swear to you, it works. Having won his case, Lincoln allows as how he might take a walk -- "maybe to the top of that hill." As he trudges on, the skies send down rain and lightning -- and Abe seems to know what this is a prelude to.
I acknowledge the superiority of the great Ford films that came after, but I will always have a special place in my heart for "Young Mr. Lincoln." Independence Day (the federal day of observance, not the movie) is coming; you could do far worse than to watch this great film before the barbecue.
According to John Ford's lyrically shot, fictional biopic of Abraham
Lincoln's life his greatest faults may have been an obtuseness with
woman and an ability to dance in "the worst way." Ford's camera has
only praising views to reveal of Mr. Lincoln's early life. But for what
the film lacks in character complexities it makes up for in beauty and
depth of vision. Uncharacteristically beautiful compositions of early
film, what could have been a series of gorgeous still frames, Ford has
a unique eye for telling a story. The film sings of the life of a
hopeful young man. Henry Fonda plays the contemplative and
spontaneously clever Lincoln to a tee, one of his best roles.
The film concerns two young men, brothers, on trial for a murder that both claim to have committed. In classic angry mob style, the town decides to take justice into their own hands and lynch the pair of them, until honest Abe steps into the fray. He charms them with his humor, telling them not to rob him of his first big case, and that they are as good as lynched with him as the boys lawyer. What follows seems to become the outline for all courtroom- murder-dramas thereafter, as Abe cunningly interrogates witnesses to the delight and humor of the judge, jury and town before he stumbles upon the missing links.
The film plays out like many John Ford movies do: a tablespoon of Americana, a dash of moderate predictability, a hint of sarcasm that you aren't sure if you put in the recipe or if Ford did it himself. Despite the overtly 'Hollywood' feel of the film, and overly patriotic banter alluding to Lincoln's future presidency, the film is entirely enjoyable and enjoyably well constructed, if you can take your drama with a grain of salt.
This film was not only one of John Ford's own personal favorites but
also numbered directors Sergei M. Eisenstein and Bertrand Tavernier
among its high-profile admirers. Ironically, I've just caught up with
it myself via Criterion's recent 2-Disc Set after missing out on a
couple of original language screenings of it on Italian TV many years
ago and again a few times on TV while in Hollywood!
The film marked Ford's first of nine collaborations with Henry Fonda and is also a quintessential example of Ford's folksy Americana vein. A beautifully made and pictorially quite poetic piece of work, the courtroom sequences (and eventual revelation) in its second half still pack quite a wallop, apart from giving stalwart character actor Donald Meek a memorably meaty role as the prosecuting attorney.
Fonda is, of course, perfectly cast as a bashful, inexperienced but rigorous and humanistic lawyer who was destined to become President; Fonda would go on to portray other fictitious politicians on film - most notably in Franklin J. Schaffner's THE BEST MAN (1964) and Sidney Lumet's FAIL-SAFE (1964) - and it's surprising now to learn that he was reluctant at the time about accepting the role of Lincoln since, in his view, that was "like playing God"!
It is interesting to note here that Ford had previously tackled Abraham Lincoln (tangentially) in THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936), a superb but perhaps little-known gem which has, luckily, just been released as a Special Edition DVD by the UK's veritable Criterion stand-in, Eureka's "Masters Of Cinema" label. Besides, I also have two more Abraham Lincoln films in my DVD collection which I've yet to watch and, incidentally, both were directed by D. W. Griffith - THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930) - and, had I not just received a bunch of films I've never watched before just now, I would have gladly given them a spin based on my highly-satisfying viewing experience with YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.
Young Mr. Lincoln(1939) was released in the same year as another classic by
John Ford called Stagecoach(1939). Its amazing that two great films like
these were overlooked for the Best Picture award of 1939. Tells the
fictitious but compelling story of the early days of Abraham Lincolm when he
was a young struggling lawyer. He shows traits that made him famous during
his role as the President of the United States. He does have a touch of the
Sherlock Holmes method of solving crimes for he uses it to have defend a man
falsely accused of murder.
Patriototic motion picture that is one of my favorite films from John Ford. Henry Fonda is perfect in the role of the young Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he bears a little resemblence to the late admired and revered, Abraham Lincoln. Fonda gives a performance of admiring humaine tenderness. Many of the scenes in Young Mr Lincoln(1939) are done with beauty and finesse.
Henry Fonda brilliantly captures what we have long believed Abraham Lincoln
was like. It is a fooler. Through Fonda's performance we are led to
believe (on the surface) that Abraham Lincoln was a country bumpkin. But,
through his confrontation with the lynch mob and especially during the court
proceedings, you can see that beneath the exterior posturings is a brilliant
man who has a very good command of what is going on around him and how to
influence the people around him.
In this movie Henry Fonda shows that he has a very good grasp of how to present humor. It is an aspect of him that has been lost over the years. When he is telling stories and jokes he has the timing down perfect. There is a sequence in the trial that had me laughing quite hard. He shows this gift again in The Lady Eve in 1940.
The ending by John Ford is absolutely brilliant with Henry Fonda going to the top of a hill and in the distance a tremendous storm symbolic of the Civil War. He goes forward into history. The movie is fiction but the insight into Lincoln is tremendous. Definitely worth seeing again.
This is an evocative and idealized portrait of the early life of
Lincoln(born 1809 Hodgensville-Kentucky- and died in Washington 1865).
Ford's excellent movie takes Abraham Lincoln(Fonda) from his youth. He
studied laws, common law and began practice as lawyer in 1837.This
Hollywood biography follows Lincoln from his log-cabin days, initial
relationship to Mary Todd(Weaver), following the couple from their
first ball,and his departure for congress candidate. But focuses mainly
on a brothers(Richard Cromwell,Eddie Quillan) accused for murder, the
posterior trial with amusing court debate scenes and the protection for
their mum(Alice Brady). The Lincoln-Fonda as defender advocate and
Donald Meek-prosecutor are nothing short of brilliant.
Excellent performance from Henry Fonda as idealistic,traveller Springfield solicitor , he was to star regularly for Ford from this movie, as ¨Grapes of wrath,My darling Clementine, and Fort Apache¨. Besides sterling acting by Alice Brady as grieved mother, she was a great actress from the silent cinema, but this one results to be her last movie because she early died from cancer.The Lincoln's deeds developing make for skilfully appealing entertaining.His portrayal shows a nostalgic longing for things past and old values and describes his goodness,uprightness and willful. Lincoln, like John Ford, was a straightforward man who never varied the ideals of his youth.This American masterpiece is correct on both counts, as splendid biography and as magnificent drama.
Another biographies about Abraham Lincoln are the following: 1) ¨Abraham Lincoln¨(1930) by D.W.Griffith with Walter Huston, Una Merkel, talking from his birth until his assassination; 2) ¨Abe Lincoln in Illinois¨(1940)by John Cromwell with Raymond Massey, Ruth Gordon, concerning similar events to Ford's film through his career as lawyer 3)TV version titled ¨Gore Vidal's Lincoln¨ with Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd.
Amazingly, I have just seen this film for the first time. I was not expecting such a wonderful portrayal by Mr. Fonda and the accuracy (within Hollywood limits of the time) by Mr. Ford. I am no Lincoln historian, but I have read enough about him that I recognize the truth in the spirit of this film. A number of details could certainly be noted as historically inaccurate; on the other hand, the image of Mr. Lincoln as a lawyer who cares for people, truth, and mercy is quite accurate. One reviewer writes that Mr. Lincoln is made to appear as a country bumpkin, using humor when he is unable to use anything useful. To the contrary, Mr. Lincoln was realistic about his country origins; he used humor to convince, drive home an important point, and win people to his view; he was self-effacing. The manner in which Mr. Fonda portrays him in this film does homage to the man. The film may conflate history for entertainment purposes (it is, after all, a Hollywood production), but it is not as unhistorical as many believe. While sentimental (as to be expected of a 1939 film about an American icon), Young Mr. Lincoln is an admirable presentation of the spirit of the man.
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