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Ten years in the life of Abraham Lincoln, before he became known to his nation and the world. He moves from a Kentucky cabin to Springfield, Illinois, to begin his law practice. He defends two men accused of murder in a political brawl, suffers the death of his girlfriend Ann, courts his future wife Mary Todd, and agrees to go into politics.Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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 challenge.
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.
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