Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Arleen Whelan, Judith Dickens, Richard Cromwell, Eddie Quillan, Donald Meek, Ward Bond
  • Abe Lincoln moves from a Kentucky cabin to Springfield, Illinois, to begin his law practice and defends two men accused of murder in a political brawl.

“By jing, that’s all there is to it—right and wrong.”

John Ford. Henry Fonda. Abraham Lincoln. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that much Americana but this is a film that’s just seeped in it thanks to those three enormous names and a legendary script by Lamar Trotti. I was shown Young Mr. Lincoln in a college screenwriting class way back when and the writing and lead performance made an impression on me then. Thanks to Election Day being right around the corner, which always brings a patriotic air with it for at least a week, it left an even larger mark this time.

There were so many great scenes, of course including the entire courtroom sequence. The way he would abandon questioning out of nowhere, hit dead ends, and seem to be thinking of much larger themes than the ones on the table; it was almost like Lincoln was figuring it all out on the job for the first time. Which he was in a way, but despite his humility, we knew better that this was a man intellectually equipped for this case and much more. I think my favorite scene, though, was the town fair that brought the story of our 16th President into complete Paul Bunyanesque territory. He wins a rail splitting contest, displays agility and cunning in the tug of war, and best of all, talks the onlookers through a pie tasting competition, describing the deliciousness of both the apple and peach pies and exhaustively walking the crowd through how the sequence in which you eat them affects the taste and experience.

Trotti and Ford’s approach was actually to combine three different approaches—the popularly exaggerated tall tale version of Lincoln, fictional circumstances, and the truth—to create a story that takes what we know of Lincoln’s skills and morals during his presidential years and translates it backwards to his past. According to Trotti’s version, the seeds of greatness were planted in the man with the death of both his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln and first love Ann Rutledge. His compassion and respect towards the matriarch of the Clay family, Alice Brady’s final performance, surely comes from those grievous losses. As did another lesson, the simple one of right versus wrong, that he carried with him throughout his upbringing and adapted into the fancy city law books he picked up off the back of a wagon in a barter.

Even without the requisite law training, we are shown that this is a man capable of just about anything professionally and personally, except dancing. He possesses musical talent and brute strength, is both sure of himself and supremely humble, and can talk down the angriest of pitchfork-wielding mobs with wit, charm, and humor. At his most potent in the courtroom or in closed door negotiations, he’s often in a relaxed pose or posture—feet up on his desk, always seconds away from a joke, browsing a bookshelf in the middle of the biggest trial of his life, or casually playing the Jew’s harp in the middle of conversation. Fonda’s portrayal was not just physically impressive, but contained a folksy sense of comfort and command that drew me in every frame. I could watch this character recite and dissect law textbooks for hours.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

  1. Pingback: Judge Priest (1934) | classixquest

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