Young Mr. Lincoln

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti
Stars: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Arleen Whelan (Sarah Clay), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge), Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay), Donald Meek (Prosecutor John Felder), Judith Dickens (Carrie Sue), Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay), Spencer Charters (Judge Herbert A. Bell), Ward Bond (John Palmer Cass)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1939
Country: U.S.
Young Mr. Lincoln Criterion Collection DVD
Young Mr. LincolnYoung Mr. Lincoln will probably always be best remembered as the first of nine times legendary actor Henry Fonda worked with legendary director John Ford. Released in 1939, which is frequently referred to as Hollywood's "greatest year," Young Mr. Lincoln was eclipsed in both critical accolades and box office receipts by a number of destined-to-be-classics, including Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and Ford's own Western classic Stagecoach, which was released just a few months prior to Lincoln.

Nevertheless, despite its generally shoddy treatment in the history books, Young Mr. Lincoln is an important film in Ford's canon, one that his admirers (including Soviet genius Sergei Eisenstein) have frequently argued is one of his greatest works. It presents a fascinating early glimpse into the formation of Abraham Lincoln's persona, however highly fictionalized much of the narrative is. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti, in his third of four collaborations with Ford, took some basic historical facts and spun them into a surprisingly complex meditation on the molding of Lincoln's gravitas and mythic status through loss and hardship. Even Ford's sometimes overcooked humor can't detract entirely from the feeling of sadness that hangs over much of the film.

The film covers Lincoln's life from 1832 to 1837, and Fonda, with a prosthetically enhanced nose, plays him as a long-legged, slightly uncomfortable, self-deprecating ruffian who is slowly but surely shaping himself into a statesman. He has a tendency to put his hands in his pockets and cast his eyes downward when he speaks, and he never seems entirely comfortably in social situations, whether that be at a high-society ball (where he professes a complete inability to dance and literally shuns his future wife Mary Todd to look out at the river) or in the courtroom (where he props his feet on the desk while questioning witnesses).

The first part of the story involves Lincoln as a young man learning to read and shyly courting Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), whose death will prove to be the transition moment in his life, one that he literally leaves to the fate of which direction a stick will fall. The second half of the film follows Lincoln as he starts a law practice in Springfield, Illinois and becomes involved in a murder case in which two rural brothers are accused of knifing a local bully.

Lincoln feels immediately connected to the family of the accused, especially the mother (Alice Brady), who he feels is a lot like the way his mother would have been had she lived. Lincoln never seems so solitary as he does in these passages of the film, and his ultimately bravura performance in court (based loosely on an actual case he won) still pales in comparison to the sense that he will once again be alone when the family is reunited and returns safely to their farm (crucially, this same family gave Lincoln his first law books at the beginning of the film). Young Mr. Lincoln was castigated by the critic in Daily Variety when it was first released because of its lack of a love story, but the very absence of conventional romance is crucial to Ford's vision of Lincoln as a brilliant and troubled loner.

The key tension in the film, and that which makes it so intriguing, is between our mythic imagination of Lincoln the Great Emancipator and ultimate martyr and the film's view of Lincoln as a scrappy kid with questionable manners. Scattered throughout the narrative we get bits and scraps of the mythic story of Lincoln everyone learned in grade school--a reference to his growing up in a log cabin with a dirt floor, for example--but these moments play off of and reinforce the film's more down-to-earth view of the future President, rather than eclipsing it. The climactic scene in which Lincoln declares that he will go up the hill (a literal hill in this case, but it's too easy to read "hill" as "Capitol Hill") takes on an almost ironic tone given the portrait of Lincoln the film has painted. Far from an easy hagiography of one of America's most revered Presidents, Young Mr. Lincoln is instead an exercise in bringing mythos down to the level of humanity.

Young Mr. Lincoln Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Part One of Omnibus: John Ford, a BBC profile of Ford's early career
  • BBC talk show episode featuring Henry Fonda
  • Archival audio interviews with John Ford and Henry Fonda
  • Academy Award Theater radio dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln
  • Gallery of production documents
  • 28-page insert booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Geoffery O'Brien and a reprinted essay by Sergei Eisenstein
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 14, 2006

    Criterion's new high-definition, digitally restored transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain positive, is excellent. The image is clean and smooth, with a nice filmlike appearance and virtually no signs of age whatsoever, which is quite amazing given the age of the film. The visual look of Young Mr. Lincoln is fairly subdued in terms of contrast, particularly in comparison to the look cinematographer Gregg Toland would give Ford's The Grapes of Wrath a year later, and the transfer is nearly perfect in its fine shadings of gray throughout the picture.

    The digitally restored original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic master, sounds very good throughout.

    While it is certainly unfortunate that Criterion couldn't round up a notable John Ford scholar to provide an audio commentary, the second disc of this two-disc set contains a number of valuable extras. The first is Part One of Lindsay Anderson's profile of John Ford's career, which was made for the BBC series Omnibus in 1992 (one can only hope that Criterion has another John Ford disc in the works that will include the second half ... 7 Women, perhaps?). Running 42 minutes in length, it is a comprehensive overview of Ford's career through World War II. The archival footage of interviews with Ford is particularly illustrative of just how difficult, cantankerous, and brilliant he was. Henry Fonda appears in a 1975 episode of the 50-minute BBC talk show Parkinson, in which he discusses his entire career, but dedicates a good chunk of time to discussing his work with Ford and producer Daryl F. Zanuck. There are also short excerpts from two separate audio interviews conducted by John Ford's grandson Dan Ford, one of the director recorded in 1973 and one of Fonda recorded in 1978. As with many Criterion discs of older American films, this one includes a complete radio dramatization of the film, which was produced for the short-lived Academy Award Theater in 1946 and features Henry Fonda reprising his role as Lincoln. A nice new twist is that the audio file can be downloaded directly from the disc as an mp3 file for those who like to listen to radio dramatizations on their iPods (you know you're out there!). The documents gallery includes excerpts from the original screenplay that differ from the scenes that made it into the final film, a few production stills from excised scenes, the original poster design, and a personal letter to John Ford from Sergei Eisenstein.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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