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Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln(1939)

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According to Joseph McBride's tome biography Searching for John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich observed that when the director spoke of Abraham Lincoln, there was "such an extraordinary sense of intimacy in his tone, that somehow it was no longer a director speaking of a great President, but a man talking about a friend."

Now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection is Ford's intimate valentine to the Great Emancipator, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a fine slice of Americana that is best served with some of Mom's apple pie. Starring Henry Fonda as the titular character, Ford's film is less biography than hagiography, structured around a story loosely based on a real event in Lincoln's early years in Springfield, Illinois, one that had the young lawyer successfully defending Duff Armstrong in 1857 of murder charges by referencing an almanac.

Young Mr. Lincoln touches upon several key moments in Lincoln's life; his early romance with the doomed Ann Rutledge; an awkward courtship with society darling Mary Todd; the introduction of his folksy style to the political stump; and the pre-destined way in which Lincoln stumbles upon a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries, his first exposure to the law, a discipline in which Lincoln sums up simply and profoundly as "right 'n' wrong." But what is most important other than the plot--which is really a tranquil stream of anecdotal episodes—is the way in which Lincoln's early life is seen through our privileged perspective of knowing what the man was destined for, that of serving as the president who symbolically bore the sins of the nation and bound up its wounds. In the final sequence in the film, Lincoln walks to the top of a hill amidst an approaching storm, a metaphorical nod to the coming crisis between the United States. (This sequence, shot on the Fox Studio backlot, was a happy accident. A real thunderstorm was approaching, and when the rain began to fall as Fonda walked up the hill, Ford said aloud, "The tears of the multitudes.")

Young Mr. Lincoln wasn't Ford's first take on the 16th president. Lincoln figures prominently in the director's silent epic The Iron Horse, as the inspiration, if not the guiding force, for the Herculean task of building the transcontinental railroad. It is a portrait of Lincoln the father of modern America. Then the memory of Lincoln weighed heavily on Warner Baxter's mind in Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (whose French title is Je n'ai pas tue Lincoln, or I Did Not Kill Lincoln); Baxter plays Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who was wrongly convicted of co-conspiracy with J.W. Booth. (Mudd's name is still mud to this day; so far, his descendents have been unsuccessful in overturning his conviction.) Lincoln is also a presence in The Civil War, Ford's segment of How the West Was Won (1962), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

Intimidated by playing such an imposing figure, one that was still very fresh in the American conscience, Hank Fonda at first rejected the part. "I didn't think I could play Lincoln. Lincoln to me was a god," Fonda said. But he later changed his mind, due in part to a meeting in which Ford reportedly told the reluctant star that he would be playing not "the Great Emancipator" but "a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, Illinois — a gawky kid still wet behind the ears who rides a mule because he can't afford a horse." As Fonda later said, that quote was actually peppered with a liberal dose of four-letter-words, best unprinted here. Regardless of how he sold the part to Fonda, Lincoln was a deity to Ford as well. According to McBride, Lincoln is to Ford "the archetypal figure of justice, a man who dispenses legal wisdom with a priestlike humor, charity, and tolerance. He is the forefather of the Fordian lineage of folksy, humane judges and politicians that also includes Judge Priest (from Ford's 1934 film of the same title) and Mayor Skeffington (from 1958's The Last Hurrah)."

Honest Abe in Young Mr. Lincoln was a mighty different prairie lawyer from the one James Stewart would bring to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, even though Ranse Stoddard and Abe Lincoln have much in common, like a professed love and respect for the law, especially where there is a shocking lack of it. In a scene that is probably fictional, Lincoln stands as the lone figure between his clients and a lynch mob. It is a definition of Fordian frontier heroism. It was also a scene that triggered strong memories for Henry Fonda; as a boy growing up Nebraska, young Mr. Fonda had actually witnessed the horror of a mob lynching, an event that influenced the famous liberal's politics. Oddly enough, at first glance it seems that Fonda's life-long friend Jimmy Stewart would make a much better Lincoln. Stewart had the aw-shucks demeanor going, and he was much closer to Abe's size. Nevertheless, Fonda's flat Midwestern accent, his puttied nose, and various tricks to make him appear taller, such as wisely placed camera angles and shoe lifts, make him Lincoln. Speaking of the Lincoln nose, in his audio interview with his grandson Dan, Ford claims that he didn't recognize Fonda the first time he met him without the Lincoln make-up. But in another interview with Fonda, the actor confirmed that this was indeed typical Ford: a load of Irish blarney.

There is a typical love affair going on between Ford and the landscape in Young Mr. Lincoln, only it's not a landscape of craggy monuments or sweeping valleys. It's a poem to the Sangamon River (actually the Sacramento River in California), well-worn country roads, and pioneering towns covered with their first generation of dust. And it is a love affair for Lincoln too. While he is awkward and shy at the society dance with Mary Todd, he is shown as a man in tune with nature, as he soaks in his law books, lying on his back in the grass, feet propped up high on a tree trunk. He seems to be a part of the scenery as his gangly gait rides a mule through knotty trees lining country roads, while he appears to be a comic fool riding the same mule past the houses and shops of young Springfield. In his liner notes essay, Geoffrey O'Brien writes, Lincoln's "location in space, his relative distance from those around him, his physical stance, his degree of comfort or discomfort: these are constant reference points. We can't take our eyes off him, and yet there are moments when he is almost lost in the crowd."

Also present is Ford's love of simple, but profoundly meaningful pageantry. Pie-eating and rail splitting contests (Fonda actually splits one in impressive time) bring together the community, while parades of surviving veterans of the American Revolution remind observers of their debt to those that came before them. Then a tug-of-war contest is staged in which Ole' Honest Abe cheats; he wins the challenge by hooking the anchor of his team's rope to a mule cart.

Young Mr. Lincoln arrived on the scene June 9, 1939, the year of Hollywood's golden year. The same year saw the release of not only Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka, but also Ford's seminal Western Stagecoach and his other collaboration with Fonda, Drums Along the Mohawk. Even though it was obviously quite a year of competition, only Young Mr. Lincoln had the distinction of becoming a major inspiration for master Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's propagandistic classic, Ivan the Terrible (1944). And in an ironic twist that might have only deepened John Ford's famous contempt for intellectuals, the editors of the eminent film journal Cahiers du Cinema published "John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln" in August 1970, a much-debated article that proposed Ford's film as a key work to study through the lens of semiotic film theory.

Criterion's double-disc set features a new, restored high-definition transfer of the film, and several outstanding supplements on the second disc, including two BBC productions, Omnibus: John Ford, part one of a profile of John Ford, and the talk show Parkinson: "Meets Henry Fonda." There is also a radio dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln, downloadable as an mp3 file, while Dan Ford provides archival audio interviews conducted with Fonda and his cantankerous grandfather. At lastly, the DVD offers two must-read essays, "Hero in Waiting" by Geoffrey O'Brien, and "Mr. Lincoln by Mr. Ford," Sergei Eisenstein's 1945 essay originally written for a proposed volume on Ford for the series Materials on World Cinema History (Griffith and Chaplin). Eisenstein ends his essay, "My love for this film has neither cooled nor been forgotten. It grows stronger, and the film itself grows more and more dear to me."

For more information about Young Mr. Lincoln, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Young Mr. Lincoln, go to TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee