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The film begins with a written prologue, in the form of the poem "Nancy Hanks" by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet. The poem consist of a series of questions posed by Lincoln's mother about the life of her son. The working titles of this film were The Young Lincoln, A Younger Lincoln, The Life of Young Abraham Lincoln and Lawyer of the West. The Call Bureau Cast Service and Motion Picture Herald credit Jack Kelly with the role of "Matt Clay as a boy," whereas Variety credits Billy Watson with the role. The CBCS and Motion Picture Herald credit Dickie Jones with the role of "Adam Clay as a boy" whereas Variety credits Delmar Watson with the role. Finally, Variety and CBCS credit Judith Dickens with the role of "Carrie Sue" whereas Motion Picture Herald credits Dorris Bowdon with the role.
According to a June 1935 article in Los Angeles Times, Winfield Sheehan, the Vice President and General Manager of Fox, hired writer Howard Estabrook to write a screenplay, titled The Young Lincoln, based on the life of Abraham Lincoln as a young man, to star Henry Fonda. A July 1935 news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that Fox was negotiating with Walter Wanger to buy Fonda's contract. The deal fell through, but Wanger agreed to lend Fonda to Fox to make The Young Lincoln. (Modern sources claim that when Lamar Trotti offered Fonda the part of Lincoln in the 1939 film, he turned it down, saying that Lincoln was "too great a man" to play. However, according to contemporary news items, Fonda was slated for the role before Zanuck was involved in the project.) Several weeks after the first Los Angeles Times article appeared, the paper featured another article on the film, stating that Estabrook researched Lincoln's life for months before writing the screenplay. Estabrook's script, The Young Lincoln, dated July 22, 1935, is contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library. In his notes that accompany the script, Estabrook recommended Loretta Young for the role of "Ann Rutledge" and Madge Evans for "Mary Todd." A July 1935 article in the Los Angeles Herald Express claims that the script was going to be published in book form as a "paragon of Americanism which would vanquish Communism and Fascism." Estabrook refuted this claim in an article in Los Angeles Herald Express in which he denied that his screenplay was propagandist.
According to a May 1939 news item in Hollywood Reporter, Fox dropped the project until the success of the play Abe Lincoln in Illinois prompted writer Lamar Trotti to call Darryl F. Zanuck's attention to Estabrook's script. Zanuck approved the project, and instructed Trotti to concentrate on the early part of Lincoln's life. Trotti's first effort, Lincoln Trial Story, dated January 7, 1938, actually predated the Sherwood play. In his notes contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, Trotti explained that the story was based on a murder trial that he covered as a newspaperman. Trotti claims that he was inspired to use the trial when he discovered that during a farmer's trial, Lincoln had used an almanac to determine the position of the moon on the night of the crime. Trotti's first temporary script is dated January 13, 1939, and in a story conference on 23 Jan, Zanuck suggested that Trotti introduce "Abigail Clay" and her family at the beginning of the plot. Zanuck reasoned that this would create a sense of drama because in that scene, "Abigail" gives "Lincoln" the law book that eventually leads to him to the law and thus places him in a position to help her sons at the end of the story.
A pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that Irving Cummings was at one time considered to direct the film. Another pre-production item in Hollywood Reporter notes that Tyrone Power was to star as Lincoln, but two weeks later, another item in Hollywood Reporter adds that Fox was negotiating with Fonda to play the role of Lincoln. A studio press release in the production files at the AMPAS library adds that the film cost $1,500,000 to produce. A later item in Hollywood Reporter notes that the river scenes were shot on location around Sacramento, CA. Another item in Hollywood Reporter states that Robert Sherwood and the Playwrights Producing Co. filed a legal complaint asking for a restraint against Fox's use of the title Young Mr. Lincoln. Sherwood claimed that the title would confuse the public into thinking the film had been adapted from his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Sherwood's play served as the basis for the 1940 film Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
The National Board of Review put the film on its "ten best" list of 1939. Lamar Trotti received an Academy Award nomination in the Writing (Original Story) category. Modern sources add Robert Parrish as sd asst. The early period of Lincoln's life was also portrayed in a 1957 television broadcast Young Man from Kentucky, an epsiode of the Twentieth Century-Fox Hour on the CBS network starring Tom Tryon, Ann Harding and Marhsall Thompson.