“That’s all there is to it: right and wrong.”
John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a nostalgic 1939 slice of cinematic Americana, was released at a time when the nation could use a little sentimental uplift. After a decade of hardship, the Great Depression was finally ending, but a new obstacle, a second World War, was on the horizon. A man like venerated United States icon Abraham Lincoln was a sight for sore eyes. As for Ford, already an Academy Award winner (Best Director for 1935’s The Informer), he was about to hit his stride in what was to become his most acclaimed decade of filmmaking (two more Oscars within the next four years). It was a model meeting of subject and director, and of art and cultural consciousness. Unfortunately, while reflective of its time—formally and thematically—the structural constitution of Young Mr. Lincoln now strikes an odd imbalance between central character and narrative focus.
Ford’s film begins in New Salem, Illinois, circa 1832, when this soon-to-be exalted political figure was but a gangly young man with slight political aspirations; early on, he is uneasily promoting the legislative promise of the Whig Party. As played perfectly by Henry Fonda, in a relatively early role that would be his first of eight for Ford, this incarnation of Lincoln benefits tremendously from the actor’s own guileless appeal, struggling past his ungainly physicality, awkwardly moving, siting, standing, and dancing (the dancing is marginally improved by 1946’s My Darling Clementine). It was a daunting part, to be sure, and Fonda, who admired Lincoln and said this role was like “playing God,” was hesitant to take it on; despite the convincing external work by the 20th Century Fox makeup team, he felt his voice was decidedly unsuitable. Nevertheless, Fonda imbues in lanky Lincoln a folksy, modest dignity, introducing himself to the crowd as “plain Abraham Lincoln.”
Lincoln’s previously placid eyes light up when he is offered a stockpile of books, one of which, “Blackstone’s Commentaries,” sets his mind reeling. Lying on his back down by the river, his feet propped up on a nearby tree, he repeats the word over and over again: “law … law.” Enamored by the principles and potential of legal application, and guided beyond the grave by his departed love Ann Rutledge (all-too-briefly played by Pauline Moore), Lincoln enters into practice with Springfield attorney John Stuart (Edwin Maxwell). It’s at this point when Young Mr. Lincoln introduces its dominant plotline, which regrettably diverts from the emerging portrait of Lincoln’s amiable character (he stays the same, but the film’s concentration goes elsewhere). When a man is murdered and two brothers are accused, their mother, a witness, refuses to assign blame to one son over the other. After thwarting an impulsive lynching, Lincoln banks on his ambition and common sense to set things right.
As this transpires, Ford is at his best in the scenic, concrete representation of then-small-town Springfield. Having already crafted a rustic portrait of New Salem (by way of Fox’s Century City studio), with flowing rivers and billowy snow, he swaps the natural serenity for the embryonic bustle of the Illinois capital. This old-timey backdrop is fittingly animated as it celebrates Independence Day, with festivities honoring a parade of veterans and contests ranging from pie judging to tug-of-war (which honest Abe cheats at). Aside from anything set within Monument Valley, it’s the sort of setting Ford excels at developing, materializing the props and production design into a precious filmic engraving. The photography by Bert Glennon and an uncredited Arthur C. Miller similarly evokes a lyrical reverence, with poised shadows and sharp facial features cut by the light, forming striking images of authentic permanency.
Young Mr. Lincoln looks extraordinary in its new 4K restoration, presented on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray along with an assortment of supplemental features, including a commentary from author Joseph McBride (informative, but trying a bit too hard to find significance in every move Ford makes), a documentary profile on Ford, interviews with Fonda and Ford, and an homage by Sergei Eisenstein. There is also an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, which showers immense praise upon the film, beginning: “In Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford achieved the perfection of his art. Never were his matter and his method more aptly fitted, and never were his tendencies toward sprawl and overemphasis more rigorously controlled.” While O’Brien’s later comments concerning the film’s appearance are accurate (“its surfaces paint, with relaxed humor and effortless nostalgic charm, an imaginary antebellum America”) and he rightly notes a classically Fordian caveat concerning historical recreation (“The preoccupation with history and its contradictions—the variance between actual human experience and the official version that will be constructed after the fact … resonates troublingly at the heart of this film…”), the sweeping adoration seems somewhat strained.
Young Mr. Lincoln is an undeniably quality Darryl F. Zanuck production, benefitting greatly from Ford’s visual signature and Fonda’s performance, which presents Lincoln as a complex, contradictory character. In a lackadaisical daze one minute, embracing his wit the next, he appeals to people with charisma and sanity; he manages to subtly woo Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) and yet is just as keen to split rails and bust heads. The problem with the picture comes down to its screenplay by Lamar Trotti (actually, an Oscar-nominated script). It’s easy to forgive the hokum and the idealized, if sincere, patriotism, but the film suffers from dialogue that is overly mannered and quixotically moralistic. More than that, though, its plodding courtroom midsection, which takes up at least half the film, abruptly derails the depiction of the man himself. Lincoln merely becomes a good lawyer, with nothing to distinguish himself as the humble man he was or the champion he would become, and yet that seems to be the entire point of the film, as suggested, if nothing else, by Fonda’s presentation and the monumental imagery. There are moments of hilarity in the court proceedings (an amusing bit about Ward Bond’s John Palmer Cass character: “Jack Cass”), but the prolonged interval stops the story dead—such as it was to begin with—and does little to advance its titular focus. Otherwise, Ford’s film ultimately falters in the same way Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln does (though Daniel Day-Lewis gives Fonda an impressive run for his money): Detailed pictorial accuracy and an engrossing personification of the same lauded figure do not necessarily make for an entertaining or terribly interesting film. Then again, Ford considered Young Mr. Lincoln one of his favorites, stating he gets “an emotional kick out of it.” And who’s going to argue with John Ford?