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Young Mr. Lincoln (Criterion Collection)

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Few historical figures are as revered as Abraham Lincoln, and few director-star pairings embody classic American cinema as perfectly as that of John Ford and Henry Fonda. In Young Mr. Lincoln, their first collaboration, Fonda gives one of the finest performances of his career, as the young president-to-be struggling with an incendiary murder case as a novice lawyer. Compassionate and assured, this is an indelible piece of Americana.

Even though he was the subject of some 158 films, this movie perhaps defines Lincoln on screen--despite the fact that Young Mr. Lincoln was released in what was perhaps film's finest year, 1939. It certainly endured stiff competition: Destry Rides Again, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, and Wizard of Oz. Young Mr. Lincoln explores Lincoln's budding interest in politics (he accepts a law book as payment at his grocery store), a bittersweet relationship with a girl to whom he shares his dreams, his first law office, and as he meets Mary Todd. The film's highlight is the court trial. Even in his earliest performances, Fonda easily switched between comedic and dramatic. It's remarkable this was actually one of his earlier films--what an onus of responsibility to play the country's most revered president! Fonda succeeds, and performs valiantly and credibly. His portrayal is kindly, respectful, admirable, and brilliant. No president could ask for more. --N.F. Mendoza

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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Young Lincoln Gets the 'Ford' Treatment! July 2 2006
By Benjamin J Burgraff - Published on
Verified Purchase
1939 is universally accepted as the greatest year in Hollywood history, with more classic films released than in any other, and John Ford directed three of the best, "Stagecoach", "Drums Along the Mohawk", and this beautiful homage to frontier days and a young backwoods lawyer destined to eventually save the Union, "Young Mr. Lincoln".

With the world plunging into a war that America dreaded, but knew it would be drawn into, Abraham Lincoln was much on people's minds, in 1939, as someone who had faced the same dilemma in his own life, and had triumphed. On Broadway, Robert E. Sherwood's award-winning "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", with Raymond Massey's physically dead-on portrayal, was playing to packed houses (it would be filmed in 1940). Carl Sandburg's continuation of his epic biography, "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years", was published, and quickly became a best seller. President Roosevelt frequently referred to Lincoln in speeches, and the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C., became the most popular landmark in town (a fact that Frank Capra made good use of, in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington").

All this was not lost on Darryl F. Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox; as soon as he read Lamar Trotti's screenplay of Lincoln's early days as a lawyer, he designated it a 'prestige' production, and assigned John Ford to direct, and Henry Fonda, to star.

Fonda did NOT want to play Lincoln; he felt he couldn't do justice to the 'Great Emancipator', and feared a bad performance would damage his career. Even a filmed make-up test, in which he was stunned by how much he would resemble Lincoln, wouldn't change his mind. According to Fonda, John Ford, whom he'd never worked with, cussed him out royally, at their first meeting, and explained he wasn't portraying the Lincoln of Legend, but a young "jackanape" country lawyer facing his first murder trial. Humbled, Fonda took the role. (John Ford offered a different scenario of the events, but the outcome was the same!) Obviously, they found a chemistry together that worked, as nearly all of their pairings would produce 'classics'.

Unlike the introverted, melancholia-racked Lincoln of "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", Ford's vision was that of a shy but likable young attorney, who made friends easily, and misses the mother he lost, too young (resulting in a bond with a pioneer mother that becomes a vital part of the story). Injustice riles him, and he speaks 'common sense' to quell violence, interlaced with doses of humor. Both productions play on Lincoln's (undocumented) relationship with Ann Rutledge; in Ford's version, the pair are truly in love, and committed to each other. After her death, Lincoln would frequently visit her grave, to share his life with her 'spirit' (a theme Ford would continue in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon").

A murder trial is the centerpiece of the film, and shows the prodigious talents of the star and director. Fonda deftly portrays Lincoln's inexperience, yet earnest belief in justice tempered with mercy, and Ford emphasizes the gulf between the big-city 'intellectuals' (represented by pompous D.A. Donald Meek, and his slick 'advisor', Stephen Douglas, played by a young Milburn Stone), and the informal, rule-bending country sense of Lincoln. With Ford 'regular' Ward Bond as a key witness, the trial is both unconventional, and riveting.

With the film closing as Lincoln strides away into the stormy distance, and his destiny (dissolving into a view of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial), audiences could take comfort in the film's message that if a cause is just, good would ultimately triumph.

"Young Mr. Lincoln" is a truly remarkable film, from an amazing year!
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Excellent film May 28 2006
By Ted - Published on
Verified Purchase
This review is for the Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film.

The Young Mr. Lincoln directed by John Ford is partially fictional account of Abraham Lincoln's life before he was president or in public office.

In the film he becomes an attorney and he defends two brothers accused of stabbing a man to death. Henry Fonda plays the role of Lincoln and it depicts him as a mild mannered man with much potential.

I found the film to be very good and having seen John Ford's film, "How Green Was My Valley" I've had a chance to compare the two.

The Criterion DVD hs some great special features which I really liked.

Disc one contains the film.

Disc two contains a 1992 BBC biographical feature of John Ford (showing excerpts of many of his films), a 1975 BBC talk show interview with lead actor Henry Fonda, audio interviews of John Ford and Henry Fonda, a slide show of production documents, and a dramatic audio presentation of the film with Henry Fonda playing Lincoln again. The audio is both on the DVD menu and in an MP3 file which can be accessed on a computer.

Also the liner notes have 32 pages of extra material.

This is one of the Best American films released by Criterion and I highly recommend it.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
John Ford myth-making about a young Illinois lawyer, but effective and beautiful to look at July 5 2006
By C. O. DeRiemer - Published on
At one level I liked Young Mr. Lincoln a lot. The film is a black-and-white picture postcard to look at, with immaculate framing and carefully selected imagery to extend the visual idea of early America. It's also a remarkable example of Hollywood myth-making, laying on with a trowel the nobility, natural shrewdness, sensitivity and common-man origins of the man who became a myth. Plus it brings out all the John Ford sympathies for the honesty and goodness of hard-workin' folks. I found myself unmoved by the reverential attitude of the movie; I felt a hymn was always playing in the background, and, sure enough, a hymn, or something close enough, starts playing at the end. With all the research and excellent books about Lincoln around nowadays, with all that we've come to learn about the man, I can't help but think that Lincoln would be smiling if he saw this film.

Yet, it's effective as all get out in portraying a myth we want to believe about American life on the frontier and of the man who became our greatest president. There's not a scene in the movie where Ford doesn't fail to effectively stress a simple emotion, like love, humor, longing, honesty and doubt. He cleverly demonstrates in many scenes, particularly in the courtroom, Lincoln's shrewdness. Lincoln consistently outwits others, whether in a tug-o-war, with a man's name, selecting a juror, facing down a mob or trapping a murderer. He might use a request to sample some turnip greens because he's hungry, but he really wants a reason to ask a woman in private to tell him a secret she cannot say in front of others.

Henry Fonda, even with a false nose, gives a myth-making performance, himself. Lincoln's homespun nobility is emphasized by Ford with such an unrelenting consistency that I think only Fonda's innate likeabilty and skill make it interesting. Lincoln's ambition and ability to move a crowd his way are only alluded to, but Fonda shows us (and so does Ford) that there was iron in Lincoln's soul.

The movie is a beauty to look at. I don't know how many times we see someone, especially Lincoln, on a hill posed against a cloudy sky, with a tree framing the shot, but it works every time. The lengthy vignettes in the first half of the movie showing us the down-to-earth delights of the Fourth of July celebration -- the tug-o-war, the pie contest -- is pure corn, pure John Ford, and still purely effective in making us think there might really have been a time like this -- just like this -- in our history. Who knows, I'm sure there was.

The Criterion presentation is excellent. Included in the case is a 27-page booklet with essays on Lincoln and Ford. The extras on the second disc contain, among other items, a profile on Ford and a lengthy interview with Fonda.

I watched this movie on the Fourth of July, and was reminded that 180 years ago, also on the Fourth, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died...on the fiftieth anniversary of their signing the Declaration of Independence.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A simple reticent man with a big heart for justice and community July 10 2006
By Jimmy Lee - Published on
In John Ford's Directorial debut, Young Mr. Lincoln succeeds in every aspect of delivering a true poignant memorable and serene film about One of America's greatest Presidents. Mr. Lincoln played by Henry Fonda is a simple yet caring man capable of hiding his ambitious desires for natural law and community. Being a novice lawyer in a small minded town is not easy as Mr. Lincoln breaks up infuriated mobbs, and gives every bit of solace and tranquility to those in need. He is not stern or condescending in the least bit as he reaches out to anyone in need of assitance with pure sincerity. Within in each frame of exterior shots of the Ilinois landscape it only enhances Lincoln's bond with nature as he gazes and reflects onto his favorite river. Abraham Lincoln being long deceased and gone has not at all in any regards disrupted my bond with this great American president. It is as though you are viewing an historical figure that lives in our present time period. Mr. Lincoln even at the most strenous and tense moments (Court Room Scene) is able to contribute a calm and scerene atomsphere with his gleeful relaxed humor. As usual I am ever so grateful to the Criterion Collection for establishing such a presitgious and artful collection because this film derserves every bit of praise and recoginition. A true Gem for any Criterion or history Aficianado...
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Of course, you know I'm just a sort of jackleg lawyer..." Jan. 8 2012
By H. Bala - Published on
The ghost of 1939 cinema strikes again. Rumor has it that Henry Fonda wanted no truck of playing Abraham Lincoln, finding the role too intimidating. That is, until John Ford, legendary director and irascible martinet, called him out, and so was launched the first of their eight collaborations. Nowadays, whenever debate surfaces regarding Ford's very best works, odds are YOUNG MR. LINCOLN is slighted. And, no, I won't argue that THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE aren't the superior films. But YOUNG MR. LINCOLN counts as superb cinema, Fonda's just right performance meshing perfectly with John Ford's vision. Ford has always had that knack for establishing place and atmosphere, for capturing that evocative feel of Americana. This leisurely paced historical drama finds actor and director on the same page.

The film opens in 1832, New Salem, Illinois, as it introduces and then dispenses with a character who, nevertheless, would determine the course of Abe Lincoln's life. We note Abe's conversation by the river with the lovely Ann Rutledge. We follow the polite dialogue and sense the things left unsaid between them. The camera then shifts to some time later, to a wintry landscape marked by Ann Rutledge's gravestone and a mournful Abe Lincoln. Right there, with his beloved Ann in mind, he chooses a path. He takes his book learnin' and goes about becoming a lawyer. He always had a way with words.

Predominantly, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN centers around the highly fictionalized account of Abe as a novice attorney in Springfield, Illinois, defending two brothers accused of murder. Except that the wistful memory of Ann Rutledge towers over the narrative. It's what pushes Abe, colors his demeanor; it makes him pensive whenever he gazes out at the river. Poor Mary Todd never really had a chance. Henry Fonda infuses his character with remarkable sensitivity and a deep melancholy. But he also portrays Abe as homespun wise and witty, entirely the self-deprecating man that he must've been, with an easy way about him. Fonda's tall, lanky frame suits the role, ably abetted by elegant proboscis work provided by the make-up department. John Ford plants the future president firmly in his element, surrounds him with like-minded characters and embeds him in backdrops that are pitch perfect and evocative of his era.

And so what if the story mythologizes the man? John Ford may be a tyrant behind the camera but he is also unabashedly sentimental. YOUNG MR. LINCOLN is deeply moving, often humorous, sometimes rousing. It serves as a coming-of-age story, featuring Abe in the early stages of greatness. We see him face down a frenzied lynch mob. In the film's second half, which is essentially an extended courtroom sequence, Abe exercises his wits and goes about humorously dissecting the prosecutor's witnesses. It may or may not be a subtle thing, but we see Abe influence the proceedings just by the casual positioning of that towering, gangly frame of his. It certainly throws the prosecutor (a pompous Donald Meek) off his game. And, alright, while it's not exactly a hallmark of greatness, we even see him triumph in a log splitting competition and cheat his way to victory in a tug-of-war contest. The film ends before Abe seriously dips his toe in politics, and so we're spared (or we miss out on) the momentous events in which a humble self-taught man, this greatest president, finds his mettle truly tested.

This Criterion Collection presentation of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN comes in two discs, plus a 28-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and an homage to Ford by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Disc 1 has the feature presentation in a new, restored high-definition digital transer, with optional English sub-titles for the deaf and hearing impaired. Disc 2 contains the following supplement features:

- Television profile of John Ford's early career presented on the BBC arts program, Omnibus, which aired on December 1, 1992 (00:42:16 minutes)
- Episode from the BBC talk show, Parkinson, featuring an interview with a surprisingly droll Henry Fonda that aired on November 1, 1975; Fonda reflects on his career and his collaborations with John Ford; he also tells several fun anecdotes, the best of which revolve around Jimmy Stewart and Sergio Leone (00:49:02 minutes)
- Archival audio interviews with Ford and Fonda, conducted by the filmmaker's grandson Dan Ford who, at the time, was doing research for his book PAPPY: THE LIFE OF JOHN FORD
- Academy Award Theater radio dramatization of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, originally broadcast on July 10, 1946 - with Fonda and Ward Bond reprsing their roles (downloadable as an MP3 file)
- Gallery of production documents: excerpts from Lamar Trotti's final, February 27, 1939 draft of his YOUNG MR. LINCOLN screenplay - which detail scenes not in the film's final cut- as well as the original film poster and a "fan letter" from Sergei Eisenstein to John Ford