39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Benjamin J Burgraff
- Published on Amazon.com
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!
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
C. O. DeRiemer
- Published on Amazon.com
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.