Young American master director John Ford crafts a fictionalized account of ten years in the life of Abraham Lincoln (magnificently portrayed by Henry Fonda), before he became known to the world
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) starring Henry Fonda, directed by John Ford
I strongly recommend Young Mr. Lincoln and rate it 4 stars out of 5.
Editorial review of Young Mr. Lincoln, courtesy of Amazon.com
The script, by Lamar Trotti, introduces Lincoln as a frontier storekeeper and drolly inadequate politician. In an early scene, we see Abe receiving his first books of law in a casual transaction with a pioneer family on their way to make a new home in the wilderness. But was it Trotti or the director who decided that this same family should circle back into Abe’s life years later for the dramatic heart of the film, a murder trial in which his wit, ingenuity, and bedrock decency shape Lincoln’s first public triumph — and that neither Lincoln nor the family recognize they have met before? That’s typical of the movie, in which what is most important, most definitive, most valuable, is always outside the frame, out of reach, beyond naming. Even triumph is imbued with a heartbreaking sense of loss.
This transcendentally beautiful film was a modest production, without the Pulitzer Prize cachet of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (not a Ford picture) the following year. Fonda, in his first of six collaborations with Ford, is the only marquee name in the cast, though Alice Brady is radiant as the pioneer matriarch (her final performance), and Ford stalwart Ward Bond has a key role. Sergei Eisenstein, no less, wrote a lucid and impassioned appreciation of the film, hailing it as “a movie I would like to have made”– and proved it by stealing a few visual tropes for his own Ivan the Terrible! This is a great, great motion picture, eminently deserving of the Criterion treatment on DVD. — Richard T. Jameson
Movie quotes from Young Mr. Lincoln
[Lincoln and Felder are picking jurors for the trial of Matt and Adam Clay]
Prosecutor John Felder: Mr. Lincoln should know that the mere fact that a prospective juror knows counsel for the state does not disqualify him.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): I know that, John. What I’m afraid of is that some of the jurors might not know you — and that’d put me at a great disadvantage.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): [to John Felder] I may not know much of law Mr. Felder, but I know what’s right and what’s wrong. And I know what you’re asking is wrong.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): [cross-examining Cass] J. Palmer Cass.
John Palmer Cass: Yes, sir.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): What’s the “J” stand for?
John Palmer Cass: John.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Anyone ever call you Jack?
John Palmer Cass: Yeah, but …
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Why “J. Palmer Cass?” Why not “John P. Cass?”
John Palmer Cass: Well, I …
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Does “J. Palmer Cass” have something to hide?
John Palmer Cass: No.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Then what do you part your name in the middle for?
John Palmer Cass: I got a right to call myself anything I want as long as it’s my own name!
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Well then if it’s all the same to you, I’ll call you Jack Cass.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): [questioning Cass about Scrub’s death] What were you and Scrub arguing about?
John Palmer Cass: I’d rather not say.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Oh, you’d rather not say. Well, Jack, I’d rather you did say.
John Palmer Cass: All right. We was arguin’ about politics.
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): Well, that’s something new to argue about.
John Palmer Cass: I’ve learned some since, but I told Scrub I thought you had at least as much political sense in you as Stephen Douglas. Scrub got as mad as a wet hen and said you didn’t!
Efe Turner: Ain’t you goin’ back, Abe?
Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda): [as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” begins playing softly in the background] No, I think I might go on a piece … maybe to the top of that hill.
Trivia for Young Mr. Lincoln
- Henry Fonda wore specially made boots that made him appear taller.
- The trial of William “Duff” Armstrong, on which the fictionalized defense of Matt and Adam Clay shown in this movie is based, actually took place in 1858, when Lincoln was a successful railroad attorney and soon to be a nominee for the Senate. The other person accused of murder had been convicted in a separate trial several months earlier.
- Henry Fonda originally turned down the role of Lincoln, saying he didn’t think he could play such a great man. He changed his mind after John Ford asked him to do a screen test in full makeup. After viewing himself as Lincoln in the test footage, Fonda liked what he saw, and accepted the part. He later told an interviewer, “I felt as if I were portraying Christ himself on film.”
- John Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck fought an extended battle over control of the film. Ford even had unused takes of the film destroyed so the studio could not insert them into the movie. One scene that Ford insisted on cutting was a scene where Lincoln met his future assassin, a very young John Wilkes Booth.
- Final film of Alice Brady.
- Academy Award Theater broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie on July 10, 1946, with Henry Fonda reprising his film role.