Young Mr. Lincoln (The Criterion Collection)
The Criterion Collection
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Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln becomes known for his honesty and solves a murder with a courtroom trick. Directed by John Ford.
Has Young Mr. Lincoln--the first cardinal masterpiece of director John Ford's career, and the finest film of that epochal Hollywood year 1939--been neglected because people fear it's a stodgy history lesson? Even Henry Fonda, drafted to play the title role, was reluctant till Ford testily explained, "This isn't 'The Great Emancipator,' for God's sake--it's a movie about this jackleg lawyer...." And so it is: a small, slow-gathering village tale about a young man whose biggest moments--such as losing the love of his life--occur between scenes, and whose emergence as a historic figure is decades away. Yet the essential Lincoln is being forged in luminous scenes that unfold with the simplicity of fable, only no one knows it's a fable yet. The French title for the movie says it beautifully: Toward His Destiny.
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 transcendently 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
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Top Customer Reviews
This is a slow paced elegiac movie, a montage of scenes, not particularly well organized and not laid out in a linear fashion. But that makes little difference. The venue for the movie is Sangamon County, Illinois (with Springfield as the center within that venue). This is not really a linear movie; as noted, it is a set of scenes that define Ford's vision of young Lincoln. A booklet coming with the DVD is especially interesting. There is a brief essay by Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian director, who comments on this movie. He notes that this is a movie that "I wish I had made." His essay concludes: "My love for this film has neither cooled nor been forgotten. It grows stronger and the film itself grows more dear to me."
Among the vignettes depicted in this movie: Lincoln's poignant relationship with Ann Rutledge and his response to her passing; his move to a legal career; his ride along the river; his meeting Mary Todd. Above all, that wonderful trial episode, one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. Especially moving is his final cross-examination of Jack Cass (the pun generates great mirth among the characters of the movie), played by the redoubtable Ward Bond.
Again, what a year for John Ford! Three fine movies, each, in its own way, a classic. While there can surely be questions about the historical accuracy of this movie, the feel is right in creating a characterization of young Lincoln. Well worth watching. . . .
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!
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