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Film Friday: John Ford's 'Young Mr. Lincoln' with Henry Fonda

By Daniel S Levine,
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In an interview years after Henry Fonda and John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln, Fonda discussed his reluctance to play Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president of the United States. He said that it was a little like “playing God.” Fonda said that Ford asked him who he thought he was playing. Lincoln is not the “Great Emancipator” in this film. Rather, he's just a young lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, Ford had told him. At that moment, Fonda, who had yet to work with Ford, decided to take the part. With that decision, Fonda finally secured the first big part of his iconic career, bringing Lincoln to life in a way few had before or since.

Young Mr. Lincoln, which features an Oscar-nominated script by Lamar Trotti, starts out in New Salem, where a young Lincoln feeds his interest in law after he finally acquires a law book. He is torn between staying in a place he knows and becoming a lawyer in Springfield. After his first love, Ann Rutledge, dies, he decides to go to Springfield.

While at Springfield, Lincoln establishes a law practice and slowly begins to get acquainted with the upper class, including Mary Todd. He decides to take on the case of the Clay brothers, who are accused of murdering a local man. The Clay family, like Lincoln, only recently arrived in the town. During the trial, their mother, one of the only witnesses, is forced to chose one son to save the life of the other. Meanwhile, another witness – the dead man's friend – surfaces and testifies. Lincoln uses his wit, humor and skill to get to the bottom of the case, discovering a surprising truth.

Young Mr. Lincoln is so many things, but most importantly it is a John Ford film in every sense of those words. Ford lays on the sentimentality, playing with the audience's emotions and our understanding of Lincoln's mythology. It does not simply act as an origin story. Ford and Trotti hope that we can pretend for a moment that we don't know the great man Lincoln will become. Arthur Miller and Bert Glennon's stark black & white plays directly to that, highlighting Ford's keen sense of light and shadows. Lincoln is often framed as a mythic figure, something Steven Spielberg picked up on for this year's Lincoln. Unlike Spielberg though, Ford understands that there are moments in which the audience has to feel a part of Lincoln's world. We see Springfield through his eyes and can easily relate to a man learning on the job.

Of course, none of this would matter if Henry Fonda didn't knock this out of the park. His performance set the standard for portraying Lincoln on screen, showing the man as he was during his early life. How he failed to get an Oscar nomination always baffles me. Nevertheless, this really gave Fonda the role he needed and launched a fruitful partnership with Ford.

There are some other great supporting performances, from Ford's usual group of actors. Donald Meek, who also starred in Stagecoach in 1939, plays the attorney for the state, while Ward Bond appears as the murdered man's friend. The two are able to play wonderfully with Fonda, who hilariously pokes holes through everything they say in the trial. It's one of the most enjoyable trials ever filmed, thanks to Lincoln's wit.

Ford made three great films in 1939 and Young Mr. Lincoln is easily the best among them. It's a film that moves as gracefully as Fonda's strides, adding to the mythology of Lincoln. Ford manages to perform the tightrope act of keeping Lincoln grounded while showing the great man he will become. Spielberg's Lincoln can't be compared to this, but it is obvious that of all the films of Lincoln Spielberg pays tribute to, it is Young Mr. Lincoln. He couldn't have picked a better influence.

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