Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

The question that immediately arises when you consider “Young Mr. Lincoln”: is its success, and the success of its protagonist as a compelling one, dependent on the viewer’s outside knowledge of Abraham Lincoln?  We all know that he’s perhaps the most influential American who’s ever lived, and every American child has been taught of his exploits as the 16th President of the United States, from the Emancipation Proclamation to guiding the nation through perhaps its bloodiest conflict, from the moment they’re old enough to sit in a classroom.  The Abraham Lincoln of “Young Mr. Lincoln” is not yet that legendary figure.  He’s an awkward, idealistic, and inexperienced young lawyer who’s supremely devoted to bettering himself and doing the right thing despite that awkwardness and inexperience, which is why you gotta wonder whether you need to know of the near-mythological figure this blundering young man would become, or if you can divorce yourself from that legend and just accept young Mr. Lincoln as a compelling protagonist on his own.  Let’s just assume for a moment that you don’t need that inherent knowledge of the legend of Lincoln – in that case, “Young Mr. Lincoln” is a fine character study, and a fine courtroom drama, with Lincoln going through a nice character arc, from idealistic yet wide-eyed kid to confident, accomplished, and gifted public servant.  But now let’s assume that any given person seeing this movie will, obviously, have at least some knowledge of who Abraham Lincoln was and what he accomplished, which brings about the ultimate question: does Henry Fonda pull it off?  Can he fill the shoes of the man who would be Commander-in-Chief?  None of us were around to know what Lincoln was like in person, and Fonda’s performance, and the film as a whole, isn’t exactly going for realism.  Despite that (or perhaps because of that), we can’t determine whether Fonda is living up to Lincoln the man, but he’s sure as hell living up to Lincoln the mythic legend.

If you’re going by Abraham Lincoln’s uber-altruistic hero image, then Fonda does exactly what he needs to do.  His young Lincoln is the consummate good guy, eternally optimistic and unselfish, devoted to bettering himself so that he can better the world around him.  9 times out of 10 that’s the most clichéd and vapid and irritating character type you can think of, but all the little elements of Fonda’s performance, as well as the world around him, sell it completely – he quite simply is that consummate good guy, and suddenly an unrealistic extreme in wholesomeness becomes convincing.  The way his tall frame slouches and he walks with an awkward, shuffling gait (complete with hands-in-pockets), the way he talks hesitantly at first, later persuasively, but still folksy as hell, when his clients’ lives hang in the balance, the way he constantly remembers his humble past, complete with that obligatory gleam in his eye, all the “gee!”’s and “golly!”’s, his exuberance upon finding a book about the law and taking it to read under a tree – wholesome doesn’t begin to describe young Abe Lincoln, but rather than being nauseating, Fonda makes it work because of that indescribable quality that completely immerses him in his role – it’s as sincere an acting effort as you’re likely to ever see.  As a rookie lawyer defending two brothers accused of murder, he goes through a remarkable transformation seemingly overnight – awkward yet likable the night before, and now solemnly confident and even cocky once the trial starts.  As the obnoxious mummy of a prosecutor makes his opening statement, Lincoln arrogantly and nonchalantly browses the bookshelf, leans back in his chair, looks incredulous, and finally asks his questions with forceful conviction and even some very funny sarcasm (his questioning – playing with, really – of witness J. Palmer Cass and why the man initials his first name ends with a magnificently satisfying payoff – a real Who’s On First-like exchange between the two).  If we take this film by its own merits, we’re seeing a young lawyer tackle his first big case and maturing just when he needs to.  If we put this in a historical context, we see young Lincoln’s inherent altruism and wholesomeness and his burgeoning gift as a public speaker, and we see a President in the making.

One reason why Fonda’s performance works as well as it does is how he interacts with the just-as-wholesome world around him.  Pie tasting contests, tug o’ wars, parades, log splitting contests (all of which Abe is the star of) – the Springfield, Illinois of “Young Mr. Lincoln” is a Norman Rockwell-like place, where everyone knows each other and likes each other, a murder trial is like a meeting of friends, and even a vigilante mob out to lynch a couple of murder suspects seems scripted.  It’s manipulative, sure, but I was more than happy to be manipulated to see how much Lincoln matures in such a short span of time – a gangly young man giving an awkward speech at the start, becoming an obscured, silhouetted version of the iconic tall-man-in-suit-and-big-hat by the end – from man to symbol in two hours.  And John Ford’s minimalist, restrained technique perfectly complements the minimalist, restrained Abraham Lincoln.  Abe leaning against a tree on a perfect day reading his prized law book evokes Eden itself, and his visiting the grave of a lost love under just such a tree, at the crossroads of his humble past and influential future, is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  The portrayal of the killing in question, for which Lincoln must defend the two brothers, is filmed without embellishment, from a single, simple high-angle shot in a dark clearing, with the boys’ mother in the foreground, looking on helplessly as the men scuffle.  Haunting.  Abe’s courtship of Mary Todd at a ball (where he sticks out like a sore thumb) is awkward but sweet – he’s as clumsy a dancer as you’d expect.  The way he practically takes on the Clay family as his own, making himself at home as he confides in the mother (a wonderful Alice Brady) that reminds him of his own, about his own past, the sunny homestead and his comfort in leaning back, arms folded behind his head, evokes paradise.  It’s moments like this, rather than the verdict of the murder trial, that show young Abraham Lincoln coming into his own and becoming a decent and sympathetic man.

All of those images are perfect in adding character to Abe Lincoln, the Clay family that, despite being ostracized by the villagers and barely having the money to even pay Lincoln for his legal costs, he takes on as his own, and the nearly dream-like world that they inhabit.  Sure the murder trial is riveting and you want to see justice done just as much as Abe Lincoln the defense attorney does, but the focus here isn’t entirely an arbitrary murder trial or getting from point A to point B.  Everything is about character evolution, about inhabiting the world that Abe Lincoln inhabits, about understanding how a man destined for greatness can be influenced.  This isn’t an origin story or a sprawling biography, but a snippet, a snapshot of a moment in Abraham Lincoln’s life showing him in his element naturally (at least as naturally as an rustic Ford-esque world can provide).  One scene, one little moment did this perfectly, and affected me like no other, and it’s so, so simple.  Abe Lincoln rides his horse alongside his buddy near the river and trees, as he plays the mouth harp.  That’s all – but Ford focuses on it as long as he does for a reason, and I’m glad for it.  In a serene and dream-like movie such as this, this is the most serene and the most idyllic, a little throwaway moment that shows Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Henry Fonda as one of the most admirable and likable protagonists a film could have, at absolute peace.  The storm clouds and thunder that conclude the film, that signal the turbulent future of America and the momentous destiny of Lincoln, seem a long way off when he’s enjoying a fine spring day playing the mouth harp and confiding in kindly and motherly Mrs. Clay.  The Lincoln that we learn about in the history books guided America through perhaps its most chaotic period, but to understand the man behind that you need to know where he came from and how he became that mythic figure.  “Young Mr. Lincoln” might not be very ‘realistic’ and might be overly-pastoral – the ultimate calm before the storm – but how appropriate that such an allegorical setting and story, an unblemished representation of the ideals that Americans like to think that their nation was founded on, contribute to the legend of a man who’s become almost pure allegory and symbol of Americana in his own right.


2 comments so far

  1. Ridhi Gupta on

    Hi Simon!

    I happened to pass by, and dropped in to tell you, amongst other things, that your blog is spectacular! It shows your wonderful passion for cinema and your posts are a treat to go through. The amount of content you have along with different genres of film that you explore is truly astounding!

    Simon with your keen interest in cinema, I wish to tell you about an initiative I believe you will find to be interesting.
    We recently started a website based club called the Culturazzi Club . The club is a not-for-profit organization that was recently started and strives to bring people in cinema, arts, literature, music, photograph, theater etc from across the world together on a common platform, where they can share their thoughts, opinions, and interact with each other.

    With the extensive knowledge of cinema that I’m sure you have, I take it as my privilege to invite you to be a part of the club.

    Culturazzi aims to gather folks from across the world to bring in a unison of all arts. As a regular writer for your own blog for cinema, I can see that you’re extremely well equipped with your interest and sure that your contributions in any which way will be very valuable to us.

    The website is quite young and was started in April 2008 with its base in India. We’re currently a team of people who are spread across India and UK (England), contributing to the website whole-heartedly. It takes a dedicated group of people who believe in the vision, to reach the heights that we aim to achieve and so far we’re lucky to be looked upon as a genuine effort.

    We understand that you have your own blog running pretty intensely, but we’d absolutely love it if you could take some time out to write and contribute for our website.
    It would be really be great!

    You could take a look at our website and let us know what you feel about it.
    We’d love to have any feedback!

    Hope you enjoy visiting.

  2. Ridhi Gupta on

    Oh… and here’s the link, if you missed it –

    Culturazzi Club


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