YOUNG MR. LINCOLN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1939) Criterion Collection
Imbued with Henry Fonda’s unassuming portrait of the man before he became ‘the great emancipator’, director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) essentially humanizes this historic monument and makes genuine the essential qualities and motivations long-since lionized as Lincoln in the hearts and minds of the American public. Lest we forget, 1939 was a scant 74 years since John Wilkes Booth had pulled the trigger at the Ford Theatre, effectively to forever galvanize the 16th President as far better than that polarizing figure who brought an end to the American Civil War and abolished slavery. Ford’s picture is interested, neither in serving as a document for posterity, nor in presenting Lincoln as a lost and tragic deity. Indeed, Young Mr. Lincoln is focused most intently on the early character-shaping events to have transformed a lanky and largely self-educated Kentuckian cum Illinois lawyer from mild-mannered countrified gent into aspiring Whig Party statesman with his eye on the ultimate prize – the White House.
While 2oth Century-Fox mogul extraordinaire, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Ford jockeyed for control over this Cosmopolitan Pictures production (with the caustic Ford threatening to have his name removed entirely from the project), Ford encountered grave reluctance from his star, Henry Fonda as well. Reportedly, Ford sternly informed Fonda it was not a stoic portrait of ‘the great emancipator’ he was after, but an intimate glimpse into the essence of the quiet realist trying to find his way through life. Ford’s anthropomorphized approach to Lincoln appealed to Fonda, who thereafter began his own physical transformation via latex applications. Make-up can only get you so far, however. But Young Mr. Lincoln excels due to Henry Fonda’s subtle artistry; the actor’s innate boyishness, fluently melded with that forthright clarity and pragmatism long-since aligned in the public’s image of ‘honest Abe’.
1939 was a banner year…and not only for Ford. Having just resuscitated the Hollywood western from its B-grade kiddie fodder roots with the release of Stagecoach (1939), Ford dove headstrong into his rose-tinted likeness of Lincoln; Lamar Trotti’s screenplay effectively blurring the lines between truth and fiction, along the way, creating a cohesive narrative to fill in the gaps where truth is decidedly plainer than fiction. Indeed, we can credit Ford and Fonda with creating the mythology of Lincoln other film-makers continuously emulate and rival actors, from Hal Holbrook to Daniel Day-Lewis have since anchored their inspiration to play the part. John Ford would enjoy a healthy working relationship with his Lincoln - Henry Fonda, unlike his caustic and confrontational clashes with John Wayne. Both stars were Ford favorites. Perhaps, it was Fonda’s physical slightness that so appealed to Ford, less threatening when pitted against his own, especially when compared to Wayne’s broad-shouldered imposing presence.
Ford allows Fonda to ‘find’ his character. It’s not Abraham Lincoln either is in search of, per say, but a reasonable facsimile in moving portraiture onto which Fonda and Ford can graft their impressions and delicately feathered in sentimentality. Finding these moments together, they most certainly re-shape Lincoln in their own image. Fonda’s Lincoln is unassuming yet passionate; his self-taught intellectualism counterbalanced with an almost too genteel compassion for humanity. What can I tell you? John Ford, for all his acerbic sternness was, at his heart, a rank sentimentalist. Not only could Ford find, but intrinsically he understood basic human needs, wants, desires and dreams. If he suppressed this compassion for the human spirit beneath a cloak of curmudgeonly, oft crude grousing to get his way, then it was entirely in service to telling of a good story and, decidedly, for the making of an as equally great picture. Ford’s augury for humanity at large is always appealing because it suggests more faith in, than cynicism for, the nobility and longevity of mankind in general and the American people’s ability to sustain hope and promise, to forge its brightly inspired future in particular.
By 1939, John Ford had already cemented his reputation in Hollywood; having won the first of four Oscars as Best Director. Ford, for all his outward severity was, I suspect at his core, a very sensitive and broad-humored man. Undeniably, he suffered a streak of sadism, intermittently to get the better of him. But Ford’s compassion for men and women, particularly those worthy of his honorable distinction, is evident in the seamless tapestry that is Young Mr. Lincoln. The spellbinder’s weave of Lincoln’s spirit, the mythology of a new nation on the cusp of redefining the world, and, Ford’s own infallible sense of visual style conspire herein to rewrite history, with Lincoln as Ford’s noble animal among the otherwise God-fearing though occasionally grief-stricken beasts of burden. Consider the moment when Fonda’s Abe, aware an angry lynch mob is preparing to hang two innocent boys for the crime of murder without a fair trial, intervenes on the steps of the county courthouse.
Lincoln’s initial threat, to take on any man who dares step up to his challenge, is diffused by a more intuitive and subtler moment of clarity. Lincoln now appeals, not to the collective, but rather by singling out members from the mob with his reminders of their moral goodness, presently masked by the mob’s misguided group motivations. It is the delicacy with which Ford and Fonda unearth this inherent virtue, illustrating how good men are brought to do terrible things, that strikes a finer chord of resonance (particularly in 1939, with the free peoples of the earth wearily teetering at the cusp of another World War, yet perhaps even more eerily germane today, because of our seemingly aimless trajectory to define – rather than reinvent – the essence of what it means to be a true patriot in 2018). Long after this moment has passed we can feel the weight of shrewd reckoning from this solitary voice expressing reason, justice and mercy for all, ultimately to prove far more potent than the blind-sided bombast of the advancing masses. Glory, glory, hallelujah – indeed!
As good as it is (and it is very good indeed), Young Mr. Lincoln is not quite the exalted masterwork many critics of their day and many more since have cited over the years. Chiefly, it lacks the absolute refinement of sentiment Ford would mine only a few short years thereafter to perfection in movies like The Grapes of Wrath (1940, again with Fonda), The Long Voyage Home (1940), and, How Green Was My Valley (1941). Young Mr. Lincoln possesses the director’s confidence of purpose; also, his sarcastic perceptiveness of small-town hypocrisy while exorcising its mythologized patriotism made justly famous. Yet, somehow, the picture fails to complete the circle of Ford’s compassion for the constituents Lincoln has chosen to serve. This shortcoming is undeniably offset by Ford’s lyricism, his fable-ized truth in lieu of reality and, without question, by Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller’s sumptuous cinematography, extolling the bucolic exquisiteness of a nation as yet not fully formed. And then, of course, there is Henry Fonda to reconsider; looking appropriately at home in suspender-raised overalls or, later on, wearing Lincoln’s trademarked black suit and stovepipe hat as he rides into town on a mule to set up his law practice.
Ford and Fonda’s Lincoln is not ‘the great man’ per say, but rather, just a reluctant guy on the tip of discovering all the good he can achieve with a little homespun sincerity and a lot of common sense. ‘Right or wrong’, is Lincoln’s reasoning, ‘That’s all there is.’ We get a real sense of this clear-cut affinity for the law almost from the moment the main titles fade and we meet a nondescript blowhard political campaigner (Frank Dae) in the sticks of New Salem, Illinois. For contrast, we are presenting almost immediately with the young Abraham Lincoln. Ford immediately cuts from a blustering windbag to the antithesis of it: an unprepossessing and gangly creature, casually stretched across his front porch, book in hand. Lincoln’s first address to his constituents is as laconic as it is laid back, Ford’s camera reverently anticipating Fonda’s physical cues; an awkward placement of his hands into his pockets before raising one arm to comfortably rest upon the solid wood beam supporting his front porch.
Ford and Fonda’s synergistic approach to introducing this character is undoubtedly amplified by the almost waxworks and certainly tableau-esque representations of Lincoln’s early successes and missed opportunities; the brief introduction of his beloved Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), as example, barely glimpsed before fatally stricken by typhoid at the beginning of our tale. Ford’s tightly controlled compositions, Glennon and Miller’s lighting, and, Alfred Newman’s economical music cues ply the viewer with a sort of promise for a more enveloping entertainment not entirely realized by the final fade out, but remarkably to transform Henry Fonda into a major star of the first magnitude thereafter.
It’s this ‘plain Abe Lincoln’ who solemnly declares “if elected, I shall be thankful...if not...it will all be the same” that Ford and Fonda want us to fall in love with; an unassuming genuineness that cannot be faked, obfuscated or otherwise fused into the political machinery without the impact of Lincoln’s own magnanimity felt far and wide. Immediately following his speech, Abe trades the Clay family – settlers all – some dry goods for a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries. The Clays – mother Abigail (Alice Brady), her two sons, Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam (Eddie Quillan) and Adam’s wife, Carrie Sue (Judith Dickens) are pioneers en route to better lives. It will not be a smooth journey however, as Lincoln will later be called upon to defend these boys against a charge of murder.
The likes of an Abraham Lincoln are a rarity in these isolated parts; literate, yet able to balance innate intellectualism with a pure heart. He is encouraged in his studies by teenage sweetheart, Ann Rutledge. Alas, she will tragically succumb to typhoid fever not long thereafter. Her death propels Lincoln’s relocation to Springfield, Illinois where he quickly establishes himself in a law practice with an old friend, John Stuart (Edwin Maxwell). During the town’s Independence Day celebrations Abe is introduced to Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), eventually to become his wife (though not in this movie), and Stephen Douglas – a formidable future political opponent (again, not in this movie). Lincoln is also reunited with the Clay family. Carrie Sue receives unwanted advances from Scrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.); the town’s n’er do well, prone to strong liquor and a mean streak.
John Ford loved America, and herein we get just enough of a glimpse into its idyllic white picket fence incarnation; a flag-waving/crowd-cheering parade, pie-eating, tug o’ war and rail-splitting contests – partaken by Lincoln with amiable results. Alas, the evening’s festivities, culminating in a bonfire, are tainted by a confrontation in the woods between the Clay brothers and Scrub White. Earlier, Carrie Sue had been the unwitting victim of Scrub’s unwanted advances, incurring Matt and Adam’s ire in tandem. But did they really hate Scrub enough to stab him in cold blood? White’s fair-weather friend, J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond) seems to think so.
Without sufficient evidence, save a knife recovered from Scrub’s lifeless body at the scene, Matt and Adam are carted off to jail to await trial. The boys defend one another under questioning. Alas, when interrogated by Cass, Abigail refuses to point a finger at either of her sons. Outraged, an angry mob elects to take matters into their own hands. They gather at the courthouse with timber, pitchforks and fiery torches raised, determined to see Matt and Adam hanged. Lincoln intervenes, subtly using sound judgment to shame certain otherwise upstanding members of the community misled by this mob mentality. It is enough to diffuse the situation. Now, Lincoln turns his concentration toward the trial, applying even more basic homespun logic during the jury selection process. Moved by the quality of his mercy, Mary Todd invites Lincoln to an elegant house party. Regrettably, his folksy charm is out of step with the more cultured class. He is misinterpreted by this nobler gentry as quaintly naïve and decidedly out of his depth.
Undaunted, Lincoln rides to the Clay’s log cabin in the woods to appeal to Abigail. She must speak at trial, either to exonerate of confess the truth about her boys. But no; a mother’s love runs painfully deep and true. Carrie Sue understands the severity of the situation they face. Despite Lincoln’s belief in Matt and Adam’s innocence, the boys may very well be hanged, leaving Carrie Sue a widow with a young child to rear alone. The next afternoon at trial, Lincoln’s unassuming nature proves potent, incurring the displeasure of his more bombastic opponent, prosecuting attorney, John Felder (Donald Meek). Felder’s fruitless badgering of Abigail on the witness stand reveals nothing further about the crime. Indeed, neither Lincoln nor the jury are amused.
But J. Palmer Cass’ testimony is damning. He insists he saw Matt Clay stab Scrub White. Turning to the Farmer’s Almanac, Lincoln proves Cass could not have witnessed the murder as described in great detail since there was no moon on the night Scrub died. Recognizing Cass has more to hide, Lincoln presses the matter to the point where Cass wearily confesses he murdered Scrub after Matt and Adam had merely roughed him up. Emerging victorious from the courthouse, Lincoln is congratulated by Mary and Douglas. With grave humility, Lincoln climbs to the top of a nearby hill where an impromptu thundershower breaks across his noble brow; the scene dissolving to a painted backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial with the penultimate strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic heard as backdrop.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a glowing epitaph to a true populist. Fonda's palpable unease effortlessly translate into Lincoln-esque fortitude and grace; primed, unearthed and elevated to uncanny acceptability as Lincoln – the man none of us could claim to know from life. With confidence, Ford and Fonda remake Lincoln in their own image, effectively having generated the template by which all other incarnations of the man – either before or after greatness was foisted upon him – have since been studied and critiqued. And Fonda’s mythological recreation perfectly fits into Ford’s thick slice of Americana. Clearly, Ford saw Lincoln as a man for all seasons, Tiffany-set within a watershed moment in the collective nation-building phase of a great country.
And yet, at almost every turn Ford and Fonda shy away from depicting Lincoln as anything but genuine, level-headed and real; a fair-hearted reformist/farmer/philosopher, devout in his black and white delineation of right and wrong – the only sensible and clear-eyed criteria all American jurisprudence need to be effectively governed. It’s not a very original mantra, though it nevertheless unfurls like a banner or sign post for an America that never was, except in the movies of a John Ford or Frank Capra. Even as fantasy, Ford does not give us a parable wrapped in the enigma of Lincoln so much as he anoints the myth of Lincoln with an even more impressive magician’s sleight of hand that Fonda performs by transferring his formidable actor’s talents into the embodiment of this typified presence. While Young Mr. Lincoln rightly commands its classic status it also manages its escape from that epoch-shaping moment in American cinema history; gone well beyond its time capsule elements. It is as probative about the sage wisdom and enduring spirit of humanity today as it remains optimistically quizzical in its prologue then: “If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved most, she’d ask first where’s my son? What’s happened to Abe? What’s he done?”
Young Mr. Lincoln arrives on Blu-ray via Fox Home Video’s sporadic alliance with the Criterion Collection and in a bright and shiny new 4K transfer that gives sincere hope the recent Twilight Time debacle on Forever Amber was just a fluke and not generally the direction the studio’s executive brain trust is taking with their future deep catalog releases. While it remains to be seen, what is here is quite simply ‘stunning’ and ‘gorgeous’; signifiers I wish I could ascribe to all Fox Home Video releases. But I digress. Sourced from a properly curated 35mm nitrate print, held by MOMA, Young Mr. Lincoln’s vibrant B&W cinematography sparkles with crispness and clarity arguably unseen since its theatrical debut.
Minute details are evident in hair, skin and clothing. Even master shots look relatively immaculate with no signs of age-related wear and tear, and, with the added bonus of a light smattering of indigenous grain registering as it should. Wow, and thank you! The PCM mono audio is, of course, unremarkable, but competently rendered. It sounds thin in spots. Criterion predictably pads out this release with some noteworthy extras: an Omnibus Special on John Ford (only Part I, I’m afraid), Henry Fonda’s appearance on British talk show, Parkinson from 1975, a pair of audio only interviews conducted by John’s grandson, Dan with his famous grandfather and Fonda, plus a radio dramatization, and finally, a pair of essays from Geoffrey O’Brien and Sergei Eisenstein. Nicely packaged/nicely done! Bottom line: Young Mr. Lincoln is a winner on Blu-ray. We need more like this – pretty, and pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)