Tuesday, July 5, 2022

#2,779. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) - The Films of John Ford


Young Mr. Lincoln marked the first time Henry Fonda and John Ford collaborated on a motion picture, and the outstanding job they did bringing this story to the screen stands as a testament to them both.

While Young Mr. Lincoln does dwell a while in it’s title character’s past, from the moment he first picked up a law book to his ill-fated love affair with Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and first meeting with future wife Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), the main thrust of the movie centers on a murder trial, in which new lawyer Abe Lincoln (Fonda) defends the Clay brothers, Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam (Eddie Quillan), who stand accused of murdering deputy Scrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.) during a late-night scrum. The accused’s mother, Abigail (Alice Brady), was the only witness to the fight, but refuses to say which of her boys wielded the knife that ultimately killed Scrub White.

Though the odds are stacked against him, and everyone in Springfield wants to see the Clay brothers hang, Abe Lincoln pulls out all the stops, doing whatever is necessary to save his clients from the gallows.

Though not a factual account of Lincoln’s early years, Young Mr. Lincoln is faithful to the spirit of the man, with Fonda flawlessly interpreting honest Abe’s self-effacing humility, his down-home common sense, and his determination to see justice prevail. In what is the film’s most potent scene, Abe convinces a large lynch mob, which was storming the jail house to get at the Clay brothers, to let justice run its course.

To complement Fonda’s performance, Ford infuses the film with just the right amount of humanity, forging a link between character and audience without over-sentimentalizing the man; even a sequence set at a society dance, where Lincoln and Mary Todd first spend time together, doesn’t seem as superfluous as it might in another movie. In addition, Ford mixes in a few touches of humor to make it all palpable. Especially funny is the tug-of-war scene, during which Abe, acting as his team’s anchor, gets a bit “creative” with his rope work (though I laughed a little harder when Abe was judging a pie-baking contest, and had a hard time deciding between Apple and Peach).

The supporting cast is equally good, especially Alice Brady (in her final screen role) as the distraught mother, Donald Meek as Prosecutor John Felder (making him Abe’s main adversary in the picture), and the always-reliable Ward Bond as J. Palmer Cass, who acts as the prosecution’s key witness. But it is Abe himself, perfectly portrayed by Fonda, who makes Young Mr. Lincoln a bona-fide classic, and a motion picture you simply must see.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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