Monday, December 2, 2013

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Director: John Ford


Abraham Lincoln was more than just a President of the United States, his work as the Great Emancipator and caring a nation through the greatest struggle in its history would help guide him to become a legend. His nickname of “honest” Abe, the do-good man who self taught his way to becoming an Illinois lawyer and eventually politics is the source of what goes into John Ford’s motion picture Young Mr. Lincoln. Marking the first pairing of director Ford with star Henry Fonda, a partnership that would last many films into the future, this picture presents a fictionalized tale inspired by the man and the legend of his past.

Young Mr. Lincoln is a courtroom drama of the one day President as he establishes himself as a lawyer in Illinois. Presented in a manner of a biographical picture of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda), the film establishes Abe as a self taught man whose good nature, honesty, and humor aides him to become a lawyer in the capitol city of Springfield, Illinois. Hinting at his future deeds with his introduction to his future wife, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), and considering the possibility of future politics, the story centers on Abe serving on a court case defending two men up for murder charges. In kindness to the defendant’s mother, Abigail Clay (Alice Brady), Abe believes in the men’s innocence, despite evidence against them. Lincoln’s cool nature and intelligence allows him to prove a witness created a false story. The witness states seeing the murder in the light of the moon, but Lincoln proves with the Farmer’s Almanac that the moon was not fully out the night in question, discrediting the allegation. Lincoln wins the case for the young men and thus begins the legend of Abraham Lincoln.

John Ford in time would become one of the most establish directors in cinema, while Henry Fonda would do the same in the field of acting. Here we get a good glimpse of earlier works for the two men. Ford had already been established as a director, but not the man that would be synonymous for great vista-type westerns, having just produced his first masterpiece, Stagecoach, earlier in the year. Fonda was still an up-and-coming actor who was still establishing his name in lesser known films. Here the two would work together for the first time, the first of many partnerships the two would share.

The story shared in the picture is a very fictionalized, only picking bits of facts in Lincoln’s life and mixing in plenty of creative situations that may have happened during that period of Illinois history, but not to Lincoln. The main point of the picture was to portray the honest Abe people have only heard of and attempt to give a visual representation to it, not a 100% real account of the real live man.

Henry Fonda was first offered the role of Abraham Lincoln, but the young Fonda was worried that he could not do proper justice to a performance of the great man. Wanting to turn down the part, Fonda was put through make-up tests altering his face with a prosthetic noise and the famous mole of his cheek, along with hair and clothing. In full make-up Fonda found himself in awe of becoming Lincoln, taking the role as an honor as if portraying a biblical character. Special shoes were developed that made Fonda taller, he wore clothes that made him seem long and lanky, and Fonda carried himself in a very tall, awkward, yet gentle manner, very much inspired by the real man. Fonda plays well the Mid-western gentleman with an intelligent humor likened to a Mark Twain with creativity of words in a very inspired performance of the man that would be the 16th President.

Director John Ford was very protective of his work and this is present in the production of Young Mr. Lincoln. Producers saw the film as an opportunity to creatively display scenes to foreshadow the title character’s very famous future. Ford saw these as cheapening the story while trying to get its moral across of screen. The most glaring example would be a scene planned to have Lincoln meet a young actor and his future assassin John Wilkes Booth. Ford fought hard against scenes such as this and even intentionally poorly shot such scenes to the point of being unusable so that they would not make it into the picture. Other time Ford destroyed negatives for the same reason. These tricks would work and we see Young Mr. Lincoln as Ford wished it would be.

In a supporting role as the very worried and loving mother of the men Lincoln defends is Academy Award winner Alice Brady. This minor and forgettable role would sadly be the last for the actress as she would pass away a few months later in October 1939 of cancer just short of her 47th birthday. It was an end of an over 30 year acting career, dating well back into the silent era.

The defendant Lincoln would face in his court case would be played by Donald Meek. Meek had worked with John Ford on his previous picture, Stagecoach, but here plays rather opposite of his rather soft-spoken character in the western. Here Meek is a stubborn lawyer representing the state against the defendants. Showing off his skill as a character actor Meek was rather versatile despite his small, funny stature and looks.

Lincoln was received as very thoughtful in his court case.
Generally well received by critics and audiences alike the film was a decent movie at the box office. Traditionally biography pictures have done well when awards honored films during the year, but in the very big film year for Hollywood Young Mr. Lincoln received just one nomination at the Academy Awards for best original screenplay. Ford would be better known for his westerns in the future, especially with his work on Stagecoach, even though this picture still displayed western qualities with a very young Illinois of Lincoln’s era. Though not nominated for his acting Fonda gained attention for his work as the more youthful Abe Lincoln as his future seemed very promising.

Young Mr. Lincoln remains a well produced picture inspired by America’s great legendary leader. Elected to the National Film Registry in 2003, it remains a creative inspiration to a man whose legacy has grown immensely since his days in office. There are very few facts that are correct in the film, but that was not the primary purpose. Rather it was in honor of the man that kept this country together in the greatest moment of crisis in manifesting his humble beginnings.

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