John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is head-over-heels in love with America's sixteenth President. The very first time Lincoln (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond) appears, noble strings begin to swell on the soundtrack, alerting us that we are in the presence of greatness. When the movie concludes, a choir sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the camera gazes admiringly at the Lincoln Memorial. The film is very much a hagiography, never offering a furtive glance at Lincoln's flaws or shortcomings. However, the movie works, because Fonda's beautifully down-to-earth performance keeps things grounded even when Ford is showcasing Lincoln in the most dramatic manner possible. You get the sense that if Fonda's Lincoln were to see the film, he would chuckle, shake his head and make some self-deprecating joke.
In the aforementioned opening scene, Lincoln makes a humble campaign speech while running for the Illinois state legislature:
“Gentlemen and fellow citizens... I presume you all know who I am. I'm plain Abraham Lincoln. I've been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My politics are short and sweet... like the old woman's dance. I'm in favor of a national bank, of the internal improvement system and high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and my political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful. If not... it'll be all the same.”
That's the only scene in which the film makes any sort of significant reference to Lincoln's political beliefs, because the film is less interested in Lincoln the politician than in Lincoln the man. Even that political speech is primarily designed to show us what sort of person Lincoln is: humble, plain-spoken, wryly funny, honest. In a crowd of people, he always stands out: he speaks a little slower than everyone else, he's a little taller than everyone else and he seems a bit more thoughtful than everyone else. He's calm and relaxed, though capable of becoming fiery and commanding if he must (as in the scene where he's tasked with quelling an angry lynch mob).
Though a handful of early scenes offer quick sketches of important moments from the early years of Lincoln's life, the bulk of the movie focuses on his time as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln is tasked with defending Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam Clay (Eddie Quillan), two brothers who have been charged with the murder of a man named William Armstrong. The odds are against Lincoln from the start: he's a relatively inexperienced lawyer, the evidence against the brothers is fairly damning and prosecutor John Felder (Donald Meek, State Fair) is a savvy opponent. Still, Lincoln knows how to charm a jury (the film has several scenes in which his jokes at Felder's expense inspire everyone in the room - including the judge - to start howling with laughter), and a nose for the truth. "I may not know much about the law, but I know the difference between right and wrong," Lincoln insists.
In a lot of ways, the film's portrait of Lincoln feels like a prototype for To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, all the way down to a scene in which Lincoln generously accepts a handful of books as payment for his services. He patiently endures all sorts of mockery, never letting himself get swept up in the chaotic emotions that inevitably accompany a murder trial. The entire town seems certain that the Clay boys are guilty, and many seem to regard the trial as a mere formality. With dignity and relaxed charm, Lincoln slowly but surely cuts through the tension and convinces people to hear him out.
Despite the fact that large chunks of the film unfold within the confines of a courtroom, Ford brings a great deal of his typically striking visual style to the proceedings. There's a serene beauty to his portrait of small-town America, but his images also offer a hint of the darkness lurking around the corner. This becomes most explicit during the film's stunning climax, as Lincoln literally walks into a thunderstorm. Heavy-handed, sure, but undeniably powerful.
Fonda's performance is tremendous; every bit as strong as the Oscar-winning turn Daniel Day-Lewis would offer many years later in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The makeup work is exceptional, but Fonda embodies the character with such ease that he almost doesn't need it. Fonda carries the movie, but there are strong supporting turns from Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey) as the mother of the two defendants, Spencer Charters (Yankee Doodle Dandee) as the judge and Ford regular Ward Bond (The Searchers) as a key witness.
While a handful of scenes that foreshadow Lincoln's future don't quite work (scenes involving Lincoln's future political rival Stephen Douglas and future wife Mary Todd feel are awkwardly-inserted bits of rib-nudging), there's a real elegance to the way the movie quietly creates a portrait of Lincoln as a uniter. In one scene after another, he finds ways to resolve all sorts of conflicts, trying to help people who hate each other find some sort of common ground. You hear the raw seeds of more elegant addresses he will deliver during moments of national crisis. When speaking to the lynch mob, he delivers a speech that still resonates: "We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we'd be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves." Funny how “times like this” never seem to end.
Young Mr. Lincoln
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 1939