Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Ford hit his mid-career groove in the late thirties with a long line of well-remembered titles and bona fide classics. His output for 1938 was Submarine Patrol and Four Men and a Prayer, films that don't show up in career highlight roundups. All of a sudden there appeared Stagecoach for United Artists and Drums Along the Mohawk and this near-perfect film for Fox. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck appears to have been as good at supporting directors at Fox, as Harry Cohn was at Columbia.
Young Mr. Lincoln is one of the best films ever in the biopic category, a subgenre which frequently runs afoul of Hollywood's habit of distortion, prevarication, dissembling and not telling the truth. When a biographical subject had a satisfactorily clean record the movie often turned out dull, like the well-intentioned and now utterly forgotten Wilson. In other bios, anyone who got near a uniform turns into an action hero, and musical greats were frequently relieved of their entire lifestyles in order to produce family entertainment. Ford and writer Lamar Trotti may fudge an historical fact or two and their folksy version of Honest Abe may be an exaggeration. But Young Mr. Lincoln honors a great president by encouraging us to realize that men fated to become statues and quotations can start out doubting that they'll ever amount to anything.
Abe Lincoln takes up reading law books and eventually moves to Springfield Illinois, where he hangs out a shingle in partnership with another attorney. He sees Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) and Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone) occasionally, but seems to spend most of his time wondering what he'll do with his life. A stabbing takes place at a town celebration, and Abe prevents a lynching and then takes up the defense. But the case against two brothers seems to be open-and-shut, and Lincoln doesn't pretend to have sure-fire way of getting them off.
The first delightful thing about Young Mr. Lincoln is that it doesn't have to deal with the man's legacy or any of the big chapters in his career. It instead looks at what could be called the future president's formative years. Abe gravitates toward the law as a career, seemingly after a self-taught session with a book found in the back of a settler's wagon. Future wife Ann Todd and future competitor Stephen Douglas hover in the background but Lincoln doesn't betray any brilliant visions of his own future. As in the best of Ford's 'bright hopes' historical pictures, America seems so sparsely populated that the folks one knows have to be the same ones that build the nation -- who else is there?
The second winning hand is Henry Fonda's Abe, as envisioned by writer Lamar Trotti. Fonda looks and acts like an uprooted weed that doesn't know where it should be growing. He jokes constantly about his shortcomings, admitting that he doesn't know enough about the law to get into too much trouble. He's friendly but awkward, and doesn't mix well socially. We wonder if he's self-conscious of the fact that he was raised literally in a shack.
Abe is what we once knew as a public man with private decency. He's obviously been scarred by losing his sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), and tends to clam up when opportunities arise to discuss his background. But he also finds it easy to speak to people in groups. He can find a public voice that communicates well, both when joking and when deflecting a lynch mob. Interestingly, Abe doesn't laugh at his own jokes, and he never says clever things just to bask in their effect. We see Lincoln negotiating a sour business deal between two farmers, and what he lacks in lawyerly finesse he makes up for in force of personality. The man exudes integrity; he "has sand."
Liner note essayist Geoffrey O'Brien associates Fonda's folksy Lincoln persona with Will Rogers, the late comedian with the 'natural' ability to charm audiences with his honest and witty observations. Lincoln may indeed have had that gift, even though many descriptions of the man indicate a tall, sad character with a faraway look in his eyes. If Lincoln built an aura of myth around himself, I hope it wasn't by the same kinds of "aw shucks" affectations that Rogers learned on the vaudeville stage. O'Brien points to Ford's wonderful Rogers/Americana film Steamboat Round the Bend, without mentioning the fact that screenwriter Lamar Trotti wrote that film as well as Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mowawk and even Wilson. Ford's visual treatment of Lincoln and his overall vision of Young Mr. Lincoln are superb, but behind every "one film one director" Frank Capra are two or three Robert Riskins who rarely get credit.
There's no putting down Ford's contribution, becauseYoung Mr. Lincoln is as assured a film as was ever made. Its deceptively simple story makes excellent use of the 'hopeless courtroom drama' plotline, using humor ("Jack Cass") and open sentimentality but not letting either drag the story down. Fonda's melancholy Lincoln has an ingrained ethical foundation that Ford forever shows in isolation. He's the guy most likely to leave the party early, and the one incapable of not seeing multiple sides to problem issues. We really don't end up knowing all that much about Lincoln, but we finish the film wanting to vote for him. If such men still exist, they must not be able to withstand modern political pressures -- Lincoln was clearly affected by the constant hatred and disapproval directed at him. We watch Young Mr. Lincoln wishing we could believe in our leaders the way we do Henry Fonda. Statistically, I guess we still do -- our presidents of late have extremely loyal constituencies.
Henry Fonda very quickly makes us forget his makeup nose appliance, although we marvel at the modeled lighting, even in direct sunlight, that makes his eye sockets look so deep. The lasting impression of this show is the image of Fonda brooding, either standing uncomfortably in his boots or stretched out on porch stoops.
Criterion's DVD of Fox's Young Mr. Lincoln is a fine transfer of pristine elements. I think I saw only a hint of instability at a splice here or there. Filmed on the backlot and with a lot of rear-projection, it's visually distinguished mostly by Ford's eye and the rigorous stage work of his cameraman Bert Glennon -- although I wonder where they found that river at the opening, the one Lincoln seems to wish would carry West and out of Ohio.
Young Mr. Lincoln comes with a second disc with several extras. A 1992 episode of the BBC's Omnibus program written and directed by longtime Ford booster Lindsay Anderson has terrific film clip content. It has many stills I've never seen before, behind the scenes footage and a choice selection of silent clips. The best pieces are some painfully funny excerpts from a French interview in which Ford mercilessly refuses to give useable answers. Viewers who wonder about the price point for Criterion discs need to realize that re-purposing a BBC show requires complicated licensing rights negotiations: What the English get to use for free (music clips, film clips) must all be inidividually secured for U.S. commercial use.
A second English excerpt from a 1975 Parkinson interview show has Henry Fonda talking about his career in detail, touching on his work with John Ford along the way. Note that the film clips in this show are at PAL 25fps ... Fonda's voice goes up in pitch, audibly. Ford's grandson contributes audio interviews with Ford and Fonda. A 30 minute radio version of the movie is also downloadable as an MP3; and there's an interesting gallery of production documents. They're mostly unfilmed or deleted pages from Lamar Trotti's screenplay, most of which vocalize aspects of the film Ford prefers to skip over or to instead depict visually. The script ending, wisely deleted, is embarrassingly mawkish and cloying: Lincoln discusses his later history with a disembodied voice. There's also a cordial letter from Sergei Eisenstein asking for Ford's assistance on a Russian book about his movies.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui includes an insert booklet with two essays. A short piece by Geoffrey O'Brien examines Ford's masterly visuals, and a typically brilliant (if rambling) essay by Sergei Eisenstein quotes Karl Marx and compares Ford's Lincoln to Illya Muromets, the Russian warrior-hero.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Young Mr. Lincoln rates:
Supplements: Lindsay Anderson Ford docu, TV interview with Henry Fonda, Audio inerviews with Fonda and Ford, Radio version from 1948, script excerpts.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 24, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson