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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Young Mr. Lincoln: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Young Mr. Lincoln: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // January 9, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted January 8, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Most notable as being the first of seven collaborations between director John Ford and star Henry Fonda, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) arrived in theaters less than three months after the hugely influential Stagecoach. Fonda stars as the eponymous future President, years away from public office and more than two decades before his abridged term as President: "plain Abraham Lincoln" is still learning the ropes as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois after his chance encounter with a poor travelling family and the sudden death of his first love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore). Lincoln's easygoing demeanor, folksy charm, and tall stature make him popular with just about everyone...and he'll need every ounce of favor when it's time to defend brothers Adam and Matt Clay (Eddie Quillan and Richard Cromwell), on trial for the stabbing death of local bully "Scrub" White during the closing moments of a particularly rowdy public celebration.

As long as first-time viewers know what they're getting into with Young Mr. Lincoln, it can easily be enjoyed as an entertaining historical drama -- with an emphasis on the "drama", of course. A lot of creative liberties were taken to sweeten the narrative, from obvious ones (Lincoln's relationship with Ann Rutledge, which was questionable at best and most certainly had no influence on his career path) to even larger details (its central court case, based on the real-life murder trial of William "Duff" Armstrong, is altered completely and occurred more than two decades after its place in the film). You'll need a bucket to hold all the grains of salt...but considering that Young Mr. Lincoln aims to draw an emotional sketch of the future President and not carve a documentary out of stone, the heavily polished details are worth overlooking.

Aside from Ford's typically skillful direction, Young Mr. Lincoln's most obvious strength is, without a doubt, Henry Fonda's central performance: though understandably reluctant to portray such a monumental figure, Ford convinced Fonda -- in his typically profane way, as quoted in a new commentary with film scholar Joseph McBride -- that he'd be playing a humble, small-town lawyer, not The Great Emancipator. There's no shortage of great one-liners and memorable quotes, and Fonda delivers them with an infectious level of confidence and charm. Yet while other highlights keep Young Mr. Lincoln running at a good clip during its brief 100-minute lifespan, it can't help but feel more than a little uneven at times. A few admittedly great stabs at humor sometimes come at the absolute wrong moments -- never more obvious than during the courtroom scenes, which are already too lightweight to begin with -- while its narrative path is loaded with an awful lot of easy coincidences and even a plot hole or two along the way.

Luckily, Young Mr. Lincoln remains a largely enjoyable film despite a few drawbacks, and it won't soon be forgotten due to Criterion's consistently strong treatment of it on home video. Their own 2006 DVD was a capable and well-rounded package, but it's been tightened around the edges for this new Blu-ray: featuring a brand new 1080p transfer sourced from a recent restoration, as well as an exclusive audio commentary, it should appeal to die-hard fans while probably drawing in a few newcomers in the process.

Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion's brand new 1080p transfer of Young Mr. Lincoln was sourced from a recent 4K restoration; the source materials were a 35mm nitrate print and a fine grain master positive. For obvious reasons, the result looks quite a bit better than their own 2006 DVD. Image detail, texture, and stability are all much improved, as this Blu-ray features better contrast levels and an incredibly stable image. It's a shade or two brighter than the old DVD but not unnaturally so; more often than not, this only ensures that shadow details are more obvious (Mr. Lincoln's black suits, for example, look defined instead of a being solid black shape). It also shows a bit more image at the sides and not vertically stretched like the old disc. While this isn't necessarily the biggest leap in quality from DVD to Blu-ray in recent years, it offers an obvious boost in clarity that fans will appreciate.

DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the title under review.

As usual, Criterion plays it straight with a PCM 1.0 Master Audio track that preserves the film's original mono mix; like the video presentation, a few forgivable flaws remain (mostly some mild hiss during a few scenes, as well as a somewhat thin high end) but it's mostly great news here. Dialogue is typically crisp and precise throughout, with well-balanced music cues and background effects that rarely fight for attention. Optional English subtitles are included, but only during the main feature and not the extras.

Criterion's interface is smooth, descriptive, and easy to navigate. Their disc is locked for Region A players only; it's housed in Criterion's stocky keepcase with familiar cover artwork. The nice Booklet includes tech specs, photos, and reprinted essays by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Only one new bonus feature is included here: a feature-length Audio Commentary with film scholar Joseph McBride, who authored Searching for John Ford: A Life. It's a well-researched and informative chat; topics of discussion include Rosemary Benet's opening poem, Henry Fonda's performance, the screenplay's mix of historic fact and mythic details, the relationship between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, John Ford's shooting style and political views, familiar faces in bit parts, Civil War symbolism, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Perry Mason, Ford's legacy and potty mouth, foreshadowing, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", and much more. McBride's delivery is a bit dry and wandering at times, but there's a lot of great information here.

Other than that, just about everything from Criterion's excellent 2006 DVD has been carried over, only this time everything fits snugly on one dual-layered Blu-ray. These recycled extras include a 1992 episode of the BBC show Omnibus that examines Ford's career, another television clip from the 1975 show Parkinson featuring Ford, a handful of Ford and Fonda Interviews conducted by the filmmaker's grandson Dan Ford, and a Radio Dramatization of Young Mr. Lincoln by the Academy Award Theater. Only a brief but interesting gallery of production materials is missing in action; otherwise, the gang's all here.

Young Mr. Lincoln is far from John Ford's best film, but this is still a very enjoyable production that can be appreciated on its own terms. It's much more of an embellished drama than a straight-laced biopic, and thus paints a flattering portrait -- bordering on legend at times -- but isn't afraid to poke a few tiny holes in Honest Abe's balloon. I hadn't seen Young Mr. Lincoln in years and, while I doubt younger audiences will be nearly as receptive to its charms, there's more to like here than just an outstanding lead performance by Henry Fonda. Capably directed with beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller, it's also a fine time capsule that's now almost closer in history to its subject matter than the present day. Criterion's Blu-ray earns solid marks for its excellent A/V presentation, along with a decent collection of new and (mostly) old bonus features. Firmly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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