Hailing from a year laden with numerous American classics, Young Mr. Lincoln is undoubtedly overlooked in deference to other titles like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Even John Ford’s own Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, overshadowed this autobiographical work headed by Henry Fonda. Then the next year they came out with The Grapes of Wrath and that title garnered praise for both men. But again, it seems like most have forgotten about Young Mr. Lincoln.
It really is a shame, because this is a quintessential Ford film, and Henry Fonda gives an iconic turn as one of the great historical giants of all time. Except instead of focusing on his major accomplishments, trials, or fatal death, this story contents itself with a simpler story. The focus is the fledgling law career of Abraham Lincoln, who back in 1857 is only a lanky country boy with a hankering for learning. He sees tragedy at a young age when people pass away around him and yet out of those formative years rises a man who is wise beyond his years, because he understands his fellow man and cares deeply about justice.
Lincoln is hardly a lawyer of any repute, and he seems hardly a political figure compared to the likes of the great Stephen Douglas. But the people respect him because he wins them over with his common sense and homespun witticisms. Aside from his ubiquitous top hat, he willingly judges pie eating contests, and play the Jew’s harp with feet reclined at his desk. One of his dear admirers is the young socialite Mary Todd who takes an immense liking to him. He’s the kind of figure that the elite and common folk alike can truly respect.
So when two brothers are accused of murdering another man after a fight one night, it is Mr. Lincoln who avoids a lynching and appeals to the morals of the locals. He, in turn, promises the mother of the boys that he will do his very best to win their freedom and he does all he can to gain her trust.
When the trial begins he carefully picks the jury and faces off against a venerable prosecutor with much greater experience than himself. The mother of the accused saw the squabble, but she cannot bear to implicate her sons. Lincoln pleads on her behalf. It also looks like the key witness and friend of the deceased man will put a seal on the case, but young Mr. Lincoln is not done yet.
Thus, the film ends and Lincoln is most certainly on the rise, but we get to imagine his future knowingly, on our own, because none of that length of the story is told. In that way, it’s rather interesting to juxtapose Ford’s film with Spielberg’s more recent biography Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. They represent different generations of filmmaking, because the latter film takes a monumental moment in history, the passing of the 13th amendment, and places a magnifying glass to it. Focusing on all the individuals involved, and it is certainly going for an amount of period realism, starting with the impressive performance by Day-Lewis as our 16th president.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a lot simpler because it does not need to focus on the highlights. It takes as great of an interest in Abe’s origin story so to speak. On his part, Henry Fonda plays the role wonderfully using his mannerisms and plain speaking delivery to give a homey quality to Lincoln. He’s believable, but in a different way than Day-Lewis. It’s not better or worse necessarily, just different. That being said, Young Mr. Lincoln deserves a place among the exulted classics of that legendary year of 1939. Hopefully, it will continue to receive the respect that it deserves, because it is a moving and surprisingly very witty film. Probably in the way Abraham Lincoln was.