Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

young mr. lincoln

I’m surprised Henry Fonda never ran for president!

Screenplay By: Lamar Trotti
Directed By: John Ford

The country fare scene was, for me, the highlight of Young Mr. Lincoln. I’m a big fan of country fare’s, my family and I attend them every year, and good or bad they represent a lot about America. In the country fare sequence John Ford gets to the heart of who Abraham Lincoln is and why we will spend the movie rooting for him. In particular the pie eating concept caught my fancy. It’s simplicity made perfect, an example of how to portray the qualities of a character in the easiest way possible. It’s also super funny, and as Abe bites into those two pies I had a giant grin on my face. I was delighted at what I was watching, there’s no two ways around the genuine reaction the pie contest elicited from me. The entire country fare sequence was a marvel to behold, a master class in execution of character, visual, and storytelling.

It sounds silly to say, but Henry Fonda is beyond reproach as Abe Lincoln. He stands tall, he’s larger than the people around him yet he’s a part of the people. He’s everything the myths and retelling’s of President Lincoln’s life have imparted on the American subconscious. Mr. Fonda is slow in his delivery of dialogue, but he’s always witty and his face is telling just as much of the story. He is the embodiment of President Lincoln and he makes it damn hard to do anything but watch in awe as he delivers his portrayal of a historical figure.

Mr. Ford takes the performance of Mr. Fonda and creates a myth around said performance. The way he layers the film it becomes about the beginning of a myth. There’s no tearing down in Young Mr. Lincoln, there’s only building up. The film ends with the future President standing on a hill, larger than even the landscape. This is the most fitting ending possible, because Young Mr. Lincoln has built up Abraham Lincoln so that he deserves to be standing on a hill above everyone else. Some people might argue that Young Mr. Lincoln is too forlorn and whimsical in its portrayal of a historical figure. I’d content that such a viewpoint removes the myth that the film is steeped in. Young Mr. Lincoln is honest to the idea of who Abraham Lincoln was, and myth building is more about being honest to the idea than to the fact.

As brilliantly as Young Mr. Lincoln is in its construction I did have some issues with the courtroom scenes. There are moments during the courtroom sequence that are wonderfully done and engage me deeply as a viewer. There are also moments that strike me as odd and left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Things get a bit too jokey in the courthouse, and I understand the free flowing nature of the way Lincoln conducts himself from a myth building perspective. That being said the jokey nature while in the courtroom does detract from the seriousness of the plight faced by the Clay boys. I know that Mr. Ford like to add comedic touches to his films, but I feel he erred in making the courtroom sequence in Young Mr. Lincoln too comedic and slapstick.

Courtroom frivolity aside, there’s a lot to love about Young Mr. Lincoln. This film represents the sort of myth building that is hard to come by as film is more often interested in tearing down than it is in building up. But build up Young Mr. Lincoln did, and on the strength of Mr. Ford’s direction and Mr. Fonda’s acting the house they built was as superb of a house as anyone could ever ask for.




3 responses to “Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

  1. My favorite moment is during the tug-of-war when Lincoln puts the rope on the wagon and walks away. Those little acts are what made the film (and the performance) for me. I agree with you on the court room sequences, and the end was pretty hokey. Even so, I liked it a lot overall.

  2. It is indeed the little moments that make the film. I knew I loved it as soon as Fonda started talking about the pies, that’s the sort of small stuff that can really make a character and a film great.

  3. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Streaming Wasteland! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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