Way back in 1939, at the same time that Jimmy Stewart was conquering Washington in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the great director John Ford was making a film about another man who would eventually go to Washington.
In Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays the future 16th President. Even though Fonda was probably far better looking than Abraham Lincoln ever was, he’s ideally cast in the role. Along with being a very natural actor, Fonda personified a certain middle-of-the-country, stoic decency. He played characters who were smart but never elitist and who were guided mostly by common decency. In short, his screen persona was everything that people tend to think about when considering Abraham Lincoln.
As for the film itself, it begins with Lincoln as a simple storekeeper who accepts, as payment for groceries, a barrel of old books. After reading the books and having a conversation with his doomed first love, Anne Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln decides to learn the law.
Years later, now a poor-but-honest lawyer, Abraham Lincoln arrives at Springfield, Illinois, sitting a top mule because he can’t afford a horse. Lincoln opens a law office, awkwardly courts the rich and spoiled Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), and eventually defends two brothers who have been accused of murder. While the case’s prosecutor (played by Donald Meek) may have a better education, he can’t compete with Lincoln’s common sense and ability to relate to the common people.
Obviously, the whole point behind Young Mr. Lincoln is that it’s about the early life of an American hero. You watch the entire film with the knowledge that Lincoln is going to be the man who eventually leads the U.S. during the Civil War and who frees the slaves. The viewer knows that Lincoln is going to be a great man, even if nobody else does and a good deal of the film’s effectiveness come from the moments when Fonda will strike an iconic pose or will casually deploy a familiar phase and you’re reminded of just who exactly it is he’s playing.
But, and this is why Young Mr. Lincoln remains a great film, the important thing is that the film is just effective when viewed as being a portrait of a dedicated lawyer trying to prove the innocence of his clients. Fonda is compelling as both a future President and as an honest man trying to do the right thing. Ultimately, the film would be just as compelling even if it was called Young Mr. Jones and didn’t open with soaring, patriotic music and end with a shot of the Lincoln Memorial.
It’s interesting to compare Young Mr. Lincoln to some of the other films made about Abraham Lincoln. It’s a far more assured film than D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and, needless to say, Henry Fonda makes for a better Lincoln than Walter Huston did. At the same time, it’s far more naturalistic and less overly manipulative film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. In the end, it’s a good film and a great tribute to our 16th President.
And you can watch it below!