Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Young Mr. Lincoln (#24)

The Favorites - Young Mr. Lincoln (#24)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939/USA/dir. John Ford) appeared at #24 on my original list.

What it is • An obscure Illinois lawyer in the 1830s named Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) takes on a court case involving two brothers from a poor family (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan), who have been accused of murder. This will be his first criminal trial, and it will force him to face down a lynch mob and move back and forth across several divides: between the isolated family he's defending and the solid community opposed to them, between the common folk who appreciate his good humor and the local elite who admire his intelligence, and between his own idealistic appeals to higher principles and his shrewd ability to employ emotional manipulation. We meet Lincoln before he's even chosen the law as a vocation, watching as he loses his fiancee Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and meets his future wife Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). However, this is not the sort of biopic where we collect the "greatest hits" of a lifetime - it's very much focused on a single period and issue, much like Patton, Selma, or, well, Lincoln. Unlike those films, however, its key incident isn't a momentous turning point in the subject's legend but a much smaller moment, highly fictionalized (the screenplay by Lamar Trotti adapts a key detail from an actual Lincoln case, but it occurred many years later when he was already a national figure, and the circumstances were mostly very different). Perhaps this is what gives the movie its extra edge: the proceedings are allowed to be both laid back and subtly symbolic (Lincoln is encouraged to split the brothers' defense in order to save one, which only now occurs to me as a likely "house divided" nod). Just like Lincoln himself, the film is deceptively low-key in approach while slowly summoning up a deep sense of grandeur and gravity.

Why I like it •
Fonda gives one of the great performances of classic Hollywood, iconic and down-to-earth, calculated and casual, intimidating and deferential. It's probably the greatest portrait of a politician I know, enamored of Lincoln but also, possibly, vaguely ambivalent about his tactics and power. Ford's direction is simply lyrical, a graceful flow of images that never seems prettified or pretentious. He achieves a very Lincolnesque balance - or rather a complementary relationship - between eloquence and economy. Indeed, this simple film contains multitudes; not long after I purchased the gorgeous Criterion DVD as a blind buy (probably the best I ever made), I read the thick-with-theory analysis from Cahiers du cinema in an old collection of film writing from the seventies. The article - actually the entire contents of a special issue, written collectively - treats this Hollywood entertainment as a motherlode of cinematic significance, using it to spin off all sorts of larger conclusions and flights of fancy. I remember being particularly inspired by the writers' delineation of six or seven types of films: conventional industrial products, completely independent artistic expressions, political agitprop documents, etc, with a film like Young Mr. Lincoln operating in a kind of hazy middle ground between categories, where it could imbue staid conventions with new life. I loved that the movie could inspire such heady ruminations, although Ford himself probably would have scoffed at such an approach. As I noted in my review of The Searchers a few days ago, there's a consistently crystal-clear, almost uncanny beauty to Ford's vision though its expressions vary. The Searchers is in color, Young Mr. Lincoln is in black-and-white. One film takes place pre-Civil War (and was shot pre-World War II), the other takes place post-Civil War (and was shot post-World War II). One film is tight, focused, clean, while the other is sprawling and a bit messy. Between them, these two poles catch a great deal of the tension in Ford, the artist who could give voice equally well to the renegade outsider and the high-achieving politician, the hate-fueled avenger and the magnimous justice-seeker. As they wander off into their horizons we sense that perhaps these figures are not so different after all: two sides of the American coin.

More from me • I've never written a full-on review of Young Mr. Lincoln but two previous posts contain extended meditations. The first was posted as an IMDB comment a decade ago and shared on this blog earlier this year - it lists three reasons this is a great movie. The second is a comparison drawn to To Kill a Mockingbird in a review of that film, contrasting the two lawyers with very different approaches for facing down lynch mobs. A clip is featured at 3:40 in "Hooray for Hollywood!", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".

How you can see it • Young Mr. Lincoln is available on YouTube and for DVD rental on Netflix. Based on the picture shown I'm not sure if the available disc is the Criterion Collection edition, but that version is well worth investing in.

What do you think? • Have you read the Cahiers du cinema issue on this film, and what did you think of its arguments? Is this the best Lincoln film (yes), and if so what is the second-best? Many talk about Ford's collaboration with John Wayne, but do you have any thoughts on his frequent collaboration with Fonda?

• • •

Yesterday: Mamma Roma (#25)


Dan Heaton said...

I've only see Young Mr. Lincoln once, but it's stuck with me. I even love the random scene of him winning the contests at the town fair. It just feels right based on everything we've read and heard about Lincoln. Fonda barely strikes a wrong note, and that's not easy when you're portraying a historical figure that's so well-known. I'm surprised that we don't hear more about this film when people discuss Ford's career.

Joel Bocko said...

Yup, good as he is in Grapes of Wrath and, well, everything, this is probably my favorite Fonda role. I forget about his makeup because this feels like such a lived-in performance. Reading your comment, I just got a video idea I hope I can follow through on someday - a study of how Ford uses Wayne and Fonda in his films. Could take a while to assemble but would be lots of fun to dive into.

Search This Blog