Director: John Ford
Production: Twentieth Century-Fox; black and white, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes. Released 1939. Filmed in Fox studios.
Producers: Darryl F. Zanuck with Kenneth MacGowan; screenplay: Lamar Trotti; photography: Arthur Miller; editor: Walter Thompson; sound: Eugene Grossman and Roger Heman; art directors: Richard Day and Mark-Lee Kirk; music: Alfred Newman; costume designer: Royer.
Cast: Henry Fonda ( Abraham Lincoln ); Alice Brady ( Abagail Clay ); Marjorie Weaver ( Mary Todd ); Arleen Whelan ( Hannah Clay ); Eddie Collins ( Efe ); Pauline Moore ( Ann Rutledge ); Richard Cromwell ( Matt Clay ); Donald Meek ( John Felder ); Judith Dickens ( Carrie
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Young Mr. Lincoln was one of three John Ford films, all among his finest, to be released in 1939. Each was noteworthy for a number of reasons, and each introduced to the director's work a particular aspect that would become identified with the thematic concerns of the rest of his career. Stagecoach , for example, was his first film with John Wayne and his first use of Arizona's spectacular Monument Valley as a locale. Both would become Ford institutions in succeeding years. Drums Along the Mohawk , the earliest of his histories, in terms of its internal chronology, also marked the beginning of an examination of the American past that would occupy much of the rest of his life.
Young Mr. Lincoln was Ford's first film with Henry Fonda, another actor with a very definite function within the director's films. Through careful crafting of Fonda's character and the script, Ford created for the actor a persona that embodied the traditional qualities of American idealism and a liberal attitude toward the development of the absolutes of civilization. Though this persona was continued in other Ford-Fonda collaborations until 1948 when the actor returned to the New York stage, it was initially employed to elevate the story of Lincoln's early years to the level of a national myth, a myth consistent with the director's own philosophy.
In Drums Across the Mohawk , the Fonda persona's aspirations toward civilization are inherent in his yearning for land and a home. When he loses his home, much of his personal stability and self-reliance vanishes with it, and the structure of his family life hovers near fragmentation. In Young Mr. Lincoln , however, the idea of civilization is represented by the broadest concept of the law—one that is indicated by Lincoln's statement in the trial scene. His profession that "I may not know much about the law, but I know what is right!" has less to do with a court of justice than it does with Ford's idea of a higher law. The future president is presented by the film as a proponent of God's law, which Ford relates through a number of scenes, as being intertwined with concepts of family, the future and nature itself. One scene, in which Lincoln is sitting by a river studying Blackstone's Commentaries and is interrupted by Ann Rutledge who wants to talk about the future, ties all of these ideas together as does his monologue at her grave when he invokes her memory (as well as that of his deceased mother) to aid in his decision to become a lawyer. The entire trial sequence, in fact, casts Lincoln in the role of a defender of the American family, attempting to keep it intact.
The use of the poem, "Nancy Hanks," at the beginning of the film establishes for the viewer a consciousness of the historical Lincoln while, at the same time, serving notice that the function of art is not simply a retelling of history but a rewriting as well. Therefore, the story that follows utilizes the audience's already mythical assumptions concerning the historical personage as one element in Ford's creation of the new myth. The character is removed from its historical context, its useful qualities extracted and merged with those of the carefully constructed Fonda persona to be employed for Ford's own purposes. So striking was the merger of the Fonda and Lincoln qualities that, for many years, the film was heralded solely for the youthful exuberance of Fonda's performance. Now, however, the film is appreciated for its classic craftsmanship and as an exposition of the mythmaking process in America.
—Stephen L. Hanson