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Young Mr. Lincoln

As the story is told by Henry Fonda, he initially didn't want to accept the title role in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) — and in fact, he didn't have to. A player at Fox who was not under contract at the time, he was free to reject any offer, and his unease with portraying the United States' most iconic president landed him in Pappy's office. "Pappy" being Ford, who had yet to achieve the legendary status his later films would afford him, but still had enough influence on the Fox lot to get a young unknown standing tall before the man. According to Fonda — in a canned anecdote he tells twice in the supplements on this DVD, nearly identically in interviews separated by decades — the handkerchief-chewing Ford lambasted the young actor, insisting that his Lincoln would not be the Great Emancipator, but instead just a young "jack-leg lawyer" in 1837 Illinois. The meeting was enough to adjust Fonda's attitude, leading to an ongoing partnership with Ford that would include Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) in just the next two years, and eight collaborations in total, including Mister Roberts (1955). But it also nicely summarizes the essential appeal of Young Mr. Lincoln — it's a film that manages to pull 'Honest Abe' down from his statuesque perch at the Lincoln Memorial, fleshing out a young, ambitious, clever man who believes in the law, and in justice, but also that lost causes are worth fighting for.

Fonda stars as the sixteenth U.S. president long before anybody suspected he would become so, during his early life in Illinois, between his impoverished Kentucky childhood and the political career that eventually would relocate him to the nation's capital. Arriving in Springfield, he hangs out a shingle as a local attorney, figuring that he doesn't know enough about the law to hurt him. He's a mix of contradictions, humbly riding around town on a mule rather than a horse, but also not above lecturing clients who won't settle a dispute amicably, and even resorting to a bit of cheating in order to win a tug-o-war contest at the town fair. Familiar figures in history are introduced, including Stephen Douglas and Mary Todd, but the story itself concerns one small, significant event: During the town fair, local dandy 'Scrub' White (Fred Kohler Jr.) gets on the wrong side of two country boys, and later that night he winds up dead, stabbed through the heart. Brothers Matt and Adam Clay (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan) scuffled with him, but since no eyewitnesses can establish just who thrust the blade, both are brought up on murder charges. That is, if they are to see trial. Before the night is through, a lynch mob assembles in front of the town jail intent on stringing up both brothers from the nearest tree. But Abe Lincoln — who intends to take their case — manages to defuse the situation with a speech that, in retrospect, rivals the Gettysburg Address. However, keeping the two boys alive for trial is only the beginning of his troubles. He still has to find a way to earn a not-guilty verdict in court, and the initial evidence is not on his side.

*          *          *

Young Mr. Lincoln arrived during John Ford's most prolific burst of creativity — from 1939 to 1941 he directed seven films, including Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, and How Green Was My Valley. Surprisingly, Lincoln was not as well received as one might suspect. Despite arriving in Hollywood's golden year of 1939, it did not win any awards and actually lost money. Renewed appreciation of Ford's work led film critics back to this prolific period, where Lincoln is now considered a key element of the Ford oeuvre. Many of the director's hallmarks are readily apparent, in particular his embrace of community (shown in both the rustic town fair and an elegant formal ball) and his penchant for off-kilter humor (casting his brother Francis Ford as the drunk trapper Sam Boone provides a moment of levity in a story that threatens to have little of it). The events leading up to the murder may resemble hagiography, in particular with Lincoln's chaste romance of Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and his self-education, but the film's second half leans on one of Hollywood's most reliable dramatic templates, the courtroom drama. Lamar Trotti's script enjoys playing with the Lincoln mystique in court. By turns, he's earnest, sardonic, clever, humble, and disingenuous, but always sympathetic. It's the sort of material that shows Ford didn't need Monument Valley sunsets to make movies — masterful with multiple characters in Academy framing, he coordinates the script with visual cues, including the backs of people's heads and emphatic moments in low light. One of the few actors who could creditably play a U.S. president on film, Fonda's lanky frame doesn't quite reach Lincoln's six-feet-four, but the suggestion of such is powerful (oversized shoes and a prosthetic nose complete the illusion). It's not entirely roman á clef: Trotti's script combines two trials that occurred in Illinois, one of which involved Lincoln as defense counsel. Nonetheless, Young Mr. Lincoln reminds its audience that the greatest American president — charged with enforcing the nation's laws — once worked on the other side of the courtroom. And it also reminds us that, while John Ford often introduced himself as a director who only made westerns, he also could shoot a pretty good lesson in civics.

Criterion's two-disc DVD release of Young Mr. Lincoln features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a source-print that's virtually free of collateral wear with vivid low-contrast detail. Audio is likewise splendid, on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. The feature film occupies the first disc, while Disc Two offers a number of supplements, including Part One of the "BBC Omnibus" documentary, John Ford, presented by Lindsay Anderson, which includes several rare clips from Ford's earliest days as a silent-era director (42 min.). Also on board are Fonda's 1975 appearance on the British chat show "Parkinson" (49 min.), audio interviews with John Ford and Henry Fonda, conducted in 1973 and 1978, an "Academy Award Theater" radio adaptation of Young Mr. Lincoln from 1946 featuring Henry Fonda and Ward Bond (with a downloadable MP3 version), and a stills gallery featuring Lamar Trotti's screenplay and more. Dual-DVD keep-case with enclosed booklet.

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