Few American historical figures are as revered as Abraham Lincoln, and few director-star collaborations embody classic Hollywood cinema as beautifully as the one between John Ford and Henry Fonda. This film, their first together, was Ford’s equally poetic and significant follow-up to the groundbreaking western Stagecoach, and in it, Fonda gives one of the finest performances of his career, as the young president-to-be as a novice lawyer, struggling with an incendiary murder case. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Ford’s frequent collaborator Bert Glennon, Young Mr. Lincoln is a compassionate and assured work and an indelible piece of Americana.
Daniel Day-Lewis may well be remembered as the screen's finest Abraham Lincoln, but almost 80 years ago Henry Fonda also made an indelible impression as our nation's revered 16th president. Young Mr. Lincoln may lack the dramatic gravitas of Steven Spielberg's majestic drama, but with his trademark understatement and poetic style, director John Ford paints a more accessible portrait of the statesman in a narrative that charts his personal and professional development. Produced during the year that arguably spawned more memorable movies than any other in Hollywood history, Young Mr. Lincoln holds up well against such other 1939 classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Ford‘s iconic western, Stagecoach, and contains one of Fonda's finest portrayals.
More of a character study than a linear treatment of Lincoln's early life, Young Mr. Lincoln chronicles the maturation of "Honest Abe" over the course of a decade, beginning with his first political ambitions in 1832 through his first years as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. The screenplay by Lamar Trotti (The Ox-Bow Incident), who received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, depicts Lincoln’s ill-fated relationship with Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), the seeds of his political rivalry with Stephen A. Douglas (Milburn Stone), and his burgeoning romance with the oddly fascinating Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). Yet the bulk of the drama focuses on Lincoln's defense of two young men accused of killing a drunken ruffian after a rowdy July 4th celebration. It's Lincoln's first big case, and the way he handles its myriad challenges helps shape the man - and president - he would become.
Typical of biopics, the script takes plenty of creative license for dramatic effect. The trial that comprises the film's third act - and supplies most of its drama - did occur, albeit 20 years later in Lincoln's legal career when he was a far more established attorney. The criminal circumstances were different as well, and the chronology and events surrounding Lincoln’s relationships with Rutledge and Todd can be questioned, too. Yet despite such factual discrepancies, the film captures Lincoln's essence and sets the table for his future on the political stage. All the mythic attributes and proclivities we associate with Lincoln - the iconic stovepipe hat, his voracious thirst for knowledge and rail-splitting expertise, his plain speech and humility, and ability to captivate and quell a boisterous crowd - are here, but they're deftly integrated into the tale so they don't seem contrived.
Ford is at the top of his game, but it’s interesting to note he battled bitterly with 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck over the film’s leisurely pacing, a conflict that led to Ford’s reported destruction of any unused footage so Zanuck couldn’t secretly re-edit the picture after Ford moved on to another project. While it’s true the pacing and plot can seem slow and meandering on an initial viewing, Ford‘s methodical approach helps bring the imposing Lincoln down to Earth, so we can relate to him on an intimate level. And by easing us into Lincoln’s world, Ford also has time to inject vital nuances and artistry into the picture, producing a beautiful lyricism that reflects Ford's reverence for his subject. His meticulous shot compositions and flawless sense of depth also add elegance to a simple yet profound story.
Playing an icon is no easy task, and Fonda was understandably daunted by the prospect. Yet his lanky physique and soft-spoken manner suit the reserved, thoughtful president, especially during his shy, awkward early years, and with the help of a prosthetic nose, bushy haircut, and lifts in his shoes, Fonda’s resemblance to Lincoln is uncanny. He also adopts Lincoln's distinctive gait and measured, halting speech patterns to create a full-bodied portrayal that projects the great man's aura without caricaturing it. Yes, he still sounds like Henry Fonda (Day-Lewis bests him in the vocal department), but never for a moment does the image of Lincoln recede during his finely etched performance. Though he did not receive an Academy Award nomination, Fonda did win a National Board of Review Best Acting citation and nabbed a well-deserved Best Actor nomination from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Alice Brady, as the angst-ridden mother who refuses to betray her sons even if it means sending them both to the gallows, contributes strong, sensitive work in her final film role. (Brady, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar a couple of years earlier for her memorable portrayal of Mrs. O'Leary, whose notorious cow allegedly started the great Chicago fire of 1871, in In Old Chicago would tragically die of cancer at age 46 a few months after Young Mr. Lincoln was released.) Ford favorite Ward Bond also asserts himself well as a blustery bully who becomes a star witness in the trial, and Donald Meek makes a notable impression as Lincoln's obsequious opposing attorney. Unfortunately, Margaret Weaver is rather bland as the flirtatious and manipulative Mary Todd, a role Ruth Gordon would play to the hilt the following year opposite Raymond Massey's equally splendid Lincoln in John Cromwell's excellent Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
Today's political climate may be devoid of civility and the kind of lofty ideals Lincoln so eloquently espoused, but that's exactly why Ford's film remains relevant and still resonates with such power. Who better than Lincoln to provide some much needed inspiration during a turbulent time, and who better than John Ford to document the early chapters of his stirring story? Though far from a definitive biography, Young Mr. Lincoln brings to life the esteemed character of one of American history's most admired men with the same grace and humility he consistently exuded. That’s no easy task, but Ford rises to the challenge. Like the 16th president, his film isn't perfect, but it's damn close.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Young Mr. Lincoln arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 32-page booklet featuring a 2006 essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, a 1945 appreciation of the film by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and several black-and-white and tinted photos is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "this new digital restoration was undertaken...primarily from a 4K scan of an original 35 mm nitrate print. In addition, a safety 35 mm fine-grain was used for sections of the film where the print was damaged or missing footage." That sounds like a bit of a hodgepodge, but Criterion - with an assist from 20th Century-Fox - seamlessly stitches the two sources together to produce a virtually flawless 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Grain is much fainter than I anticipated, yet the picture still exudes a warm film-like feel that suits the historical material. Black levels are rich and deep, shadows are well defined, and a perfectly modulated gray scale heightens both the clarity of fine details and palpable sense of depth. Excellent contrast complements both interior and exterior scenes, and close-ups show off delicate facial features. Just a couple of errant marks dot the print, and no digital doctoring could be detected. Without question, Young Mr. Lincoln has never looked better on home video, and Ford and Fonda aficionados will be delighted with this superior effort.
The LPCM mono track "was mastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm magnetic tracks," and the results are generally quite good. Young Mr. Lincoln is a quiet, dialogue-driven film, so there's not too much opportunity for the audio to shine. Atmospherics like chirping crickets and crowd noise are well rendered, and sonic accents like the fateful gunshot and an axe splitting logs are crisp and distinct. While fine fidelity and tonal depth allow Alfred Newman's sporadic music score to fill the room with ease, a wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, and all the conversations are well prioritized and comprehendible. Though no pops or crackles crop up, a hint of surface noise can be heard occasionally during sedate sequences. This track won't knock anyone's socks off, but it still delivers the goods. Not bad for an almost 80-year-old film.
Criterion provides a comprehensive spate of supplements that focus on the film, Ford, and Fonda.
Audio Commentary - Just as he did on the Blu-ray releases for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley, and The Hurricane, Ford biographer Joseph McBride supplies a thoughtful, measured, and very informative commentary that greatly enhances appreciation for this superior movie. McBride calls Young Mr. Lincoln one of Ford’s greatest films, and he cogently analyzes the director’s technique and recurring motifs while providing insights into the director’s “complicated” character and tempestuous relationship with Fonda. He also discusses the “circle of fate” theme that permeates the picture, points out various subtleties, examines the psychosexual and Freudian theories that have swirled about Lincoln, notes the contributions of Ford’s brother Francis Ford to this and other films, and talks at length about Ward Bond and his dubious role as “ringleader” of the Hollywood blacklist. In addition, McBride shares several Ford anecdotes, as well as his personal memories of Fonda. This terrific commentary not only complements Young Mr. Lincoln, it also makes us wish McBride would lay down similar tracks for non-Ford Blu-ray releases.
Vintage TV Documentary: Omnibus: John Ford, Part One (HD, 42 minutes) - The first installment of this classy 1992 BBC documentary - written, directed, and hosted by British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson - chronicles Ford’s career from the silent era through World War II. Topics covered include Ford’s Irish-Catholic upbringing in Maine, his apprenticeship with his brother Francis, and the notable films that heightened his reputation. Archival interviews with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowell, Maureen O’Hara, and Ford himself provide insights into his colorful character, and clips from such classics as The Iron Horse, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley, as well as color footage he shot during the Battle of Midway during World War II, illustrate his artistry. Anderson calls Ford’s movies “popular art, not arty,” and this reverential salute appropriately honors one of Hollywood’s master craftsmen. It’s just too bad Criterion didn’t also include the second part of this absorbing documentary on the disc.
Vintage TV Interview (HD, 49 minutes) - In a 1975 interview on the British TV program Parkinson, a lively 70-year-old Fonda talks openly and with great animation about a number of diverse topics, including portraying Clarence Darrow on Broadway, getting a pacemaker, how he got involved in acting, how he came to play Abraham Lincoln, the lynching he witnessed as a boy, his relationships with John Ford and James Stewart, his reputation as a western actor despite his fear of horses, the “classic rebellion” of his children, his enormous respect for his daughter Jane as both actress and activist, the challenges of 12 Angry Men, and the personal gratification he gets from acting in the theater. For someone with a reputation for being aloof, shy, and introverted, Fonda commands the stage and rivets attention for the entire interview, which will captivate those who admire his work.
Audio Interviews (HD, 13 minutes) - Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford, interviewed both Ford and Fonda for a biography of the director, and their respective remarks about Young Mr. Lincoln are included here, accompanied by photos of the men, scenes stills, and clips from the movie. Ford calls Young Mr. Lincoln one of his favorite pictures, marvels over Fonda’s amazing likeness to Lincoln, claims he didn’t recognize Fonda without his Lincoln make-up (Fonda refutes the anecdote in his interview), and discusses 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck’s contributions to the film. Fonda recalls originally turning down the part (“I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God!”) and how Ford, using plenty of salty language, shamed him into accepting it.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (30 minutes) - In 1946, Fonda reprised his role as the young Abraham Lincoln in a (severely) truncated version of the film for the radio series Academy Award. The half-hour adaptation, which includes an introduction and two commercials, begins with the murder and focuses almost exclusively on the trial. Ward Bond reprises his part as well.
With warmth, acuity, and humor, Young Mr. Lincoln captures the essence of our 16th president during his formative years. John Ford's simple, sensitive direction and Henry Fonda's exceptional portrayal bring this understated slice of Americana to brilliant life, and, as always, Criterion produces a top-notch Blu-ray presentation featuring a superior video transfer, solid audio, and an absorbing collection of rare supplements. Ford and Fonda would make eight pictures together, but Young Mr. Lincoln - their first collaboration - set the tone and the bar for many memorable movies to come. Highly Recommended.