John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln was no prestige biopic, but a humane portrayal of the American icon as an inexperienced lawyer
In John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, Abe is the son of the soil, a herculean figure as adept at working an axe as debating in a courtroom. Throughout, he is associated with nature, the trees and the river, his understanding of law deriving from the intuitive understanding of right and wrong | Srikanth Srinivasan writes in 'At the Movies'
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Classical Hollywood didn’t need a reason to make a film on Abraham Lincoln, a national icon revered across the political spectrum. By the time John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) for Twentieth Century Fox, dozens of movies were already produced about him. Ford’s own brother, Francis, had played Lincoln seven times on screen. But Young Mr. Lincoln, featuring Henry Fonda in the titular role, isn’t a prestigious biopic about the 16th American president. It’s the story of Abraham the inexperienced lawyer trying to find his footing in small-town Illinois.
There’s a dual perspective at work in Lamar Trotter’s script. On the one hand, for the film’s 20th-century audience, Abraham Lincoln is already part of the collective consciousness as one of the greatest political figures of all time. The film plays on this awareness by hinting at foreordained nature of young Abraham’s destiny. Abe decides to become a lawyer by the toss of a stick at the grave of his first sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore). He frequently stares at the ice-laden Sangamon river in the distance, as though heeding the call of a higher power. In the film’s final moments, he advances as a silhouette into the sunset. As he exits the frame, he walks into an approaching storm, the wind and the lightning suggesting the political tumult that awaits America in the coming decades.
On the other hand, Young Mr. Lincoln assures us that it is simply the story of a callow lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s. To this end, it minimises the figure of Lincoln and instead presents him as an everyman unaware of what lies in wait. We see him judging a cooking contest, alternately chomping on an apple and a peach pie. He splits a piece of wood in record time. He plays ridiculous tunes on a Jew's harp. At the first pangs of romance, he tosses a rock into the river. He has an awkward dance session at a ball with his wife-to-be, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). Before his first trial, he polishes his shoes and cuts his own hair. The Lincoln of Ford’s film is not the solemn orator of history books, but an entertainer with a self-deprecatory sense of humour. This minimisation, in fact, only adds to the legend-building project of the film.
The film contrasts Lincoln’s straightforward persona with the pompous airs of those around him. In the first scene, Lincoln’s co-legislator in New Salem delivers a harangue in which he promises to chase out corrupt elements from politics like “dogs from a meat house”. His speech, full of sound and fury, is followed by Lincoln’s. His head lowered and hands in the pocket, Abe delivers a short and heartfelt speech in sinking intonations, suggesting an honest language very different from the painted words of his peers. Similarly, the words of the prosecutor (Donald Meek) at his first trial, leaning on Biblical references and thunderous exhortations, is followed by Abe’s jovial argumentation, which is evidently on the level.
At the same time, the film subtly reinforces Lincoln’s essential integrity and rectitude. In his first address to the people, Abe is framed tightly, centred, head-on, and from a low angle. Sunlight seeping through gaps between wooden planks forms a vertical, striated pattern in the background to evoke a notion of uprightness. Abe interacts plainly with plain folks of the New Salem village. He trusts them to pay for their purchase later. He doffs his hat when pioneers of the 1776 revolution pass by in a parade. Ford’s Lincoln is the son of the soil, a herculean figure as adept at working an axe as debating in a courtroom. Throughout, Abe is associated with nature, the trees and the river, his understanding of law deriving from the intuitive understanding of right and wrong.
Like various figures representing the law in John Ford’s westerns, Abraham of Young Mr. Lincoln is a man of the book intervening in a society that believes in mob justice. When two young men from a neighbouring village are accused of murdering a local ruffian, the whole town tries to barge into the prison to capture the men and lynch them. To stop them, Abe poses himself between the crowd and the prison. He wields his imposing physique as his first weapon, forcefully pushing back the barging pole with his foot. He assures the crazed men he’s not there to make a speech, but he slowly segues into a monologue in which he appeals to the good will of individuals over the wisdom of the mob. A while earlier, when the prisoner’s mother Mrs Clay (Alice Brady, in her last screen role) asks Abe who he is to help them, he says, “I’m your lawyer, ma’am”.
This double signification of Abe as a greenhorn as well as a master rhetorician also manifests in the figure of Henry Fonda, who excelled at conveying good-to-the-bone innocence without making it seem boyish. His blank stares often serve as a clean slate on which viewers project their own emotions. Fonda is self-effacing in several sequences of the film. For most part of the final trial scene, his Abe is merely a dark silhouette seen from behind. He sits on the floor, refers to books at the corner of the courtroom, and stands at the judge’s desk with his head buried in his hands. It is not until he wins the case, when the familiar figure in a top hat walks transfixed towards cheering, off-screen crowds, that his character assumes a mythical aura, that his Abe finally becomes Lincoln.
Henry Fonda was a tall man, 187 centimetres in height, six less than the real Lincoln. Few directors understood as well as Ford that he was a great actor of the legs. The filmmaker accentuates Abraham’s clumsiness by focusing on Fonda’s long legs, which seem even longer the way he wears his trousers up over his navel. When we first see Fonda, he’s on a chair, with his legs crossed over a barrel. This horizontal position — made iconic in Fonda’s later collaboration with Ford, My Darling Clementine (1946) — will appear several times in the film, most strikingly in the final courtroom scene. When Abe is reading a book in the woods, his head rests on a log and his legs are posed against a tree. He then sits up, leans against the tree and works the log with his left leg. He scratches his right shin as he mulls over the words of the law. When Ann shows up shortly on the other side of a fence, he approaches her and hops over the high rail with an ungainly leap. Ford captures the actor in many such unflattering poses, making the legendary stateman feel more human, one among the people.
John Ford’s film exhibits great pictorial beauty and the director had the uncanny knack of finding the most powerful yet unobtrusive camera angles and movements. More crucially, he had the ability to infuse his stories — none of which he wrote himself — with an eternal, transcendental quality. A sense of the supernatural marks his death-touched Lincoln. A poem by Rosemary Benet describing the maternal yearnings of Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, opens the film. The spectres of his mother, his sister Sarah and his beloved Ann loom large over Abraham, who can’t but see them reincarnated in Mrs Clay and her daughters. As he leans at Ann’s grave, whose demise is conveyed via a heart-breaking ellipse, the Sangamon river flows by in the background. This too shall pass.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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