Program Notes: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

In the essay “Mr. Lincoln by Mr. Ford,” the great Soviet movie maker Sergei Eisenstein – whose 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin remains embedded in most critics’ short lists of the best movies ever made – speculated on the one American movie he wished he had made.

He chose John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.

Ford had made films that were richer and more effective, Eisenstein wrote. But Young Mr. Lincoln “has a quality, a wonderful quality, a quality that every work of art must have – an astonishing harmony of all its component parts, a really amazing harmony as a whole.”

Seventy five years after its creation, the film still retains an astonishing ability to tap into our shared mythology. Much of Ford’s artistic output can be summed up in one question – What does it mean to be an American? – and Young Mr. Lincoln provides some essential answers.

Film Screening:
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Saturday, May 3 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

As the title suggests, Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is about Lincoln before he became a famous icon. It covers the early months of his law practice in Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, and centers on Lincoln’s first big case, a murder trial. (Actually, it is a highly fictionalized version of a murder case that Lincoln handled in 1858, shortly before he got into national politics).

Watching the film today one is struck by how much actor Henry Fonda looks like photos of the young Lincoln (Fonda donned a prosthetic nose and wart for the role, and at one point rides a miniature mule that makes his legs look ridiculously long). It’s an astounding performance, one that gives us a rough-hewn, unpretentious Abe but which is packed with intimations of the greatness that is to come.

Initially, Fonda turned down the part, saying that it was akin to “playing God.” But he gave in after a meeting with director Ford, whom he had never met. “This is not the Great Emancipator,” Ford emphasized. “It’s a young jackleg lawyer in Springfield, Illinois.”

Fonda always said he was shamed into taking the role. Generations of moviegoers should be thankful...Fonda and Ford went on to make eight films together, including The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, and Mister Roberts.

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln

Though the murder trial takes up the second half of the film, Trotti’s script found ways to tap into various aspects of the Lincoln story. It begins with his ill-fated youthful romance with Anne Rutledge (she died of typhoid in 1835), his acceptance of an old law book as payment for goods purchased at his general store, his nascent political rivalry with Stephen A. Douglas (played by Milburn Stone, best known as “Doc” on the Gunsmoke TV series), and his first meeting with Mary Todd, the young socialite who would become his wife.

But above all else we have Lincoln himself – simple (but certainly not stupid), self-effacing, inexperienced but inventive, a font of unassuming idealism, and above all else a true believer in the higher natures of his fellow men.

The film’s highlight may be the scene in which Lincoln meets a lynch mob preparing to hang two farm boys accused of murder. Lincoln doesn’t orate. He doesn’t shame the members of the mob. Instead, in a down-to-earth, conversational tone, he expertly defuses the situation, forcing each man to recognize the goodness in his own heart and weigh that goodness against the easy satisfaction of brute retribution.

(You can’t watch this scene without be reminded of Gregory Peck’s similar speech on the jailhouse steps in To Kill a Mockingbird 25 years later.)

In the hands of any director less talented than John Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln could have proven a bit much (as when Lincoln walks into a sunset to the strains of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

But Ford had an uncanny ability to meld image and sound, and to draw from his players performances of such homespun poetry that our objections melt away.

Most films about patriotism are clunky and heavy handed. Ford’s career is studded with patriotism that sings.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: True Lives”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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