Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Genres - Historical Film  |   Sub-Genres - Courtroom Drama, Biopic [feature]  |   Release Date - May 30, 1939 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Karl Williams

More hagiography than biography, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) took such outrageous liberties with historical fact that its value as a portrait of the nation's sixteenth president remains questionable. Nevertheless, the performance of Henry Fonda and the assured, fully engaged direction of John Ford placed Young Mr. Lincoln among both men's best work. Indeed, 1939 came to be regarded as Ford's annus mirabilis, the year in which he began his ascent to legend status, directing not only Young Mr. Lincoln but also Drums Along the Mohawk and Stagecoach. It is ironic that Young Mr. Lincoln came to be so well regarded, since neither Ford nor Fonda initially wanted to do the picture. A pair of plays about Lincoln's younger years had just enjoyed success on Broadway, so a reluctant Ford was pressured by Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck to tackle what was essentially a studio assignment. On reading the script by Lamar Trotti, however, the zealously patriotic Ford became more enthusiastic about the film's all-American subject matter, even persuading a reluctant Fonda to take the lead role. Intimidated by playing such an august historical figure, Fonda at first rejected the part, but he changed his mind during a meeting in which Ford reportedly told the skittish star that he would be playing not "the Great Emancipator" but "a jack-legged lawyer from Springfield, Illinois -- a gawky kid still wet behind the ears who rides a mule because he can't afford a horse." When Ford clashed with Zanuck over the film's slow pace and grew fearful that the studio would ruin his film in post-production, he destroyed the negatives of every take he disliked and did in-camera editing. The studio disappointed Ford anyway, excising a scene in which Lincoln and a young John Wilkes Booth have a friendly encounter. Like that scene, most of Young Mr. Lincoln is pure Hollywood balderdash, resting on only the slimmest tissue of truth. For instance, the real murder trial depicted in the film was based not on one tried by Lincoln but on a real-life courtroom drama witnessed by Trotti, who had covered it as a reporter. Though it was not in any way an authoritative view of its subject, Young Mr. Lincoln was a masterpiece of cinema, showcasing a writer, director, and star at the top of their games. In a supreme irony, Young Mr. Lincoln was a major inspiration for master Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the creation of his propagandistic classic, Ivan the Terrible (1944).