Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

7 07 2008

Call me neglectful, or hell, even call me naive, but I had never seen a John Ford film until last night with a viewing of Young Mr. Lincoln. Among other things, it marks Fords first collaboration with Henry Fonda, who, for the most part, carries the whole picture. This is pretty much fine by my standards as I’ve expressed my admiration for him before, but this pretty much confirms that he was the best “classic Hollywood” actor, at least so in my eyes. Ford doesn’t do anything really radical, though it is not like I expected that of him. For the most part, he just places his characters in very beautiful (albeit sometimes artificial) locations.

A young Abraham Lincoln is confused and worried for his future, like any other young adult. During a poetic conversation with a girl, he is criticized for his like of ambition. Time passes and the very same girl dies. He visits her grave site for another conversation, which provides motivation for him to “begin doing something.” Meanwhile, a family is in need of groceries from Lincoln’s store. Their only means of payment is a law book, which sparks Abe’s interest in law. Soon, he moves to Springfield to being practicing law with a friend. During a July 4th celebration, a man is killed in what seems to be a clear and simple murder case. An angry mob forms and plans to kill the two young men in question, but Lincoln breaks up the mob and thus begins his first case as a lawyer.

While most of the plot does seem downright mythological, it proceeds in a very natural way under Ford’s elegant direction. Perhaps one of his single greatest strengths (at least in this film) is his ability to avoid the cinematic principles that trapped so many Hollywood productions from this time period. There is some slightly too expressive musical pieces, but for the most part they seem present to underscore the very poetic intentions as opposed to manipulating one’s feelings. On the other hand, the otherwise great ending, is handled in the most manipulative and heavy-handed patriotic way.

The initial poetic poignancy displayed in the opening sequence between Abe and Ann is quickly ditched when the film ellipses to Abe speaking to Ann’s grave. While this shift in tone is somewhat disappointing, it doesn’t really ruin the film at all. Perhaps the whole courtroom drama is a bit boring to others, but I can’t help but seeing it as one of the comedic heights of 1930s cinema. If anything, it is a relief to finally discover that Ford is not the humorless monster that he is sometimes characterized as. In fact, not only is this film really funny (not to mention really fun) but the interviews that appear on the BBC documentary prove that he was just as clever in person. There’s obvious limitations that come from working in Hollywood in the 30s, but I’d saw this about as a perfect of a movie as anyone could have made considering the circumstances. A great introduction into Ford’s ridiculously long career.

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