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Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Director: John Ford | 96 minutes | drama | Actors: , , , Arleen Whelan, , , , , , , , ,

Sympathetic, quietly rippling film about the early years of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the sixteenth President of the United States. Skilfully directed by Ford with beautifully shot scenes that last just long enough, an idealized picture of Lincoln’s life in his home state is sketched through a fictional murder case. The film starts slowly and then never goes into higher gear. Yet the film does not appear to be boring for a moment, despite the unspectacular presentation of the content.

The film continues to captivate is mainly due to the formidable performance of Fonda, whose appearance, with the help of a fake nose, a handy hairdresser and the prominent wart, looks astonishingly like Lincoln’s famous photos. The well-known gnome beard is still missing, because only after his election as President Lincoln showed his beard. Fonda is also a bit short of length, with his 1.85 meters he does not come close to the almost two meter long Lincoln, who towers over most of his contemporaries.

Fonda carries this film on his shoulders and constantly manages to draw all the attention through his good, smooth playing. The other players have much smaller supporting roles, which are sometimes stereotyped, the story is so black and white that the suspects defended by Lincoln are good-natured without a blemish on their soul and the accuser (Meek) refined and unlikable. . Special mention for Brady as the mother of the suspects, who plays a heart-rending role at the same time subdued and painfully. Lincoln is here in essence what he later was according to accounts of his life – a man of integrity, straightforward, compassionate, and uses his intelligence to explain complicated matters in simple terms and funny equations. This description of Lincoln is more myth than the much more complicated reality. It is a pity that Ford, perhaps also given the spirit of the times, was unable to provide a more complete picture of the infinitely more interesting Lincoln as a historical figure than as the legend in the making outlined here. What really only lacks in the film Lincoln is its power as a public speaker. As a result, there is no real character development of the main character. For the majority of Americans, Lincoln’s life was and still is a piece of cake, and almost every scene has some reference to a situation from the President’s later life. It is good to imagine how visitors at that time nudged their neighbor or neighbor or exchanged a look of understanding when they were able to link an incident from the film to the known facts. As, for example, in Lincoln’s meetings with his later political rival Stephen A. Douglas (Stone). Douglas would defeat Lincoln for a Senate seat in 1854, but lose as a Democratic candidate in the 1860 Presidential election. The difficult start of his relationship with Mary Todd (Weaver) is also discussed. Mary Todd Lincoln was of better background than her husband, and the situations in which the two ended up emphasize that difference over and over again. Ford occasionally seems to touch very lightly on Mary Lincoln’s unstable personality, which worsened in her later life and would cast a dark shadow over their marriage.

The lawsuit that takes up the last part of the film appears to be primarily intended to generate sympathy. Lincoln does not base his defense on sound legal arguments. Here the film is somewhat out of control, because sometimes the whole degenerates into a bad farce. The judge, for example, snoozes and is openly snoring during the trial. Lincoln also admits a drunken unemployed person to the jury, after which the good man meant funny, but contradicting, hiccups when asked something. Characteristic of Ford, this is where the sentimentality for which he was known also comes into play. To viewers today, the final act is somewhat disappointing, as it does not follow our familiar court film pattern.

With a beautifully shot ending, as Lincoln walks up a path against the horizon, there is no doubt where that path will end. In the Presidency for which Lincoln is still highly honored and where he managed to keep the Union “one and indivisible” for future generations. It is a pity that a made-up lawsuit was used to underline the President’s later greatness. His true life story had been just as inspiring.

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