One of Hollywood’s biggest and most successful directors… One of Hollywood’s biggest and most respected actors… Telling the story of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most revered presidents. A couple of years ago, it was Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis teaming up to make that happen. But 75 years ago, those same biggest, successful, respected titles belonged to John Ford and Henry Fonda when they made Young Mr Lincoln.
It’s 1832 in New Salem Illinois. A poor family travelling through town has no money to pay for groceries, so they barter with the store owner, a young Abraham Lincoln, who accepts a crate of books as payment. Discovering an old law book in the mix, Abe reads up and finds he has a knack for remembering and interpreting the complex nature of the legal system. Inspired by a gravesite chat with a dead ex girlfriend, he decides to move to the big smoke of Springfield and open a legal practice.
One night, after a street party, a man is killed on the outskirts of town and two brothers, Matt and Adam Clay (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan respectively), stand accused of the crime. In a seemingly open and shut case against the brothers, Abe takes on their defence and plenty of court room drama plays out. Complete with impassioned speeches, plot twists, small town politics and even a little comic relief.
Young Mr Lincoln isn’t the story of the President Abraham Lincoln, the man who won the Civil War and freed the slaves. Young Mr Lincoln is the story of, well, young Mr Lincoln. It’s the story of a major turning point in his life that put him through the wringer. And when he came out the other side, he had the character and the determination to become President Abraham Lincoln, the man who would win the Civil War and free the slaves. The man who would, “go on apiece. Maybe to the top of that hill”.
Henry Fonda is an old-Hollywood legend. And while I thought I understood why before watching Young Mr Lincoln, I now know I didn’t really get it at all. He’s an inspiration in The Grapes of Wrath. He’s cool as ice in Jesse James. But there’s a moment towards the end of Young Mr Lincoln, when Abe has accomplished a great goal, and it sort of signifies the end of this chapter in his life.
I don’t know how he does it, but all of a sudden Fonda’s physical appearance seemingly changes. All of a sudden, he’s not the small town grocery store owner, or the plucky, up and coming lawyer. He’s the man who will become President. There’s a gravitas to him at this moment that didn’t exist before, and his features even start to look more like the iconic Abraham Lincoln visage we all know.
I always associate John Ford so heavily with westerns, that it’s always a great surprise when his name pops up in the credits of something outside of that genre. Here, he’s saddled with a pretty by the numbers, nothing special biopic, but between Ford’s direction and Fonda’s performance, it never feels by the numbers or like it’s nothing special. Fonda already had plenty of credits to his name by this point, but I have to imagine this is the one that really made people take him seriously as an actor who would one day become an old-Hollywood legend.