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USA 1939
Directed by
John Ford
100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Young Mr Lincoln

The most memorable aspect of John Ford's highly romanticised account of Abraham Lincoln’s early stovepipe-hatted-but-pre-beard years is Henry Fonda’s performance. Disappearing beneath convincing prosthetic work and transforming his usual stiff gait and wooden body language into a rangy countrified lope Fonda does an outstanding job of bringing Honest Abe, the Kentucky-born log cabin yokel to life, at least as far as the legend allows.

Ford’s myth-making propensity is, needless to say, well-suited to the subject matter. He opens the film with Lincoln’s first foray into politics in New Salem then, thanks to the encouragement of his first love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) who died at the age of 22, probably of typhoid fever, his setting up as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. The bulk of the film, bar a bit of scene-setting establishing Abe as a paradigmatic man of the people, judging a pie contest and joining in a tug-of-war contest at Independence Day festivities, is given over to his first courtroom appearance defending two brothers (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan) who are charged with murder (Ford regular Ward Bond is the main witness. John Palmer Cass). Lincoln’s folksy perspicacity wins the day and Ford with the help of Alfred Newman’s music leave him atop a storm-shrouded hill, history before him.

Writer Lamar Trotti’s screenplay nicely depicts Lincoln’s evolving skill as a charismatic rhetorician with an ability to work a crowd although his relationship with Springfield’s social and political Establishment is less effectively handled, a couple of the courtroom scenes in particular which intimate some funny business involving Cass and one of Lincoln’s political opponent not leading anywhere. Also somewhat oddly, Lincoln's relationship with Southern society belle Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), whom he would eventually marry, is barely touched upon, the two deficiencies together seeming to suggest that some pertinent footage touching on Lincoln’s more ambitious, calculating side was left on the cutting room floor.




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