With anticipation running high for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which I haven’t yet seen, I can’t help thinking about the best Lincoln movie thus far: John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda. Instead of a heavy-handed school-lesson biopic laden with “importance,” Ford’s film is a restrained, lyrical, and deeply affecting movie with nothing pretentious or condescending about it. Without being scaled for “greatness,” or pandering in its patriotism, Young Mr. Lincoln is truly inspiring and not at all dated.
Aided by an outstanding makeup job, Fonda is simply miraculous in the role. Unself-conscious with regard to playing a legendary historical figure, Fonda is faultlessly convincing as a seemingly ordinary man capable of extraordinary things. His plain style naturally avoids sentimentality and corniness. And he also finds opportunities to be quite funny in an easy, offhand way (such as when he judges a fair’s pie contest). Then there’s Fonda’s rich subtext of Lincoln’s enduring sense of loss. After the deaths of his mother and sister, and the death of Ann Rutledge (after one idyllic romantic scene), mortality hovers over Abe. With quiet, gentle simplicity, Fonda suggests private depths of painful feeling.
In her final film, Alice Brady earns the Oscar she won for In Old Chicago (1937) for her moving performance as a country woman whose two sons are unjustly charged with murder. The courtroom scenes, with Lincoln defending the boys, are strikingly fresh and informal (and highly amusing), with Fonda a subdued yet wily presence. Another highlight is Fonda’s speech in which he prevents a mob from lynching the boys, a forerunner to similar scenes in Stars in My Crown (1950) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The film’s only misstep may be the unnecessary final shot of the Lincoln memorial, which feels like the kind of thing tacked on by studio bosses.
Young Mr. Lincoln was the first collaboration between Ford and Fonda, a partnership that went on to produce, among others, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946), a union arguably as important to Ford’s filmography as his association with John Wayne. So, as the media buzzes about a third directing Oscar for Spielberg and a third acting Oscar for Day-Lewis, you might be interested to know that Fonda’s magnificent performance and Ford’s rustic yet poetic direction received no Oscar nods. But their beautiful film continues to stand tall.