#33 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
It’s pretty evident that John Ford idolized the 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln has appeared as a cameo in a couple of his earlier films, but it’s here that Ford finally tackles him head on in a borderline hagiographic take on the man that eludes any sense of fault and robbing him of a certain sense of humanity. Combined with a rather rote courtroom drama sourced from a real case Lincoln tried (though only loosely based on it), the total of the film actually ends up surprisingly good considering the parts. I’m going to complain too much for this review considering how much I actually like the film, but that just happens sometimes.
It’s 1830s Illinois and Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda, looking a whole lot like Lincoln thanks to a good makeup job), and the young man is looking to get his start in the law. He’s a bit awkward but always ready to tell the perfect little folksy fable to disarm those around him, and the loss of his sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) convinces him to begin on his profession. He shows up in Springfield where he collects his legal fee for small conflicts between neighbors until the big Independence Day festival where Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam Clay (Eddie Quillan) are responsible for the death of Skrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.). There’s a mob mentality that wants to lynch both young men right then and there, but Lincoln’s folksy way gets them to calm down and let the legal process begin.
Lincoln gets to know the boys’ family, led by their mother Abigail (Alice Brady) whom reminds Lincoln of his own departed mother. And yet, he can’t even get her to admit to him which one of the two brothers was the one who actually stuck the knife into White.
None of this is bad at all, but it’s just kind of easy. Lincoln never really feels like a person or even a character because he’s simply too good. Reminding me of a similar issue with Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, another film about an impossibly good man in trying times, Young Mr. Lincoln ends up interweaving the simplistic take on a great man into the courtroom drama where the Lincoln persona is allowed to shine most brightly in an environment that’s naturally tailored for it. It’s a combination of elements that are really subpar and elevates them both at the same time.
Lincoln is up against the prosecutor John Felder (Donald Meek) who seems to be in the stronger position since there are no other suspects in the murder, and there is definitely a dead man killed by a knife as evidence. The jury selection and witness testimony gives Fonda plenty of time to portray the aw shucks charm of Lincoln, making the predictable series of events more entertaining than they would otherwise be. And the events are predictable with Lincoln taking the path of affirmatively getting someone else to confess to the crime instead of establishing reasonable doubt on the charges against his clients. It feels unreal, but anchored by Fonda’s charming take on Lincoln, it’s relatively easy to forgive.
The effort to entertain overcomes the desire to highlight anything like reality, and the package ends up somewhat mixed with entertaining results. It’s, I think, what would later become known as Oscar Bait. I don’t think Ford set out to make this film to win awards, but it’s the same kind of safe film, sort of ripped from the pages of history and centered around a central performance based on a real person, that the Oscars would become known for. That’s not to say that this is bad at all, it’s just less than what it seems to be from the outside. It’s a John Ford movie that tackles Abraham Lincoln head on! Except it’s really just a minor film with enough entertainment to sustain its 100 minutes and not a whole lot else.
Fonda is sure disarming as Honest Abe, though.