YOUNG MR. LINCOLN
Review by Gordon Justesen
Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan
Director: John Ford
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: January 9, 2018
“Does J. Palmer Cass have something to hide?”
“Then what do you part your name in the middle for?”
“I got a right to call myself anything I want as long as it’s my own name.”
“Well then if it’s all the same to you, I’ll call you Jack-ass.”
Few directors managed to be both highly influential and expectation defying (as well as all around intimidating) as John Ford. After making perhaps the most grandiose western of the era, Stagecoach, Ford’s next film would come out just a few months later that same year. And as many would expect another grand western out of him, Ford took a different direction with his most poetic look at our most beloved President’s younger years.
Young Mr. Lincoln was the first of many collaborations between Ford and actor Henry Fonda, which later included The Grapes of Wrath and How the West Was Won. Ford wonderfully captures a pre-Presidential Abraham Lincoln at a time when politics wasn’t even a consideration in his life. At this time, two decades before entering the White House, he was a simple man just getting his foot in the door in the way of being a small town lawyer.
The main focus here is a murder trial in which Lincoln took part in as defense attorney. He was defending the Clay brothers, Adam (Eddie Quillan) and Matt (Richard Cromwell). The two were accused of stabbing to death a town bully by the name of Scrub during a brief brawl during a public celebration.
The film also manages to fit in a most bittersweet opening where Abe meets his first true love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), only to lose her to sudden unexpected death. But it isn’t too long before he crosses paths with a young woman named Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), and the rest is history. These segments of the film are well placed vignettes around the murder trial, which is easily the centerpiece.
While not surpassing Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering work in the same role, Fonda is nonetheless remarkable in bringing to life Lincoln in a chapter in his life unfamiliar to most, when he had not yet become the larger than life figure. He executes this role with the actor’s usual level of grace and charm. And it’s during the many courtroom scenes where Fonda’s performance really shines.
And Ford keeps all the proceedings running terrifically in a tightly packaged 100 minute running time. Young Mr. Lincoln is a most rousing chronicle piece perfectly realized by a top notch teaming of director and actor.
Ever since gracing their releases with 4k restorations, Criterion has given yet another reason to get excited about their Blu-ray releases...especially in the handling of older titles such as this. The glorious Black and White photography has been given even more life thanks to the amazing restoration. Image detail and texture are exceedingly well defined and the darks are particularly rich as can be. It’s illustrative proof that Criterion is kicking off the new year right!
A most solid PCM mono mix serves this classic pic tremendously well. Dialogue delivery is the front and center attraction and every word is magnificently heard. The uses of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” during the opening and, especially, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the close of the film are also heard in most wonderful sounding form!
Some wonderful features to be found on this Criterion Blu-ray, starting with a new commentary with film scholar Joseph McBride. We also get “Omnibus: John Ford”, Part One, which features filmmaker Lindsay Anderson’s profile of the life and work of the director before World War II. In addition, there’s also a “Parkinson” talk show appearance by actor Henry Fonda from 1975, audio interviews from the seventies with both Ford and Fonda, conducted by the director’s grandson, Dan Ford. Lastly, there is an Academy Award radio dramatization of the film, which is most engaging to listen to. Also included is an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O Brien and an homage to Ford by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.
Young Mr. Lincoln may not be John Ford’s most memorable film, but it did represent a bold departure for the filmmaker normally associated with the western, and helped establish him as a poetic visionary. It was the start of a lengthy working relationship with him and Henry Fonda, which only got stronger over time. And as expected, this Criterion Blu-ray is a pure knockout and a must own release!