Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)



Director:  John Ford

Starring:  Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln),  Alice Brady (Abigail Clay),  Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd),  Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge),  Donald Meek (Prosecutor John Felder),  Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay),  Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay),  Ward Bond (John Palmer Cass).

This time Lincoln is played by Henry Fonda as a struggling lawyer.  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

New Salem, Illinois, 1832.  John T. Stuart speaks to a small group of men about sending him back to the state legislature.  He then introduces Abraham Lincoln who gives a very short speech.  He ends with:  "If elected, I shall be thankful.  If not, it'll be all the same."  Abe runs the general store and some people passing through on a Conestoga wagon need some flannel material, but don't have the money to pay for it.  Abe says they can pay him later.  The wife mentions that there is a barrel they have that has some books in it.  Abe's ears perk up and he goes to the back of the wagon to look at the barrel.  He finds Blackstone's Commentaries dealing with the law.  He is happy to get the book.

Abe studies the book down by the river.  The pretty Ann Rutledge comes by and speaks with Abe.  Abe plays the humble soul but Ann tells him that even though he won't admit it, deep down he is ambitious.  He tells her that she is very pretty. 

The seasons turn and it's winter.  Abe goes down to the river bank where Ann Rutledge is buried.  He places fresh flowers on her grave.  He lets the way a stick falls decide whether or not he should go into the law.  It falls toward Ann's headstone so he decides to go into law.

A notice appears in the Springfield newspaper:  " J. T. Stuart and A. Lincoln.  Attorneys and Counselors at Law, will practice, conjointly, in the Courts of this Judicial Circuit  --  Office no. 4.  Hoffman's Row, up stairs.  Springfield, April 12, 1837." 

Abe arbitrates a dispute between two neighbors even though he has to tell them about the time in the Black Hawk War when he had to bust two stubborn heads together to get a settlement.  The disputing neighbors get the point and agree to a settlement.  It's Independence Day and Springfield is holding a grand parade.  Abe goes over to sit by Ninian Edwards and his wife.  The wife introduces Abe to her sister Mary Todd  who is just visiting from Lexington, Kentucky.  And sitting besides Mary is Senator Douglas.  Abe is quiet, but Mary speaks to him saying her sister has been saying some very nice things about him.  She says she understands that he is in the state legislature.  Abe replies that he was in the legislature.  Douglas explains that Lincoln is practicing law with John Stuart, Douglas's opponent for Congress. 

Abe judges a pie making competition and then wins a rail splitting contest.  One of the local bullies,  Scrub White, bothers the wife of Matt Clay and a fight is narrowly averted.  The last event of the evening is a huge tar barrel bonfire. During the event the drunken bully comes back and picks a fight with Adam.  In the fight the bully dies from a knife blade thrust into his heart.  The sheriff is called out to investigate what happened.  John Palmer Cass, a friend of Scrub White, tells the sheriff that one of the two Clay brothers killed Scrub.  The sheriff says they equally share in the deed, so he arrests both men.  The crowd is stirred up enough by the local hotheads that they soon form a lynch mob. 

Abe goes over to the mother of the Clay boys and tells her that they have to hurry to save her sons.  The woman looks at Abe and asks who is he?  Abe thinks for a second and then says:  "I'm your lawyer."  The men grab a tree log and start busting down the jail door.  Lincoln works his way forward and gets between the door and the tree log.  The men tell him to get out of there, but Lincoln bravely won't budge until they listen to him.  Lincoln now says that he can beat any man among them.  A big fellow named Buck comes forward, but quickly backs out. 

The mob still wants to hang somebody, so Lincoln starts saying that he's just a lawyer starting out and they are trying to take his first clients from him.  He then launches into a talk against men taking the law into their own hands.  Such men are just as likely to hang an innocent man as a guilty one, says Lincoln.  He asks the men to let there be a little pomp and ceremony about the case.  The mob finally breaks up. 

Mother Clay and the young women with her are very grateful to Lincoln for saving their men.  Lincoln assure them that he will do what he can for the Clay men.

Mary Todd invites Lincoln to a party given by Mrs. Edwards and some of her friends. 

Abe arrives and sees the people dancing.  He makes the men laugh.  Douglas dances with Mary Todd.  Since Abe doesn't come over to Mary, Mary comes over to him and says she would be very glad to dance this dance with him.  Lincoln is a terrible dancer, so Mary asks him to go outside on the porch with her where they can talk.  The porch has a beautiful view of the river.

Lincoln and Efe go out riding the circuit.  Abe plays Dixie on his Jew's harp.  They go out to see Mrs. Clay and Sarah.  Their little place reminds Abe of his days in Kentucky when his mother used to read to him by the fire.  Mrs. Clay gets a letter from her son Adam and Abe reads it to the mother.  Then he asks Mrs. Clay to tell him about her two sons.  He asks her straight out:  "Mrs. Clay, which one of your boys killed Scrub White?"  Mrs.. Clay says she just can't tell Abe, even if he is their lawyer. 

The trial starts and the court is out of order.  The judge, Herbert A. Bell, finally gets the people silenced.  Lincoln picks a jury.  He argues that the defendants just acted in self-defense.  Scrub White had a pistol and the boys defended themselves.  Lincoln cross-examines J. Palmer Cass.  He says that he will call the man Jack Cass and gets a big laugh from the crowd.  The prosecutor calls Mrs. Clay as a witness.  He offers to let one of her boys go, if she will tell the jury which boy killed Scrub White.  Lincoln objects to what the prosecutor is asking from Mrs. Clay.  He defends the common decency and honor of such a woman.  The prosecutor withdraws the question and lets the witness step down. 

Cass is recalled to the stand.  He says he was 100 yards away from the fight and saw it.  Cass now says that it was Matt who killed Scrub White.  Adam shouts that it ain't so. 

Up in his office at night Abe plays his Jew's harp.  He looks down at the street and sees Mary Todd riding in a carriage with Mr. Douglas.  The judge comes up to talk with Lincoln.  He says he will asks Mr. Douglas to lend Lincoln a hand in the defense of his clients.  Lincoln tells him no.  He promised the folks he would fight until the very last and that's just what he intends to do. 

The defense wants to question Palmer Cass again.  Cass sticks to his story and Lincoln lets him stand down.  But just as Cass is going to leave the witness stand area, Lincoln asks Cass what did he have against Scrub White?  He had to have had something against Scrub White because he is the one who killed the man.  Lincoln then uses the Farmer's Alamanac to prove that it was not "moon bright" on the night of the murder.  It was a quarter moon and it set before Scrub White was killed.  Lincoln keeps the pressure on Cass until the man cracks and says he didn't mean to kill Scrub White.   

Lincoln wins the case.  He is congratulated by Mary Todd and then by Stephen Douglas. 

Lincoln says goodbye to the Clay family.  Adam's fiancée gives Lincoln a kiss for saving Adam and Matt.


A good film, even if it is heavily fictionalized.  I enjoyed it and was surprised by the trial ending.  I'm not an artist type person, so I don't even usually try to analyze films from an artistic point of view.  In the text accompanying the film, Geoffrey O'Brien writes about the film:  "In Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford achieves the perfection of his art.  Never were his matter and his method more aptly fitted, and never were his tendencies toward sprawl and overemphasis more rigorously controlled.  It is a masterpiece of concision in which every element in every shot, ever ratio, every movement, every shift of viewpoint seems dense with significance, yet it breathes an air of casual improvisation."   Henry Fonda was very good as Lincoln. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



Historical Background:



1809  --  born near Hodgenville, Ky., in a backwoods cabin.  His father, Thomas, was a descendant of a weaver's apprentice who had migrated from England to Massachusetts in 1637.  Mother is Nancy Hanks, of illegitimate birth.  She is described as sad and fervently religious.  

1811  --  family moves to a farm in the neighboring valley of Knob Creek.

1816  --  facing a lawsuit challenging the title to his Kentucky farm, Thomas Lincoln moves with the family to southwestern Indiana where they become squatters on public land.  He buys the land later on.  

1818  --  loses his mother when he is only at age nine.  She is buried in the forest.

1919  -- Thomas Lincoln marries Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with two girls and a boy. She is very good to Abraham and he later refers to her as his "angel mother."

He goes to school "by littles"--a little now and a little then-- not adding up to more than a year in total.

1830 --  family moves to Illinois. He is now 21 and six feet four inches tall. His voice was said to be somewhat high and he spoke with a backwoods twang.

He has different occupations, including rail-splitter and flatboatman. Settles in New Salem, Illinois where he works as storekeeper, postmaster, and surveyor.

1832  -- Black Hawk War (1832); Abe enlists as a volunteer and is elected captain of his company. He sees no action in the war.  

1834-1840  --  elected as a Whig member of the Illinois State Legislature four times. Becomes a lawyer.  

1835  --  Ann Rutledge, a friend of whom he was fond, dies and Lincoln grieves over the untimely loss.

1836   --  halfhearted courtship with Mary Owens, but she turns down his marriage proposal.

1836  --  passes the bar exam and begins to practice law.

1837  --  moves to Springfield, Illinois, the new state capital.  Meets Mary Todd who was of a rather distinguished Kentucky family.  In Springfield her relatives belonged to the social aristocracy of the town.

1837  -- Resolutions are introduced in response to the mob murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an antislavery newspaperman of Alton. Instead of denouncing the lynch law, these resolutions condemned abolitionist societies and upheld slavery within the Southern states as "sacred" by virtue of the federal Constitution. Together with a fellow member, Lincoln draws up a protest against them. But he was no abolitionist, maintaining that slavery was "founded on both injustice and bad policy," but that "the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils."

1841  -- Lincoln breaks the engagement, but is overwhelmed by depression.

1842  -- marries Mary Todd. They have four boys together.  Robert would be the only one to survive to adulthood.  Tad, who had a cleft palate and a lisp, was Lincoln's favorite.

1844  -- becomes partners with William H. Herndon. He does well in his practice.  He becomes a circuit riding lawyer.

1850  -- arrival of the railroads.  Lincoln becomes a lobbyist for the Illinois Central Railroad and then a regular attorney for that railroad.  He becomes one of Illinois's most distinguished and successful lawyers.

1846  --  runs for congress.  

1847-49  --  Lincoln proposes a bill for the gradual and compensated emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia, but the bill is to take effect only with the approval of the "free white citizens" of the district.  This pleases neither the abolitionists or the slaveholders.

Along with other members of his party, Lincoln votes to condemn Polk and the Mexican war while voting for supplies to carry it on. Lincoln works for election of the war hero Zachary Taylor.  Lincoln's criticisms of the war were unpopular n his home area and he was deeply frustrated with politics.  He reemerges five years later with the arrival of a new sectional crisis.

1854 --  his political rival Stephen A. Douglas maneuvers through Congress a bill for reopening the entire Louisiana Purchase to slavery and allowing the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska (with "popular sovereignty") to decide for themselves whether to permit slaveholding in those territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked violent opposition in Illinois and the other states of the old Northwest. It gave rise to the Republican Party while speeding the Whig Party on its way to disintegration.

1856  --  Lincoln becomes a Republican.  

1858  -- He challenges the incumbent Douglas for the Illinois Senate seat .  The Lincoln-Douglas debates becomes a part of American historical lore.  Lincoln insisted that Congress must exclude slavery from the territories "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." He predicts that the country eventually will become "all one thing, or all the other."  Lincoln loses the election.  

1860  -- a compilation of the debates, along with a biography of himself, becomes a best-seller.

1860  --  Lincoln is nominated on the third ballot at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. He wins and shortly after the Southern states secede from the union.  


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