The film was Young Mr. Lincoln, made by director John Ford for 20th Century-Fox in 1939 — and, as Charles pointed out afterwards, of the three films we’ve recently watched in which Abraham Lincoln was the leading character (the others were D. W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln with Walter Huston and the recent Steven Spielberg Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis), it’s the least accurate historically but also the best. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the project was actually begun by Winfield Sheehan, Darryl F. Zanuck’s immediate predecessor as head of production at Fox (Zanuck came in when his production company, 20th Century Pictures, merged with Fox to get its studio facilities and distribution network), who asked writer Howard Estabrook for a script depicting Abraham Lincoln as a young man and approached independent producer Walter Wanger for a loan-out on actor Henry Fonda to play the lead. (Though Wanger held Fonda’s contract, he did a lot of work at Fox in the late 1930’s, and he and Fox contractee Tyrone Power were jealous of each other: Fonda was jealous of Power because he got to be in the big, super-popular commercial blockbusters that paid the bills at the studio and kept it profitable, and Power was jealous of Fonda because he got to be in the prestige movies like this one and The Grapes of Wrath that got A-list directors like John Ford and were given good reviews by critics and Academy Award nominations.) When he took over the studio, Zanuck put the Lincoln project on ice until the success of Robert Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois caused writer Lamar Trotti to dig up Estabrook’s script and urge Zanuck to green-light it, though by the time the film was ready for the cameras Trotti had so completely rewritten it that he was the sole screenwriter credited. Zanuck briefly considered offering the part of Lincoln to Tyrone Power, but ended up using Fonda — despite Fonda’s misgivings on the ground that playing Lincoln would be “like playing God.” Fonda eventually made the film, and it’s a good thing he did because his performance is superb; aided by great makeup by Clay Campbell (who gave him Lincoln’s sunken cheeks) Fonda looks like a Matthew Brady or Alexander Gardner photo of Lincoln suddenly come to life, and his high-lying natural voice fits the descriptions of Lincoln’s voice by those who actually heard it without him having to screw up his natural intonations the way Daniel Day-Lewis did.
What’s more, he manages to take the mythical secular-saint aspects of Lincoln — particularly the contrast between his humility and his talents — that have become part of the Lincoln legend (to quote the famous line from a later Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”) even though it’s hard to believe Lincoln was really as humble as he’s portrayed in all these movies. The hard-nosed political negotiator of the Spielberg Lincoln is probably closer to the real man than the mythic portrayals of Walter Huston, Fonda and Raymond Massey (star of Abe Lincoln in Illinois on stage, screen and, later, TV), and the way Lincoln made his living between withdrawing from Congress in 1848 (he decided not to run for re-election because he knew he’d lose due to his opposition to the Mexican War) and his emergence as a national political figure when he ran against Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1858 was as a lawyer representing railroads in their efforts to low-ball bids to small farmers for rights-of-way, not exactly the stuff of which legends are made. Indeed, Lamar Trotti built the climax of Young Mr. Lincoln on a case Lincoln handled in 1858 but moved it back to the 1830’s: in the film, Lincoln is working as a dry-goods merchant (and doing badly at it) when a pioneer family passes through New Salem, Illinois and asks him for canvas. They don’t have money to pay for it, but they have several barrels in the back of their wagon and agree to trade him the barrels, and their contents, for the cloth. The pioneer family is headed by Abigail Clay (Alice Brady, in a marvelous serious performance almost unrecognizable as the same woman who played her most famous role, as Ginger Rogers’ ditzy aunt in The Gay Divorcée) and her two sons. One of the barrels contains law books, and on that revelation Lincoln’s eyes light up (and the almost orgasmic glow of pleasure Henry Fonda conjures up to indicate how Lincoln, who barely had any formal education to that point, is turned on by the prospect of being able to self-study the law is one of the high points of his performance).
He reads Blackstone’s Commentaries incessantly, even when he’s out with his girlfriend Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore, a good deal more credible in the role than the weirdly but creatively cast Una Merkel in the Griffith film), and there’s a dramatic cut between a scene in which she’s urging him to go to a bigger city and make something of himself and a shot of ice floes being carried down a river — which makes it look for a moment as if Ann Rutledge died of drowning in an icy river instead of typhoid fever. Lincoln decides to drop a stick to the ground between himself and her tombstone — if it falls towards him he’ll stay in New Salem and continue to try to eke out a living as a merchant; if it falls towards her grave he’ll go to Springfield and set himself up as a lawyer (at a time when law school wasn’t a requirement; if you could find an already licensed lawyer to apprentice with you could earn the right to practice that way). The stick falls towards Ann’s tombstone (though Lincoln gives an aside to the camera that he did lean it a little in her direction) and he’s in Springfield, apprenticed to attorney John Stuart and mostly setting disputes between farmers over land. He also encounters Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), who for once in a Lincoln movie is portrayed as witty, charming and a plausible match for him; when they meet she’s dating Stephen A. Douglas (Milburn Stone) but she spurns him for Lincoln. At a big Fourth of July celebration Lincoln judges a pie-baking contest, finding himself unable to decide between an apple and a peach pie (I couldn’t resist an obvious pun on one of the real Lincoln’s most famous speeches: “A pie cannot endure half apple and half peach”). He also ends up at the end of a tug-of-war and witnesses a ceremony in which tar-filled barrels are burned. Abigail Clay is in Springfield with her two sons, Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam (Eddie Quillan), along with Matt’s wife Kate and Adam’s fiancée Carrie Sue (credited to Judith Dickens, though she’s never actually seen in the film — and neither the American Film Institute Catalog nor imdb.com list an actress playing Kate, even though she is seen), and during the tar-barrel burning Matt and Adam get into an altercation with a local named Scrub Davis (Fred Kohler, Jr.) during which Davis is stabbed to death.
The Clay sons are put on trial for murder, with John Felder (Donald Meek — whose presence and role in this movie are an even weirder bit of off-casting than Alice Brady’s!) as the prosecutor and Herbert A. Bell (Spencer Charters) as the judge — though before the trial begins Lincoln has to talk the townspeople out of lynching his clients (eerily anticipating Fonda’s role in The Ox-Bow Incident four years later — later Fonda would tell interviewers he had personally witnessed a lynching during his boyhood in Nebraska and the evil of it had stayed with him all these years). The judge shows his dedication and the al fresco nature of the proceedings by falling asleep during Felder’s opening argument, and the trial continues with John Palmer Cass (John Ford regular Ward Bond) as the key witness against the Clays. There’s a crisis of conscience when Abigail Clay is on the stand and she’s being pressured to name which of her sons committed the murder — and she refuses to say because she’s not about to let one of her sons be hanged even if that’s the price of saving the other one. It turns out that neither Clay brother killed Davis; Lincoln, who previously had taken a farmers’ almanac from Abigail Clay because he had gone there without paper and he wanted to take notes on her story, realizes that Cass was lying when he said the light was “moon bright” on the night of the murder when in fact the moon was just coming out of its crescent phase. (Charles pointed out that a community of farmers, living in an era before electric light, would have been well aware of what phase the moon was in, especially on a night like the Fourth of July where there was a big outdoor celebration that went on well after dark.) From this Lincoln deduces that Cass himself killed Davis and set the Clays up for the fall. Witnessing the trial, Stephen Douglas decides that Lincoln will be a worthy political opponent and Mary Todd decides he’ll be a worthy husband for her. The film ends with the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being played by an unseen orchestra and choir as Lincoln walks off over a hill in front of a red-filtered sky.
It’s true that Young Mr. Lincoln is a conscious exercise in myth-making and every element of filmmaking, including director Ford at the height of his powers, is being used to portray Lincoln the secular saint, the greatest man in American history. It’s also true that Young Mr. Lincoln is absolutely riveting drama, perfectly cast, ravishingly photographed (by Bert Glennon — who was equally successful as a cinematographer for Josef von Sternberg and John Ford, despite their very different styles and priorities as directors — and an uncredited Arthur Miller), eloquently written by Trotti (with some help from Lincoln himself — the little “My politics are short and sweet” speech with which Lincoln announces his candidacy for the Illinois state legislature was taken from the one Lincoln actually gave on that occasion, and his statement that he favors “internal improvements” deserves note because that was 19th-century speak for “infrastructure”), with a lovely and refreshingly tasteful score by Alfred Newman — this is one movie from the classic era that is not drowned in too much music — and a triumph for John Ford, Henry Fonda and everyone connected with it. At this moment I’d have to name Fonda as my all-time favorite movie Lincoln; he just seems so right for the role, physically and vocally (an imdb.com contributor says he wore elevator shoes, but because he was taller than Walter Huston at least his shoes didn’t have to be quite so “elevated” and he’s clearly comfortable in his movements, which Huston obviously wasn’t through much of the Griffith film), I can’t help but wish Zanuck had assigned Ford to make two or three more Lincoln movies with Fonda and created a Lincoln cycle that would have been a film (or series) for the ages.
 — Which he expressed in terms that seem eerily prescient today: on February 15, 1848 he wrote to his law partner, William Herndon, “The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.”