There isn’t much to this film. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, but I’ll get into that more in a bit.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is about, well, young Mr. Lincoln (Henry Fonda). Director John Ford, in his first collaboration with Fonda, offers us a fictionalized retelling of Lincoln’s early days as a lawyer in 1837 Spingfield, Illinois. Lincoln meets his future wife Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), gets a taste of his often tumultuous relationship with Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone), and handles his first murder trial.
One of the main thrusts of the story is the court case. Two young brothers (played by Eddie Quillan and Richard Cromwell) are charged with murder after a Fourth of July brawl with an unpleasant local man ends with a fatal knife wound to his body. The boys’ mother (Alice Brady) saw which son committed the crime, but she refuses to tell anyone, not wanting to pick which of her sons will face the hangman’s rope. Lincoln has developed a liking for the family, who remind him of his own, and decides to take up the case. The odds are stacked against the two boys and the town is itching to see them lynched. It is up to the inexperienced Lincoln to find a way of clearly the brothers.
I said the court case was a major thrust of the movie. That’s only slightly true. While it does serve as the film’s climax, the murder isn’t introduced until 30 minutes in and it takes another half-hour to get to the trial. Between those two points, that plot is developed a little when Lincoln visits the brothers’ mother and sisters to talk about the case. Most of that sequence, however, deals with the family’s and the similarities between them and the Lincolns. It further develops the characters and gives us more reason to care about them but leaves little time for what should be a larger portion of the movie.
Thankfully, the bulk of the last 40 minutes is centered on the case and the film takes its time with it. The trial is dramatic, a touch gripping, and even a little funny, but it needed more of the film for it to develop properly. Only three witnesses ever take the stand and the prosecutor (played by character actor Donald Meek) has the upper hand for all but the last few minutes of the trial. There needed to be additional witnesses, more evidence, and a back and forth between Lincoln and the prosecuting attorney where each had the advantage for a while. All that would’ve increased the tension and made a better movie. As is, the trial material in the film is good, but I wanted to see more of it.
Young Mr. Lincoln is really a character study of Lincoln. Most of the movie is spent on him interacting with town’s folk or notable people in his life like Marry Todd, Douglas, and Ann Rutledge, an early girlfriend who dies at a young age. We see that Lincoln is educated, fun loving, a jokester, a storyteller and is morally upright. The film doesn’t give us a very substantial study since it is mainly saying that Lincoln was a decent man standing up for the little guy, which probably shouldn’t surprise anyone with even a slight knowledge of American history.
While the character examination is lacking anything new to say and the trial is crammed into the last 40 minutes of the film, the movie is still enjoyable to watch due to Fonda’s endearing portrayal of the title role. Abe is honorable and pure 1930s hopeful America. The downside is his Lincoln is too perfect – which, to be fair, is more of a writing issue – and many times it felt more like I was watching Henry Fonda pretending to be Lincoln instead of the character taking over completely.
Even if it is far from Ford’s best work, the endearing performance given by Fonda and the entertainingly dramatic, if overally short, trial makes this a light, fun way to spend an hour-and-forty-minutes.