Judge Joe Armenio probably wouldn't have wanted to hang out with John Ford, but he sure does love the man's films.
"Ann died, too."
Young Mr. Lincoln is one of three films made in 1939 by John Ford. It tends to occupy a higher place in the Ford canon than the Revolutionary War epic Drums Along the Mohawk, but is not quite as renowned as Stagecoach, which is usually said to have reinvigorated both the Western as a genre and John Wayne's career. On paper, Young Mr. Lincoln doesn't seem especially promising; any dramatization of Lincoln's life, even if it avoids his presidency, runs the risk of merely being pretty, earnest, and pious, even in the hands of a first-rate director. Young Mr. Lincoln, though, is a masterpiece, a profound exploration of memory and loss.
Facts of the Case
This anecdotal film begins with the self-effacing, awkward young Abe (Henry Fonda, My Darling Clementine) presenting a less-than-inspiring stump speech and follows him through the beginning of his law career and the death of his sweetheart Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore, The Three Musketeers). The second half of the movie is more conventionally plotted as it follows Lincoln's defense of two brothers accused of murder.
Most analyses of the film focus on Ford's and screenwriter Lamar Trotti's portrait of Lincoln, which manages to mythologize him in rather moving and subtle ways; the qualities which would characterize our hero's victorious but tragic leadership in the Civil War are illustrated through anecdote rather than presented to us in lecture form and, while the film's central conflict is a rather overt metaphor for the war, the point is suggested rather than hammered home (except for the very last scene). Lincoln is presented here as a strong but peaceful frontier democrat, his quiet, awkward, folksy demeanor the outward manifestation of a deep humility, a wise sadness at human folly, and an awareness that his attempts to reconcile opposing forces, despite the occasional temporary victory, are doomed but necessary. Fonda was legendarily wary of the part, but his performance is perfect, embodying all these qualities in each lanky movement and each cautiously sly bon mot. Ford, a! s usual, proceeds slowly through this world, less concerned with story than with atmosphere, lingering over his compositions, the best of which are unforgettable: Fonda, framed alone against the jail after having talked down a lynch mob; the sharp, fearful triangular pose of the wives and mother of the accused men, and the murder scene, shown in an ominous long shot, smoke rising from the gunshot fired. Above all, there is Abe's single, tentative riverside conversation with the doomed Ann Rutledge; at the end of this, he throws a pebble into the water, an evanescent ripple produced by the impact. A devastating dissolve takes us then to her gravestone.
In a way Ann Rutledge is the central figure in Young Mr. Lincoln, the character whose constant presence in Abe's mind lifts the film above even the most well-crafted biopics and makes it something else entirely, a film saturated with loss, obsessed with memory. The cinematic image has an inherent poignancy because it is an attempt to stop time. Like all such attempts, it's a failure, but a thrilling failure because it brings the past so close. It is a captured moment which we can see but not touch, whose pathos we can understand but not feel directly. This effect is the source of the mixed joy and pain we feel when watching old home movies; there is the triumph of recapturing events that had turned to mush in our memories, but the sadness of knowing that the image is only an image, not real in the way we want it to be. It is also the source of the blinking, disoriented disappointment we feel when leaving a movie theater in the daylight. In the dark, artfully manipulat! ed, the simulation had been enough, the past had been recaptured, death cheated; with the magic act over, all that's left is the drive home, dinner plans, bumbling analyses of the film.
This need for images is the best way I can think of to describe my own movie obsession, although it's not a feeling that I'm necessarily aware of most of the time, or the kind of thing I would mention on a first date ("Let's go see a movie so I can escape Time"). I can suggest from my own experience as a movie addict that maybe the obsession with films is similar to the obsession with the past; maybe the cinephile's image-hunger is a way of dealing with memory-hunger, a substitute for the futile attempt to give substance to one's memories.
If John Ford happened to still be with us and I mentioned any of this to him, I'm sure he would cuss me out with the vigor he reserved for the most pretentious of interviewers and I would probably deserve it, but how else to explain the effect of Young Mr. Lincoln? This is a movie which is obsessed with the passage of time, with loss and with memory (both personal and historical), exploring these themes with a grace and power unknown to many theoretically more self-conscious films. It is meant as a sort of national home movie, a sad glance at a time forever gone, both more innocent and retrospectively rich with foreshadowing, pregnant with the disasters to come. Within the narrative itself, Mr. Lincoln is consumed with the memory of his relationship with Ann Rutledge, which was brief, idyllic, unfulfilled, and forever gone. Whenever he sees the river where they almost said what they wanted to say, Abe is lost in reverie, in his own private movie, you could say;! the river, which seems deathless, is the symbol both of his lost moment and the timelessness which exists just outside of his grasp. At one point, Abe visits his clients' family: he tells their mother that she reminds him of his own dead mother, tells young Sarah Clay (the wife of one brother) that she reminds him of his dead sister, and finally tells Carrie Sue, the other brother's girlfriend, that she reminds him of Ann. "Ann died, too," he says softly, looking down and away, and it's a shattering moment, as he is struck with the terrible fragility of things, unable to reconcile the life in front of him with the flickering, insubstantial memory-movie which is all that remains of the dead.
Young Mr. Lincoln is, of course, not a perfect film. The courtroom sequence, while expertly handled, is less original and striking than the free-form first part of the movie and, at times, Lincoln's folksiness and wily faux-simplicity can be a bit irritating (he suspects that Ward Bond's character, J. Palmer Cass, may be a criminal because he "parts his name in the middle," an arbitrary bit of populist bigotry). But these are just minor quibbles; no movie is flawless, but the best are so overwhelmingly good that the faults don't seem to matter. Yes, Young Mr. Lincoln is that overwhelmingly good: it stands with the best of this major director's work.
Criterion's transfer contains the occasional print defect, but the black-and-white image is sharp, the blacks deep and resonant, and it seems unlikely that a better transfer is possible. The film is contained on the first disc (with no commentary track, unfortunately) and the extras on a second. The first major supplement is a 46-minute documentary on the early part of Ford's career, prepared for British television by filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson (director of If…, among other films). The film is perhaps most valuable for its clips from early Ford films that are not readily available, such as his first effort, the Harry Carey western Straight Shootin' (1917). Anderson also discusses Ford's first big success, The Iron Horse (again, we get some substantial clips from the film), his flirtation with Expressionism (illustrated with clips from Four Sons), and his relationship with screenwriter Dudley Nichols and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, culm! inating in his highly successful pre-war run of films, which included Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. The biographical info and analysis that Anderson provides is nothing that one couldn't get from Joseph McBride's biography, Searching for John Ford, but the film is worth watching for the clips from Ford's work and archival footage of the cantankerous master himself (including a painful sequence in which he chews out a French interviewer).
Also included is a 49-minute interview with Henry Fonda, made for British TV in 1975 by an elaborately coiffed host named Michael Parkinson. Fonda was a guarded, private person (to put it charitably) and his stories have a slightly canned quality to them, although his discussion of the beginning of his acting career seems warm and sincere, and the account of his first meeting with John Ford has the ring of truth: he says Ford berated him, cursing him out for not wanting to play Abe Lincoln and "shaming" him into playing the part; actor and director went on to make eight films together. Fonda also plays down the dissension between himself and his radical kids, Jane and Peter, overpraising them with a defensive fulsomeness. Another brief audio interview with Fonda (seven minutes) is included on the bonus disc; this one was conducted by Dan Ford, John's grandson, and consists mainly of Fonda repeating the story of his first meeting with the director. Dan Ford also int! erviewed his grandfather and we hear an alternate version of the Fonda-Ford meeting story, which is considerably less convincing (John Ford was well known for spinning tales).
Academy Award Theater was a short-lived radio show which presented radio adaptations of famous films. The half-hour adaptation of Young Mr. Lincoln included here is from 1946 and includes Fonda and Ward Bond recreating their roles from the film. It's perhaps most interesting as an example of the lost art of radio adaptation; the story is pared down to the essentials of the plot, dealing only with the murder and Lincoln's defense of the two men (the wife and girlfriend of the Clay boys are omitted, as is Ann Rutledge). Finally, we have a gallery of production stills and promotional material, along with images of Lamar Trotti's original screenplay, which turns out to be far more expansive than the film (the Ann Rutledge scene is longer and more involved, as is the ending). The booklet that comes along with the two-disc set contains an insightful essay from critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a piece that the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein wrote about Young Mr! . Lincoln (anyone who's seen Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible will recognize compositions which he cribbed from Ford).
It always bugs me when Ford is dismissed as merely an unthinking patriot and reactionary. To be fair, Ford sometimes cultivated this image himself; he liked to be seen as a humble artisan, approaching filmmaking as "a job of work," uncomplicatedly devoted to mother, home, and country. The best of his films tell a different, more complicated story, though, as anyone who approaches Young Mr. Lincoln with an open mind can see.
An early candidate for disc of the year.
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Scales of Justice
• Omnibus: "John Ford, Part One"
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