Abraham Lincoln is a towering American figure, his mythos looming large over America’s history. 1939 was also a towering year for American movies. Considered by many to be the greatest year in Hollywood’s history, 1939 saw released in that single year: “Gone With The Wind,” “Ninotchka,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Also released that year was John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach.” A film Ford followed up that same year with “Young Mr. Lincoln.”
“Young Mr. Lincoln,” which was recently released for the first time on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, stars Henry Fonda not as Lincoln the president, but Lincoln the small town lawyer. As the film begins it’s a bit disorienting at first seeing Fonda. Prosthetics were applied to his face to make him have more of Lincoln’s profile—it’s a fantastic job and it takes a while for you to see Fonda in the makeup. That disorienting sensation being seeing the face of Lincoln, but hearing the familiar voice of Fonda coming out.
Lincoln takes up defending two men passing through Springfield, Illinois—the men are brothers, and they’re accused of murder. The film is largely fictional, but the murder case is based on an actual 1858 murder trial that Lincoln was involved in. Fonda is fantastic in the film, giving one of the great performances of his career. What I found so interesting about “Young Mr. Lincoln” is the way the film transitions from a historical biopic—with all the usual trappings of showing signs of the President to come in the young man—to very a taught and well-made courtroom drama.
This may sound like an odd analogy, and I mean it as the highest of compliments, but as the trial gets closer and closer to its conclusion, it kind of feels like an episode of the great TV legal drama “Perry Mason.” A series that I’m quite a fan of. This added an unanticipated layer of enjoyment to this wonderful movie for me. Quietly imagining in my mind an alternate universe version of “Perry Mason” with Abraham Lincoln instead of Raymond Burr.
The cast is rounded out by Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, and Arleen Whelan. Ford’s frequent cinematographer Bert Glennon, gives “Young Mr. Lincoln” a beautiful black and white image that truly shines on Criterion’s blu-ray. I was so taken by the depth and clarity of the picture that I was shocked to learn, in the included booklet, that the transfer wasn’t made from a nitrate negative, but an original 35mm nitrate print, with damaged portions of that print filled in from a 35mm safety stock fine grain. Nitrate being a tortuously volatile film stock that deteriorates to dust and can explode—it has the components of gunpowder in it.
Special features in this must-own blu-ray include an audio commentary by film scholar Joseph McBride, A profile of director John Ford’s life and work before World War II, A talk show appearance by Henry Fonda from 1975, audio interviews from the ‘70s with Ford and Fonda, conducted by the director’s grandson Dan Ford. Closing out the extras is a radio dramatization of the film. The booklet included with the film not only lists technical info on the film’s restoration, but also an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, and an homage to Ford by Sergei Eisenstein.
The Criterion Collection has done their usual astonishing job bringing “Young Mr. Lincoln” to blu-ray, it’s a great film, and this new edition of it is simply sparkling. Fonda is fantastic, and even if you don’t think historical dramas are your thing, I think you’d find plenty to enjoy here. Highly recommended. See you next week.