Friday, May 30, 2014

Hollywood's Young Mr. Lincoln

"I may not know much of law, Mr. Felder, but I know what's right and what's wrong. And I know what you're asking is wrong."

Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda)

The last time I watched "Young Mr. Lincoln," which premiered 75 years ago today, it occurred to me that it is always a treat to watch Henry Fonda — especially when he is appearing in a John Ford movie.

I've heard that Fonda was usually hesitant to play historical figures, especially people like Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, he didn't feel worthy. He didn't think he measured up.

But I can't think of any of his contemporaries who would have been a better choice to play the young Abe Lincoln — and, in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II literally only months away, folks needed a Lincoln to inspire them.

In the absence of the real thing, a surrogate was needed. Who would have been better than Henry Fonda? For that matter, who would have been a better choice to direct the movie than John Ford?

And, apparently, Fonda relaxed his policy when he learned that Ford's project told the story of Lincoln who had yet to mature into the president Americans remember today. It was not the story of Lincoln's presidency; in fact, the movie ended just before Lincoln took the oath of office.

I realize that most Americans don't know much of their own country's history, but Abraham Lincoln was larger than life, even in his lifetime. Nearly four dozen men have been president of the United States; only a handful are familiar to nearly all Americans living today, and Lincoln is one of them.

Nevertheless, most Americans know little of his life before the presidency, and "Young Mr. Lincoln" was a wonderful opportunity for Americans of 75 years ago to learn a little about what shaped Lincoln into the man he became. It is still a wonderful opportunity for Americans to learn about their 16th president — but I wouldn't recommend it as a source for a term paper.

Ford is probably best remembered for the many movies he made with John Wayne, but he and Fonda enjoyed a productive relationship, too. Over two decades, they made seven films together. "Young Mr. Lincoln" was their first — and one of their best.

That isn't intended as a criticism. The Fonda–Ford association produced some of the greatest movies in Hollywood history. The year after the premiere of "Young Mr. Lincoln," they made "The Grapes of Wrath" together. In between, they made "Drums Along the Mohawk."

"Young Mr. Lincoln" wasn't as successful as Ford's most recent project at the time, "Stagecoach" with John Wayne, but it has been described as "a deeper, more multi–leveled work."

One of those levels that may well surprise modern viewers is the one that deals with Lincoln's love life. Both of the significant women in his adult life are important characters in "Young Mr. Lincoln" — Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln's first love who might have been first lady but died of typhoid at the age of 22, and Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), who did become first lady.

Moore's part in the movie was short–lived, but her character's influence could be felt throughout the telling of the story of Lincoln's formative years. She died at a point in Lincoln's life when his values were being defined, and the value that comes through loud and clear is compassion.

It's a fictionalized account of Lincoln's life, of course, but Lincoln's compassion wasn't fiction. There are plenty of examples of that compassion in the true story of Lincoln's life, but it worked well as a fictional story, too, and Ford was a great story teller.

He got a little carried away, falling into the trap of treating Lincoln like a saint, which is a little surprising given that Ford was no more eager to make the film than Fonda was; there had been successful Broadway plays about Lincoln's youth in recent years, and Ford was only persuaded to make the movie after reading the script by Lamar Trotti, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Story.

Trotti lost to Lewis R. Foster for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" but won an Oscar five years later for "Wilson."

"Young Mr. Lincoln" received no other Oscar nominations.