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The Criterion Collection presents
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

"Gentlemen and fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I'm plain Abraham Lincoln."
- Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: May 05, 2006

Stars: Henry Fonda
Other Stars: Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan, Eddie Collins, Pauline Moore, Richard Cromwell, Donald Meek, Judith Dickens, Eddie Quillan, Spencer Charters, Ward Bond, Milburn Stone, Cliff Clark, Steven Randall, Charles Tannen, Francis Ford, Fred Kohler Jr., Kay Linaker
Director: John Ford

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (a scene of violence)
Run Time: 01h:40m:11s
Release Date: February 14, 2006
UPC: 715515016728
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-A-B B+

DVD Review

Abraham Lincoln stands as the embodiment of the American Ideal. Born to a poor family and persevering through many personal ordeals, the man who became our 16th president is larger than life now, having saved the nation during the Civil War and rising to the level of a god in our nation's psyche. Of course, historians will point out many of Lincoln's flaws as both a man and a politician, reminding the 21st-century citizen that there's no such thing as a perfect man. Nevertheless, there is a magical quality to Honest Abe that cannot be tainted. It is this magical quality that Young Mr. Lincoln vividly captures, with its seemingly simplistic aesthetic and story.

Truthfully, Lamar Trotti's screenplay is more a loose collection of anecdotes than a genuine narrative. Beginning in 1832, Lincoln (Henry Fonda) addresses his fellow citizens of Illinois from a porch, announcing his candidacy for the Congress. Director John Ford effectively establishes the character of Lincoln in his film by distancing him from the crowd, subtly conveying that, despite Lincoln personifying democratic ideals, he is above the common citizen in intellect and integrity. Fonda plays Lincoln as a great-man-in-the-making, choosing to embellish his performance in the social awkwardness of the character. His Lincoln is more comfortable relaxing by a river, reading a law book upside down than changing the course of history.

Ford stages every scene as if it is a moment onto itself, such as when Springfield hosts a major parade. Sentiment and populism are in full effect here, with indelible portrayals of Abe judging a pie contest and showcasing his well-known knack for log splitting. However, there are forces at work contrary to the Americana on-goings of the festival. A family from the country finds themselves harassed by the Sheriff's deputy, "Scrub" White (Fred Kohler Jr.). Late at night, the two sons, Matt and Adam (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan, respectively), are locked in a heated struggle with White. When White's friend, J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond), arrives to stop it, it seems the two boys have stabbed White to death. Now the young, nave Lincoln must put his legal skills to work.

While this is technically the film's centerpiece, the trial is handled in a relaxed manner. Loosely based upon Lincoln's real life defense of William Armstrong, the trial is more about Lincoln's skills at leading people to a just decision. Ford uses it almost as a parable for the Civil War, managing to have Steven Douglas and Mary Todd weave themselves into Lincoln's affairs. Personally, I find the actual trial scenes somewhat tedious. From the judge who sneaks a nap during opening statements, to the drunkard who hiccups at inopportune moments for the prosecutor (played with great wit by Donald Meek), Ford barely manages to avoid parody.

The film's strength derives from its quiet moments, as when Lincoln interacts with the Clays or plays Dixie in his office. It is easy to imagine Fonda's Lincoln sitting in the White House, looking out over the Potomac as the nation tears itself apart. While his performance is not able to capture Lincoln's persona as well as Raymond Massey's in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Fonda works well with Ford in establishing Lincoln as the outsider looking in. In their first collaboration, the director and star become one. So effective are they together that the rest of the cast almost seems to disappear. Lincoln's immense intelligence seems largely missing in this portrait, but his integrity comes through with a resounding boom. The final moments resonate strongly, with a solitary Lincoln marching up a hill as it begins to rain, and carry more weight than anything else in the whole film.

The filmmaking is intricate to this portrayal of Lincoln, with cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur Miller creating compositions to accentuate Lincoln's place in history, often framing him on a different plane than the other characters. Alfred Newman's score contributes to the film immeasurably, striking the somber undertone of things to come while simultaneously rejoicing in Lincoln's righteousness. John Ford helms his film with restraint, allowing the character to be the driving force. This isn't Ford's best film, but Abe Lincoln is easily the most important character in his canon.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.33:1 RSDL image transfer looks very good. There are some print defects on certain shots, but the picture is quite clean overall. Contrast is good and blacks are extremely impressive. However, the picture does come across as soft in certain spots and there's a slight shimmer to the image on occasion.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono audio mix preserves the original theatrical experience quite nicely. Dialogue is always audible, the score sounds lovely, and the whole track contains a crisp, clean ambience.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Inserta 28-page booklet featuring essays by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.
  2. Parkinson: "Meets Henry Fonda"a 1971 BBC TV interview with Henry Fonda.
  3. Dan Ford Interviewsaudio interviews of John Ford and Henry Fonda, by grandson Dan Ford.
  4. Academy Award Theatera radio adaptation of Young Mr. Lincoln, featuring Henry Fonda.
  5. Gallerya collection of still photos, the movie poster, script excerpts, and a letter by Sergei Eisenstein.
Extras Review: The Criterion Collection provides an impressive collection of supplemental material for this release, starting with a highly worthwhile insert. Geoffrey O'Brien's Hero in Waiting is an intelligent critique of the film, providing good reflection on its themes and aesthetical design. Even more enjoyable is the legendary Sergei Eisenstein's Mr. Lincoln by Mr. Ford. The essay is more about Eisenstein's own views of Lincoln than an analysis of the movie, but he does offer some insightful thoughts on what Young Mr. Lincoln's importance in turbulent times.

The remainder of the extras is found on the second disc. Beginning with two BBC television specials, this collection of material provides a comprehensive look at the film and its two driving talents. Omnibus: John Ford, Part One (42m:17s) is hosted by filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. This 1992 documentary thoroughly examines Ford's early life and career through archival footage and interviews with Ford, John Wayne, grandson Dan Ford, and countless others. I can't recall a single work that captures this man's talent and personality better than this one. The second TV special, Parkinson: Meets Henry Fonda (49m:04s), is an interview with the film's star. Fonda is very likable and intelligent here, telling numerous anecdotes about his career, his personal life, and specifically talks about his relationship with Ford. Don't miss either of these special features.

Following that are two Dan Ford Interviews. While researching a book about his grandfather, Ford recorded these two interviews with the director and Fonda. These are only excerpts, however, relating specifically to the movie. The first, with John Ford (07m:27s), is dry. Ford is slow and meandering in his speech, offering little information about Young Mr. Lincoln. The second, with Henry Fonda (04m:31s), repeats some of the BBC interview's material. However, he does communicate his experiences working on the film with enthusiasm.

Next is an Academy Award Theater presentation of the story (29m:52s). This radio adaptation aired on July 10, 1946 and does a great disservice to the movie. All the humor and charm is missing. Only Henry Fonda's reprisal of Lincoln makes this at all entertaining, because the rest of the cast is flat and the story is focused solely on the trial, providing absolutely no context for the characters.

Everything wraps up with a gallery featuring excerpts from the script's final draft, the movie's original poster, and a reproduction of Sergei Eisenstein's "fan letter" to Ford. The script pages are quite fascinating because all the material presented is of scenes not found in the final cutas well as some stills from these missing scenes. There's even an alternate ending that thankfully did not make the film. The Eisenstein letter is also fascinating, giving viewers a rare opportunity to see candid discourse between filmmakers.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

With Steven Spielberg and Liam Neeson about to embark on their own Abraham Lincoln project, they would be wise to study Young Mr. Lincoln. The Criterion Collection once again succeeds at bringing a classic film to life on DVD, with an impeccable transfer and excellent supplementals.


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