Thursday, July 29, 2021

Henry Fonda is “Young Mr. Lincoln”

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is an American biographical film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. It was produced by 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Kenneth Macgowan. The film was photographed by long-time Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon. The supporting cast includes Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey), Marjorie Weaver, Donald Meek (Stagecoach), Ward Bond, and Milburn Stone (Gunsmoke). The screenplay was written by Lamar Totti; he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original screenplay.

Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln

The film takes place in 1832 and is a fictionalization of the early career of Abraham Lincoln during his days in New Salem, Illinois. During Independence Day festivities, a man named Skrub White (Fed Kohler Jr.) has a scuffle with two brothers, Matt and Adam Clay (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan). When White pulls a gun on the brothers, he is stabbed and killed. Neither brother will accuse the other and both are put on trial for murder. Lincoln defends the brothers matching wits with the experienced prosecutor John Felder (Meek).

The case against the brothers rests with the eye-witness testimony of John Palmer Cass. Will Lincoln be able to challenge his testimony? Will the brothers be hanged for murder?

Young Mr. Lincoln trivia:
  • Henry Fonda was reluctant to play Lincoln, equating playing the Great Emancipator to playing Jesus Christ.
  • Fonda wore special boots to make him appear taller.
  • Makeup for Fonda was based on photographs of Lincoln at about age 45.
  • This was Alice Brady’s last film; she died of cancer several months after the film wrapped.
  • Lincoln used an almanac to dispute eyewitness testimony in a real case.

To watch the movie on YouTube click the link below.

Why watch this film?
  • This was the first collaboration between John Ford and Henry Fonda, a collaboration that produced six films including The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
  • The myth surrounding Abraham Lincoln is partly due to this fictionalization of his life.
  • Henry Fonda gives one of his greatest characterizations on film.
  • The production including the cinematography is first-rate.

Questions for discussion:
  1. What did you think of Henry Fonda as Lincoln? Was he believable in the role?
  2. Were you bothered by the fact that some liberty was taken with the actual facts of Lincoln’s life?
  3. The film featured a strong supporting cast including Ward Bond, a Ford Stock Company regular. Did any of the supporting cast stand out to you?
  4. Did anything surprise you (not including the loose history) about the film?

To join on on Zoom for a discussion of this film on August 2, 2021, 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click here.
Once you RSVP, you’ll receive an invitation and links to the discussion on Zoom.

Honest Abe or Henry Fonda?

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