#43) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Poster - Young Mr. Lincoln_01

#43) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

OR “Southside with Abe”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Lamar Trotti

Class of 2003

I wasn’t able to track down the film’s original trailer, so here’s the film’s recreation of a landmark moment in American history; Lincoln judging a pie contest.

The Plot: In the early 1830s young Abe (Henry Fonda) teaches himself common law and heads off to Springfield, Illinois to practice. His first big case involves two brothers (Richard Cromwell & Eddie Quillan) accused of murdering a man during a 4th of July celebration. Abe uses his book smarts, his keen eye of human behavior, and his average sized stovepipe hat to help defend the boys. And that man grew up to be President Abraham Lincoln. And now you know the rest of the story!

Why It Matters: The NFR cites this film alongside John Ford’s two other 1939 offerings; “Stagecoach” and “Drums Along the Mohawk”. They also point out that Ford and Fonda would collaborate six more times after this film. So for the record, nothing of note about the film itself, other than it was Fonda’s “most significant role up to that point”, a claim that would be eclipsed just eight months later.

But Does It Really?: Well, it’s definitely a step up from my previous Fonda screening, “The Ox-Bow Incident”. Being a John Ford film it can’t help but be interesting to watch, and Fonda gives a very strong performance here that is more Fonda than Lincoln, but I have no problem with that. As a biopic it’s a bit on the nose (there are more historical nods in this film than in “Shakespeare in Love”). As courtroom drama it’s a bit more engaging. As a classic film worthy of preservation, I have my doubts. I’m also convinced the NFR thought they were voting for “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which came out around the same time as this film.

Everybody Gets One: Rounding out the historical figures are Marjorie Weaver as Mary Todd, Pauline Moore as Ann Rutledge, and Milburn “Doc” Stone as Stephen Douglas. Slightly odd mention to Judith Dickins, who is credited for playing Carrie Sue, a character that’s not in the film. Now that’s a good agent. And as always, special mention to Fred Kohler Jr. as Scrub White, aka “The Vic”.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s not a John Ford film until someone vilifies Native Americans. In this case a “drunk Indian” killed Abigail’s husband. Also I was not expecting this film to discuss the origin of “The Jew’s Harp”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Facing competition from the bevy of films that made up “the greatest year for movies ever”, “Young Mr. Lincoln” received only one nomination; Best Original Story (a forerunner to the Original Screenplay category). It lost to the significantly more famous 1939 political film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Interestingly enough, that film’s only win at the Oscars).

Other notes

  • I don’t know the exact timeline, but John Ford made this film either right before or right after “Stagecoach”, arguably his first true classic. (UPDATE: It was right after)
  • As for historical accuracy, this film muddles the details, but overall gets things correct. The case that Lincoln tries is based on one that actually took place several years later right before he was a nominee for the Senate.
  • Kudos to that make-up team. There are some shots where Fonda looks just like Lincoln.
  • This may be the folksiest film on the Registry. I suddenly understand why “Matlock” was on the air for so long.
  • He runs into Stephen Douglas AND meets Mary Todd in the same scene? Does he shake hands with JFK too?
  • Yes, Honest Abe, the man who cheats in a tug o’ war contest.
  • Let’s all get our fingerprints over the murder weapon. Good idea everyone.
  • How come whenever Fonda shows up in a movie a lynch mob breaks out?
  • “By Gene”? Who’s Gene?
  • Awkward Lincoln trying to dance with Mary Todd is adorable.
  • There’s a passage in the score’s main romantic theme that keeps turning into “Ascot Gavotte” for a second.
  • Alice Brady kinda looks like she should be Patricia Neal’s mother. Also, I’m surprised Brady didn’t get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film. She was a previous winner, and this performance is the kind of “strong, protective mother” character type that has done well for others. Plus she died just after the film was released but before Oscar campaigning had begun. No room for one final nomination bouquet?
  • Ward Bond plays John Palmer Cass here. A favorite of John Ford’s (despite their very antagonistic relationship), Bond appears in 25 of his films. Bond is also in 14 films on the National Film Registry, which has got to be the record.


  • The film produced one sequel: “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”.
  • Though he did not portray Lincoln during his presidency, Henry Fonda did run for President in 1964’s “The Best Man”.
  • Tom Hanks
  • While Lincoln’s courtroom antics got laughter from the crowds, he didn’t attempt standup until many years later.
  • When it comes down to it there’s only two kinds of Lincoln movies; the ones where he’s a Vampire Hunter, and the ones where he isn’t.

Further Viewing: The aforementioned “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which covers most of the same territory as “Young Mr. Lincoln”, and throws in his first presidential campaign for good measure. Plus it’s got young Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd!

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