Henry Fonda’s best-known performance as a legendary historical character in a John Ford film is, of course, as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. Yet Fonda was more aptly cast, and gives a more vivid performance, five years earlier in their lesser-known first collaboration, Young Mr. Lincoln.
Rangy, folksy, slow-spoken and self-deprecating, Fonda embodies the young Honest Abe persona as comfortably and naturally as the frontier clothes he wears, and toys with the familiar top hat like a man contemplating a destiny that is both awkward and inevitable. He even looks the part to a surprising degree, with the familiar unruly hair and sunken cheeks.
Like My Darling Clementine, Young Mr. Lincoln isn’t much for history. On the other hand, where Clementine does deal with the central episode in the Earp mythos, the O.K. Corral, Young Mr. Lincoln is not so much a fictionalized account of the Lincoln mythos as a prelude to it. This is not Mr. Lincoln Goes to Washington, but a portrait of the future Great Emancipator as a young man, a self-taught lawyer with a disarming charisma and a down-home oratorial style.
The film briefly touches on Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), whose premature death from typhoid precipitated his first bout with depression, and his first encounters with Mary Todd, who would become his wife.
Anticipating My Darling Clementine’s famous dance sequence, Lincoln dances badly with Todd at a party, and her mocking banter (“Why, sir, at least you’re a man of honor — you said you wanted to dance with me in the worst way, and I must say that you’ve kept your word!”) perhaps hints at the future Mrs. Lincoln’s unstable “hellcat” reputation.
In one of the film’s more intriguing touches, Abe leaps at Mary’s suggestion that they leave the dance, go outside and talk — but once on the veranda the great orator falls silent, staring out into the night sky while Mary silently regards him. She down behind him waiting to see what he will do next.
Lincoln’s future as an orator is foreshadowed less by his courtroom theatrics in the rather conventional courtroom drama with which the film’s final act is taken up than by the jailhouse scene in which he stands down a mob bent on lynching two presumed murderers. (This scene also makes an interesting counterpoint to a later, less inspirational Fonda role in the lynch-mob drama The Ox‑Bow Incident.)
“We’ve gone to a heap of trouble not to have at least one hanging,” one man objects.
“Sure you have, Mac,” Abe acknowledges, easing tensions with a bit of humor. “And if these boys had more than one life, I’d say go ahead. Maybe a little hangin’ mightn’t do ’em any harm. But the sort of hangin’ you boys’d give ’em’d be so… so permanent!”
Then comes the serious point. “Trouble is, when men start takin’ the law into their own hands, they’re just as apt in all the confusion and fun to start hangin’ somebody who’s not a murderer as somebody who is. And the next thing you know, they’re hangin’ one another just for fun, till it gets to a place a man can’t pass a tree or look at a rope without feeling uneasy. We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.”
It may be hokum, but Young Mr. Lincoln is good old-fashioned Americana hokum, as only Ford could deliver it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.