Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

young mr lincoln poster 1939 movie
8.0 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Short and simple, Henry Fonda

Not historically accurate

Movie Info

Movie Name:   Young Mr. Lincoln

Studio:   Cosmopolitan Productions

Genre(s):   Drama

Release Date(s):   May 30, 1939

MPAA Rating:   Not Rated

young mr lincoln ann rutledge grave henry fonda

I’ll be the best lawyer ever Ann…or my name isn’t Young Mr. Lincoln

When a man is murdered in a fight, two brothers find themselves on trial for his stabbing.  Fortunately for the men, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) has stepped up and taken their case.  With a town enraged against the brothers, Lincoln must find a way to clear their name and spare them from the gallows as he seeks to win his first legal case ever.

Directed by John Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln is a historic drama.  The film received positive reviews and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2003, and the Criterion Collection also released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #320).

Historical dramas are generally long and bloated by today’s standards.  The fact that Young Mr. Lincoln is only a little over an hour and a half made it appealing right away.  During the film, John Ford was in battle with the producer Darryl F. Zanuck for control and would destroy other takes of scenes to prevent him from reediting the film.  Watching the movie, it was a fun little film even though it isn’t very historically accurate.

young mr lincoln henry fonda court

I reckon I’m going to be turning a phrase or two in a moment

The story is basic.  Lincoln defends two accused murders.  It is based on the case of William Armstrong so a lot of liberties were taken with the story and the film cannot be taken as a historical reference.  I almost wish that the movie was expanded more and showed more of Lincoln’s life outside of the trial.

Henry Fonda does a great job as Lincoln.  Lincoln was known for his wit and delivery and the movie really all about Lincoln.  There is a supporting cast, but they barely seem present even Marjorie Weaver as the future Mrs. Lincoln or Pauline Moore as the doomed Ann Rutledge.  The only other actor in the movie which really feels fleshed out is Alice Brady as the mournful mother Abigail Clay who finds both her sons facing death.  I also kind of like Donald Meek as the stereotypical “evil” prosecutor trying to trick witnesses into stumbling and lead the court to a conviction…but who is totally outclassed by Lincoln.

young mr lincoln trial henry fonda

I just want to remind you that I’m smarter than you and I will crush you

The movie is very basic with a few set.  Despite this, Ford gives the sets real dimension and feeling.  The movie was smartly shot in black-and-white which gives it a nice solid historic feel (I don’t know that cost of color film at this time would have really paid off with this story).  I never thought Henry Fonda resembled Lincoln, but he is made up very similar to the classic portrayals of the president.

John Ford was always a solid director, and Young Mr. Lincoln is another example of it.  While it seems obvious what was going to happen in the movie, Ford and the script manage to keep you guessing on which direction it will go.  Combine this with Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Lincoln and you have a solid movie that holds up over time.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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