Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln. Twentieth Century Fox 1939.
Young Mr. Lincoln. Twentieth Century Fox 1939.

Before watching the movie:

Okay, here’s one I’m completely unfamiliar with. It just came up in algorithmic suggestions, and I’m not really sure what to make of it. It occurs to me that in 1939, there were probably still people alive who had seen the Civil War, perhaps even usefully remember it.

I would not be surprised if this is a mostly fictional story suggested by Lincoln’s career as a lawyer. It looks on the surface more like a piece to venerate him than to explore a historical event worth exploring, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the late 30s remember one of our most notable presidents.

After watching the movie:

From study of a law book taken in trade for supplies from his store, and on the encouragement of his first love, honest, earnest Abraham Lincoln becomes a junior lawyer in the nearby town. He mainly settles cases too small for his partner’s attention, but then at the Fourth of July festivities, a pair of brothers defending themselves in a fight with a deputy both insist on taking the blame for the knife that ended in the man’s heart rather than condemn his brother, though without knowing for certain which did it, both are equally guilty by the law. Lincoln takes the case pro bono, and carries his clients’ innocence plea with plain-spoken wisdom and folksy quips.

It is a point of history little noted nor much remembered that Lincoln’s actual voice was described as uncomfortably high-pitched. He’s usually portrayed with a grave baritone more fitting his legend and stature, with very measured diction. Fonda’s Lincoln is not very gravelly, but his folksy tone is still very far from the “whistling kettle” contemporaries alluded to. Daniel Day-Lewis came closest, and as at this point he’s whom I’ve heard most, any deviation takes an adjustment.

This plays mostly as a courtroom drama. Once Lincoln is established, the story unfolds almost entirely in the legal proceedings, which are used as a device through which to further explore his character. Apparently, the case shown here is heavily fictionalized, though it does hinge on a real move Lincoln made in a real case, though much less dramatically.

In a manner familiar to prequels now, the movie spends a lot of nods and winks at what comes later, which are mostly on the order of borrowing his recorded words at moments they’re appropriate. However, the movie keeps showing Mary Todd being interested in getting to know him better but not really developing that as a plot thread. She’s just there, and we know they’re fated to be together, but they don’t do much of anything with it. Stephen Douglas pops up a few times as a more experienced lawyer, but again if we didn’t know he would be important in Lincoln’s life later, there wouldn’t be any significance to him. Of course, there’s a scene near the end with both of them, for people to make prescient fictional comments about each other.

I think the central point this movie hangs on, aside from showing Abe as a practically perfect person, a gift to the nation, is the scene where he’s reading Blackstone’s Commentaries and realizes that law isn’t as complicated as it seems, it’s just right and wrong. Every legal action he takes is motivated by his belief in what is right. I doubt the reality was so clear-cut, but the world needs examples to be invited to live up to, and some people’s lives call out to be made into examples. Would that we would use them as such more these days.


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One thought on “Young Mr. Lincoln

  1. Valerie March 3, 2017 / 9:08 am

    i like your last comment, about examples to live up to. The prevailing thought, throughout my lifetime anyway, seems to be showing life as bad as it gets.

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