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Henry Fonda makes as good a Lincoln as Daniel Day-Lewis

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of 12 Years A SlaveThe Fifth EstateKill Your Darlings, and Camille Claudel 1915—all opening in the next few days—we single out some exceptional biopics.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Exuding nobility, modesty, and down-home wit, Henry Fonda assumes the iconic top hat as America’s 16th president in Young Mr. Lincoln. Far from a traditional decades-spanning biopic, John Ford’s drama instead provides a snapshot of a moment in Lincoln’s life—specifically, his journey in 1839 to Springfield, Illinois, where he sets up shop as a lawyer and comes to represent two young men accused of murdering a third during the town’s July Fourth festivities. That case turns the later half of Ford’s film into a somewhat straightforward courtroom drama, in which immense odds and various pressures put Lincoln’s triumph in potential doubt. Yet it’s the earlier passages that establish the seeds of the man’s greatness. Through scenes of him treating the discovery of a law book like treasure, or using both brawn and wit to win at carnival games (and to turn away an angry mob hell-bent on lynching), Ford solidifies his portrait of Lincoln as something of a mythic folksy giant.


Young Mr. Lincoln’s legal wrangling is, especially from today’s perspective, more than a little cornball and, from a procedural standpoint, twice as implausible. Yet Ford justifies this material by so endearingly lionizing his protagonist. Repeatedly framing Fonda as a towering figure of casual confidence and righteousness—his body seems to loom over everyone else—the film visually accentuates the future president’s unimpeachable virtue. That he takes up the central case without profit in mind but, rather, out of a clear sense of right and wrong (as well as a fondness for the defendant’s family members, who remind him of his own) simply furthers the film’s notion of Lincoln as a man driven even at a young age by both logic and compassion—and thus someone well-prepared for the coming storm of war into which he symbolically walks at story’s end.

Availability: Young Mr. Lincoln is available on Criterion DVD, to stream through Netflix, and to watch for free, in its entirety, on YouTube.

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