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Young Mr. Lincoln

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Young Mr. Lincoln
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Written byLamar Trotti
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Kenneth Macgowan
StarringHenry Fonda
Alice Brady
Marjorie Weaver
Arleen Whelan
CinematographyBert Glennon
Arthur C. Miller
Edited byWalter Thompson
Music byAlfred Newman
Distributed by20th Century-Fox
Release date
  • June 9, 1939 (1939-06-09)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1,500,000 (estimated)

Young Mr. Lincoln is a 1939 American biographical drama western film about the early life of President Abraham Lincoln, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.[1][2] Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck fought for control of the film, to the point where Ford destroyed unwanted takes for fear the studio would use them in the film.[citation needed] Screenwriter Lamar Trotti was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing/Original Story.

In 2003, Young Mr. Lincoln was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


In 1832, a family traveling through New Salem, Illinois in their wagon need groceries from Lincoln's store, and the only thing of value that they have to trade is a barrel of old books including a law book, Blackstone's Commentaries. After thoroughly reading the book, Lincoln opts for the law after receiving encouragement from his early, ill-fated love, Ann Rutledge, who soon dies. Too poor to own even a horse, he arrives in Springfield, Illinois, on a mule and soon establishes a law practice in 1837 with his friend, John Stuart. After a raucous, day-long Independence Day celebration, a man, Skrub White, is killed after he pulled a gun in a fight. The accused are two brothers, Matt and Adam Clay. Lincoln prevents the lynching of the accused at the jail by shaming the angry, drunken mob. He also convinces it that he really needs the clients for his first real case.

Admiring his courage, Mary Todd invites Lincoln to her sister's soiree. Despite being aggressively courted by the very polished Stephen Douglas, Mary is interested in Lincoln. She faithfully attends the trial of the Clay boys, sits in the front row, and listens closely.

The boys' mother, Abigail Clay, who witnessed the end of the fight, and Lincoln are pressured by the prosecutor to save one of the brothers at the expense of the other's conviction. However, the key witness to the crime, J. Palmer Cass, is a friend of the victim who claims to have seen the murder at a distance of about 100 yards under the light of the moon: "It was moon bright". However, Lincoln persists and is able, by using an almanac, to demonstrate that on the night in question, the moon had set before the time of death. He then drives Cass to confess that he had actually stabbed his friend.


Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln


The film has as its basis the murder case against William "Duff" Armstrong, which took place in 1858 at the courthouse in Beardstown, Illinois, the only courthouse in which Lincoln practiced law that is still in use. Lincoln proved the witness against the accused was lying about being able to see by the light of the Moon, using an almanac. Armstrong was acquitted.

Critical reception[edit]

In a favorable review for The New York Times, Frank Nugent wrote that the film's tableaux of scenes and characters gave the film "the right to be called Americana," and praised Fonda's performance:

Henry Fonda's characterization is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon things: a crossroads meeting of nature, art and a smart casting director. Nature gave Mr. Fonda long legs and arms, a strong and honest face and a slow smile; the make-up man added a new nose bridge.... [Fonda's] performance kindles the film, makes it a moving unity, at once gentle and quizzically comic.[4]

In an essay that not only discusses the film but also sheds light on the Soviet view of Lincoln's career and mythos, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein named Young Mr. Lincoln as the one American film that he most wishes he had made, lauding its "harmony," the "stylized daguerrotype manner" of its photography, and the sympathy and subtlety with which it portrays Lincoln, whom Eisenstein likens to Russian folk hero Ilya Muromets.[5]


Young Mr. Lincoln was adapted as a radio play on the July 10, 1946, episode of Academy Award Theater.[6]

The Village Theatre of Everett and Issaquah, Washington has commissioned a new musical based on the film titled Lincoln in Love, book and lyrics by Peter S. Kellogg and music by David Friedman.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Variety film review; June 7, 1939, page 12.
  2. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; June 17, 1939, page 94.
  3. ^ Gallagher, Tag (April 20, 1988). John Ford: The Man and His Films. ISBN 9780520063341.
  4. ^ Nugent, Frank (June 3, 1939). "The Screen; Twentieth Century-Fox's Young Mr. Lincoln' Is a Human and Humorous Film of the Prairie Years". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2024.
  5. ^ Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Essays and a Lecture, Jay Leyda, ed., pp.139-149 (Praeger Publishers, 1970) (retrieved Jan. 7, 2024).
  6. ^ Academy Award Theater archives at the Internet Archive

External links[edit]