Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Whether dramatizing the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl or re-staging one of the Wild West’s greatest gunfights, John Ford’s films with Henry Fonda have a ring of truth rarely found in his work with other actors. There is an innately American quality to Fonda’s work that probably explains Ford’s insistence that he play Abraham Lincoln in the first of their seven films together (Fonda does not appear in Ford’s segment of How the West Was Won (1962). Fonda didn’t agree, feeling intimidated at the thought of playing the great president, even as a young man. When Ford insisted he make a screen test in full makeup, it convinced the actor he could pull off the role. Of course the story is highly fictionalized. Although details of Lincoln’s backwoods background, his doomed love for Ann Rutledge and his eventual courtship of Mary Todd are all accurate, the case on which the film is based, his defense of William “Duff” Armstrong, differed significantly from what happens in the film. Most notably, Lincoln defended Armstrong in 1858 when he was already an established lawyer and considering a Senate run. In the film, he takes the case at the start of his career. Fonda’s quiet integrity and the simplicity and eloquence of Ford’s filmmaking, however, make it seem like history unfolding before your eyes.

(d. John Ford, 100m, 35mm) 

In attendance: Peter Fonda, Keith Carradine