Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

“By jing, that’s all there is to it: right and wrong.”

Young lawyer Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) defends a pair of brothers (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan) accused of murdering a bully (Fred Kohler, Jr.).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Ford Films
  • Lawyers
  • Ward Bond Films

Henry Fonda apparently had to be cajoled by director John Ford into starring in this fictionalized but true-in-spirit biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s pre-Presidency days. Focusing primarily on one of Lincoln’s most famous cases as a young lawyer, Ford and screenwriter Lamar Trotti use this scenario as a platform to showcase Lincoln’s emergent skills as a gifted speaker, humorist, politician, and amateur sleuth. Meanwhile, we see snippets from other known aspects of Lincoln’s young life — including his facility with log-splitting (he was surprisingly strong and agile):

… his tragic first love with Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore):

… his crush on Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver):

… and his general preference for thinking and reading while lying prone.

What’s perhaps most delightful about the film is the way in which it humanizes a mythic figure: Lincoln is portrayed not only as brilliant and highly ethical (he’s consistently attempting to make sense of the world through his evolving moral perspective), but as a flesh-and-blood man with a quick tongue, pugilistic tendencies, and lack of self-confidence. Key to this characterization, of course, is Fonda’s uncanny embodiment of Lincoln — thanks in part to a prosthetic nose and make-up:

but mostly to Fonda’s talents; other than his lead role the following year as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), this is likely his finest performance onscreen. Also of note is Ford’s assured directorial hand: as usual, he frames each scene strategically, with such an eye for harmonious balance and carefully crafted juxtapositions that one is reminded why he’s considered one of America’s all-time greatest directors.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as young Abe Lincoln (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Alice Brady as Abigail Clay
  • Expert direction by Ford

  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Fonda’s performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)


One thought on “Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history and for Fonda’s performance.

    In complete agreement with the review, so there’s little to add. Since this film only covers a small part of Lincoln’s early career, it’s rather safe to forget that it’s about Lincoln at all. Although Fonda is indeed commendable here in one of his better (more committed) performances, the film works quite well as a compelling courtroom drama. Trotti’s script is sharp with nicely delineated characterizations for the cast to embody.

    I wouldn’t say this is a film that merits multiple viewings – it’s straightforward, simple…a well-told tale. But it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that does show why Ford is one of the best American directors, and a viewing is definitely recommended for all film fanatics.

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