21 July 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln, How Ford (and Fonda) Met the Challenge

I watched Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) yesterday and I could only wonder what type of film it wold have been for a viewer who'd never heard of Abraham Lincoln.

Of course you're not likely to find such a person in the United States whose old enough and sane enough to appreciated a movie.

There are plenty of films based on actual events and/or people that some people watch ignorant of those actual events or real people. I sheepishly confess to not having known a thing about James Whale before seeing Gods and Monsters (1998). An argument over whether it is preferable to know a little, a lot or nothing about events and people in films can make for an interesting parlor game. The short answer is that it depends on the subject matter. It may be a topic worth exploring in the future.

But when the topic is Lincoln there's no use kidding ourselves. Audiences know at the least the outlines of his story and have generally formed an opinion on him and usually its quite favorable.

So the challenge for the great director John Ford in making a film about someone of Lincoln's pre presidential years was impressive. Although based on what I know of Ford he wouldn't have viewed it as anything special. He certainly would not have allowed publicly that it was a daunting task.

The risk in telling a story about so iconic an American figure is not to pile on to the mythologizing. He is perhaps America's most revered historical figure. More so than either Washington or Jefferson, both of whom are forever tainted to many because of their ownership of slaves. Lincoln of course was The Great Emancipator. (I'd gotten so much about Lincoln by the time I was about six or seven that once in bed with the lights out I feared that his ghost, stovepipe hat and all, lurked in my closet.)

Ford talked Henry Fonda into taking the role. Fonda was reluctant, quite rightly arguing that it was akin to playing God himself. As it turned out he was right to take the role and probably could have played God too, if he'd a mind too. He was a much better Lincoln than Raymond Massey who played him in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Massey was good but he was acting, Fonda became Lincoln. (Some Lincoln scholars have noted that, based on contemporary reports, Lincoln's voice was much closer to Fonda's than Massey's).

Okay so how do I justify writing, and with italics no less, that Fonda became Lincoln? First of all while I'm no spring chicken I am not old enough to have met Honest Abe. But when you've read as much as I have about Lincoln (you can't do much better than Doris Kearns Goodwins, Team of Rivals) I believe you've earned some license in intuiting what a person was like. But really to be raised in this country is to be immersed in Lincoln and have a sense of him so I suppose we're all allowed. In any event, Fonda got the manner, the posture and darn near anything else related to Lincoln you can think of.

So that's a good start. But it was still up to Ford to ensure that the movie did not do either of two things: 1) Conflict with the zeitgeist of Lincoln; or 2) Be mawkish and overly sentimentalized.

Young Mr. Lincoln follows Abe in his early days as a Springfield lawyer. Culminating in his successful defense of accused murderers. Events have been embellished, altered, even outright made up. But that's okay because this film is about a man. At the very least the spirit of the man. Ford knew that the best way to present a character, particularly one so famous, was to focus on events and supporting players. He had audiences looking at the man in contrast to what and who swirled around him.

Yes, there are camera shots and set pieces that emphasize Lincoln's stature, but he was clearly a man of presence so that was appropriate. Plus it is part of Ford's film-making style.

Ford and Fonda's Lincoln is a witty, humble, down home charmer. He is a contemplative man. But he also cheats at tug-of-war and is an indecisive pie contest judge and a terrible dancer. He's Lincoln not God.

Best of all he's not long winded. Ford never liked giving his stars too many lines. This belief was a positive boon in telling a story about Lincoln. Many directors wouldn't have been unable to resist having the great orator prattle on. Ford let other characters talk and have screen time. This helped make Lincoln stand out when he acted and spoke.

So we watch a film about Lincoln, knowing what we do and nothing can change that. We're really not going to learn many new "facts" or "information" about the man, at least not in this film. Lincoln the myth will remain in tact, indeed it will be affirmed. Young Mr. Lincoln is a comforting movie in that respect. But perhaps more importantly we are entertained. The film sure looks like the Midwest America in the 1830's. Fonda sure looks and acts like we think Lincoln did. We get an engaging story told by a masterful director.

I can't think of anything else you'd want.

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