written by guest blogger, Judge Robert McGahey
Some of us are old enough to remember when President’s Day didn’t exist. Instead, we got two national holidays in February: Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22. That recollection gave me the exact right movie for this month’s review: John Ford’s 1939 classic Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda (wearing a prosthetic nose you should ignore). While the Oscar-nominated story is highly fictionalized, its focus on justice, as exemplified by Lincoln, makes it well worth your time.
Early in the movie, we see the young Abe Lincoln running a store, none too successfully. He takes some books in trade, books that include Blackstone’s Commentaries on the English Common Law. He is immediately smitten with the idea of being a lawyer. We see him delving into those books and his recognition of what lies at the heart of the law: “By jing, that’s all there is to it. Right and wrong.”
The young Abe falls deeply in love, but tragedy strikes. He eventually decides to follow the path of becoming a lawyer. In those days, that didn’t require a formally legal education, and Lincoln was soon practicing law in Springfield, the capitol of Illinois. We see him in an hilarious (but effective) “negotiation,” witness his humor and the trust put in him by his fellow citizens.
And then, through a series of events, he is called on to represent two brothers accused of the murder of a deputy sheriff. How he goes about this is the core of the film and what makes it wondrous for those of us connected with the law. Lincoln uses humor, perception, and reason to plead his case, all the while aware of the potential dangers to his two clients and their loved ones, particularly their mother, played by Alice Brady. I won’t give away what happens, but Lincoln’s final cross-examination of the main eyewitness to the murder is a treat.
The movie is interesting as one of the few that actually shows voir dire. And watch for a lynch mob scene that would be referenced years later in To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps as a way of tying Atticus Finch to Abe Lincoln.
The film ends on a note that some may find corny, but that I’ve always found inspiring. Included in the cast are many of the famous “John Ford Stock Company”: Ward Bond, Donald Meek, Russell Simpson, and John Ford’s brother, Francis. There is Ford’s usual tight direction. (Ford was so concerned that the studio would edit the movie in a way he wouldn’t approve of that he destroyed all the takes he didn’t like just to prevent that.)
And, of course, it features Fonda’s brilliant portrayal of Lincoln. Fonda was reluctant to take the part, out of respect for Lincoln and his fear that he couldn’t do the sixteenth president justice. I think you’ll agree that he succeeded admirably. While there have been many portrayals of Lincoln, I think Fonda’s is still the best. I watch it thinking, “That’s what Lincoln looked like and sounded like.”
You’ll enjoy Young Mr. Lincoln for what it says about Lincoln, about the law, and about the justice we can find in courtrooms—and you don’t even need a holiday to see it.
 Many (including I) regard 1939 as the single greatest year in the history of American film. Released that year, among others, were Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, and Wuthering Heights. Ford directed three films that year, all classics: Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and the quintessential western, Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a star.