Young Mr Lincoln: The Wild Years

In this 1939 film, John Ford offers a rare glimpse of a young Abraham Lincoln cursing out his parents, making poor decisions, getting drunk and passing out in ditches...

Alright, alright, I may have exaggerated some of the sordid details.  But hey, that'd make a pretty awesome movie, yeah?

So Abraham Lincoln's a young man growing up in what appears to be East Jesus, Kentucky.  He's got a penchant for the book learning, but seems to be a bit insecure about his own intelligence, seeing that he ain't rightly ever set foot in no schoolhouse.  Luckily for Abe, he's got a pretty little girlfriend who believes in him and encourages him to make something of himself.  Unfortunately for Abe (and for the girl, I suppose), she dies after about two minutes of screentime.  Regardless, Abe decides to become a lawyer, no doubt due to her influence.

Abe packs up his rucksack and moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he quickly becomes a partner at a law firm.  Apparently in the 1800s getting a law degree was something only nerds did, because Abe gets by just fine with a few books and a little can do attitude.

After some time as a lawyer, Abe saves two men from a lynch mob.  They're accused of killing a man from the town, but Abe convinces the bloodthirsty mob that a trial would be way more fun than an execution.  Nice try, Abe.  Which movie's more fun: Dirty Harry or The Pelican Brief?

But in being all noble and courageous, Abe catches the eye of a pretty young Southern lady named Mary Todd (also known as Mary Todd Lincoln, sorry, spoilers).  After going to a fancy ball, this storyline is dropped with almost reckless abandon so that we can get to the trial.

Which boils down to this: two hillbilly boys (Adam and Matt Clay) get into a fight with another guy (Name Not Important Enough for Me to Remember) because he was tormenting their lady friends.  Random Guy starts to pull a gun, one of the brothers pulls a knife, they fight for the gun, the gun goes off, Random Guy's equally random friend rushes in, and when they all pull away, Random Guy is dead.  The Clay mama is the only one who was close enough to see who stabbed Random Guy, but she refuses to implicate either one of her sons.  So they're both charged with murder.

So they have the trial.  The prosecuting attorney uses some pretty appalling courtroom tactics (including berating the accused's mother on the witness stand), and for a while it seems like good old Abe is screwed.  But then, Random Guy's friend (whose name is apparently Jack Cass...that's precious) shows up as a witness, suddenly claiming that he saw the murder (on account it was "moon bright".  My prediction: it was a new moon).

Court is adjourned for the day, and when Abe comes back the next morning, he brings up the fact that the because of whatever phase the moon was in, it would not have been bright enough, and the moon would have already set on the night of the murder. (I am a genius.)  After shooting holes in the witness' statement, he goes on to finagle a confession out of Mr Cass.  Jesus, I want Abe to be my lawyer.

So the Clay brothers are allowed to go free, and Abe goes on to become president.  Yay for everyone!

Random Musings:

  • Awww...little Abe is taking the "Aw shucks, I'm just a plain old regular guy" approach to politics.  Who does he think he is, Jimmy Stewart?  Seriously though, having listened to his speech, I would totally vote for him.  Come on, he gave an adorable little bow at the end!  I just want to give him a hug and an ice cream cone!

  • I appreciate that they cast Henry Fonda, who was a pretty tall guy (6'1")...he really does seem to be a head and shoulders above everyone else on screen.

  • "Blackstone's Commentaries.  That's law," Abe says, examining a book eagerly.  "Law!" Random hillbilly woman interjects, "I knew that book was about something!"  Really?  You mean that books are, more often than not, about something??  Maybe you're the one who should be running for president! [/sarcasm]

  • "Well my brain gets to itchin' inside sometimes, I gotta scratch it." That may be lice.  Just saying.

  • This girl Ann seems nice, I hope she and Abe - oh shit she's dead.

  • "We'll let the stick decide.  If it falls toward me, I'll stay here as I always have.  If it falls backwards towards you, then it's the law."  I love that Abe is making this monumental career decision based on the downward trajectory of a stick.  I can't help but wonder what he would have been if the stick had fallen to either side, instead of forward or backward.  Maybe left was astronaut, and right was international spy?

  • Ummm...I'm pretty sure it's against the tug of war rules to tie the end of the rope to a horse and wagon.  Shame on you, Mr Lincoln.  Shame.  What happened to your principles?!  Say it ain't so, Joe.

  • Who are these random hillbillies?  Am I supposed to know who they are? Oh, I get it...Abe is going to defend the boys who killed the other redneck.

  • Oh shit, now there's a lynch mob.  See, this is what happens when people don't have TV.  They get bored and hang people.

  • OK, I've been sitting on this question for a while now, but what in the wide world of sports does "by jing" mean?

  • "We've gone to a lot of trouble not to have at least one hanging!"  Aw, you're right, you boys have tired yourselves out, you deserve to see at least one guy strangled to death.  Abe Lincoln is such a buzzkill.

  • Is it weird that whenever they mention his mother, Nancy Hanks, a small part of me wonders if Tom Hanks is related to them?  Edit: Oh man, IMDB confirms my hypothesis.  Apparently, Tom Hanks' great-great-grandfather was Abraham Lincoln's third cousin.  They're practically brothers.

  • OK, no disrespect, Mr Lincoln, but if I was in the company of someone playing a juice/Jew's/jaw harp for more than about 45 seconds, I would have to punch them in the face.

  • "Kentucky's a mighty fine place to live, but with all the slaves comin' in, white folks had a hard time makin' a livin'."  

Yes, how dare those slaves live in Kentucky against their will?  It's really the whites who got a raw deal.

  • I love that the judge just had to tell people in the courtroom to, "put them jugs away."  And I don't want to see nobody smoking no crack cocaine, not in my court, you hear!?

  • OMG.  Abe cracks a joke about the prosecution, maybe worthy of a chuckle, and the entire courtroom explodes like someone's held a gun to all their heads, saying "Laugh, bitches, laugh!"

  • My favorite secondary character of the entire movie?  Sam, the town drunk.  He walks into the courtroom with a jug of moonshine, and immediately approaches the bench saying, "Guilty."  Like, he's so used to being the one in trouble, he doesn't really know what to do when he's just being called in for jury duty.

  • So the crowd starts getting a little riled up in the courtroom.  The judge bangs on his gavel, yelling for order - and starts to pull out a gun, just in case.  Is that, like, an Illinois thing?

  • The problem I have with most courtroom scenes in movies is that too often they ignore basic legal practices for the sake of drama.  The windbag (sorry, don't know his name) yelling at Mrs Clay and demanding that she give up one of her sons may be dramatic, but it's also badgering the witness.  No one can make her testify, or even force her to get on the stand.  Mr Windbag prompting the witness to say that the gun was still in its holster when it went off is leading the witness, and it should be stricken from the record.  This now concludes chapter one of The Legal Process for Dummies.  Although...I do have to say that I love Abe's cool, collected approach in the courtroom.  And Henry Fonda plays it very well.  Kudos.

  • So it's becoming pretty evident to me that this is playing out quite a bit like My Cousin Vinny.  Therefore:


It also occurs to me that I am likely the very first person to ever commit that to print.

  • Was Henry Fonda wearing a prosthetic nose?  Virtual cookies and a hug to anyone who can figure it out.

I liked this movie, but Henry Fonda really makes it what it is.  He does a great job playing Honest Abe as a young, charming man who, despite his insecurities and difficult odds, is determined to play the game his own way and stick to his principles.  I also like the characterization of Abraham Lincoln as kind of an outsider.  He's a little too intelligent and well-read to fit in with the poor, but he's definitely not genteel enough to fit in with the rich.  Regardless, everyone seems to like him well enough.  Sure, there's a fair bit of sentimentality, but that's what these types of movies are.  Would you expect anything less than rose-colored glasses from a 1930s John Ford movie about arguably the most beloved president in American history?

That's it for me.  Thanks for reading, and be sure to stop back next time for The Shining!

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Luke said...

Great review! I'm psyched for the upcoming Daniel Day Lewis film, but I'll make sure I watch this one beforehand.

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