If young Mr. Lincoln has been forgotten in favor of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also released in 1939, it might have something to do with the complex, understated quality of its screenplay. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a crowd pleasing film about an idealistic young populist going up against a corrupt federal government. Nobody ever went broke in the United States bashing politicians. Young Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, suggests that the problem isn’t so much the American government as it is the American people. John Ford is conflicted. It’s 1939. He’s clearly worried about fascism and the rise of a demagogue. But he also seems to think that a heroic leader like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt can make up for the people when the people fall short. The result is a subtle film full of contradiction and ambiguity that requires a lot more effort to fully understand than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It’s easy to see why Young Mr. Lincoln was Sergei Eisenstein’s favorite American movie. As many times as I’ve seen Young Mr. Lincoln, its cinematography still takes my breath away. The film opens in 1832, in a small frontier town called New Salem Illinois. We know that it’s Henry Fonda and not Lincoln campaigning to go to the state legislature as a Whig, but do we? The effect of Ford’s camerawork and Fonda’s acting is so hypnotic, that I’m half ready to believe that I’m watching “found footage” from the mid-19th Century, or that John Ford has a time machine, or that God has momentarily opened up a window to the past and I’m looking at the 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln in real time. If that weren’t enough, a little bit later in the film, we get to see Lincoln doing exactly what we’re doing. He attends a parade in Springfield. There’s a float with “Veterans of the War of 1812.” There’s another float with three ancient “Veterans of the American Revolution.” As we watch the young Lincoln watch the parade, we are, in effect, remembering the past remembering the past, looking across the entire timeline of American history at 24 frames per second. To quote Woodrow Wilson about a very different film, “it’s like history being written in light.”
If Young Mr. Lincoln doesn’t speak directly to Franklin Roosevelt’s cowardly record on Civil Rights, it’s still centered around an attempted lynching. Two young men — uneducated country bumpkins — are framed for a murder they didn’t commit. They’re taken to the Springfield city jail, which is immediately surrounded by a mob. Lincoln, now 27 and attempting to set himself up in town as a lawyer, intervenes. He stands in front of the door, and offers to “lick any man here,” freezes the mob in place. He points out various men in the crowd. “You read the Bible every night,” he says to one of them. “Is this what a Christian does?” He turns to another man and tells a joke. The man laughs, then hangs his head in shame. It’s difficult to help string a man up after you start laughing. One by one Lincoln ticks off each member of the lynch mob, finding some little hook by which he can give him back his reason. Ford’s young Mr. Lincoln, in effect, pushes back history as he pushes back the mob, transforms an undifferentiated mass, the raw material for a fascist dictator, back into a democratic community of individual citizens.
The ultimate problem with Young Mr. Lincoln, however, is that Ford doesn’t carry this insight through to its logical conclusion. The two young men will get a fair trial. There’s a hilarious and revealing sequence where Lincoln evaluates potential jurors, trying to separate honest men capable of independent thought out of the crowd of easily manipulated fools and conformists. He visits with the mother of the two young men, an honest, self-sacrificing woman he sees almost as the reincarnation of his own mother, as the true representative of the kind of people he grew up with. But we forget about the jury almost as soon as they’re chosen. Instead of letting the trial go through to its conclusion and allowing the jury to vote “not guilty,” Ford has Lincoln bully the real murderer into confessing on the witness stand. It’s a classic “Hollywood” happy ending. But the radical insight into how a democracy is only as good as its people gets lost in his apparent belief that a dictatorship is only as bad as its dictator.
Ford’s potentially complex and insightful script, therefore, becomes a lot like Mr. Smith goes to Washington. There’s good. There’s evil. There’s right. There’s wrong. There are urban sophisticates, like the politicians hardened to the entrenched corruption of Washington, or like the real murderer in Young Mr. Lincoln. There’s the self-sacrificing, salt of the earth frontier mother. There’s the young, naive, but idealistic Jefferson Smith. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the film that plays to the galleries, that wears its crowd pleasing simplicity on its sleeve, has become the iconic film about American politics. In turn it’s probably not surprising that a film that promises a sophisticated analysis of American democracy only, in the end, to pull back and give us a sentimental populism little different from Capra’s, is beloved by the French New Wave, but has not entered into the American popular consciousness in the same way that Jimmy Stewart’s iconic filibuster has. Nevertheless, the two films complete each other. Since everybody has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at least once, everybody should also see Young Mr. Lincoln at least once. If Jimmy Stewart went out to see a movie after taking in the Capitol dome and the Lincoln Memorial, it was probably this one.