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Monday, September 22, 2014

A Fox-Ford History Lesson


Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) Dramatizes Backwoods Abe

Done at a time when Henry Fonda was director John Ford's alter-ego rather than John Wayne, this was an artistic, if not commercial, triumph (Lincoln lost $129K of 20th's money) that came as America celebrated its pioneer history, but didn't catch fire as Union Pacific, Dodge City, and others period-set (and more actionful) would. Did customers get too much whiff of the schoolroom? Prestige was compensation for red ink perhaps, studios liking an occasional Lincoln they could point to with pride (it ran often as matinee kid enrichment after the war). Fonda plays the character against lead man expectation; it's almost as though Buster Keaton donned the stovepipe again for Our Hospitality done straight. I read where Darryl Zanuck suggested Ford shoot upward on Lincoln/Fonda so as to emphasize majesty-in-making, plus other specific directing tips. Was DFZ pulling this auteur's strings? What with such control, and editing supervision too, I'm wondering if we should call result Darryl F. Zanuck's Young Mr. Lincoln (in fact, that's how many, if not most, 1939 observers saw it). There is wise emphasis on comedy, a long murder trial like something Will Rogers' Judge Priest might have presided over. In fact, the Lincoln of John Ford is Will come back to life, and never mind evoking a past president much longer dead. Given better boxoffice, I wonder if Ford/Zanuck might have done further Abe-ventures to tee off another cycle of Rogers-like Americana.

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