Young Mr. Lincoln

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1939).

In the courtroom.

Facing the stormy future.

When cinema was still wet and lumpy as river clay, directors like John Ford took huge gobs of it in their godlike hands and sculpted fluid monuments to the noblest and most moving dreams of humanity. Hell yes, I'm mythologizing, and so were they, magnificently. Like you, I don't trust such legend-mongering on a basic ideological level. Also like you, I hope, I need at times to be susceptible to what it offers: a vision of ideals that may always already be corrupted, but that nevertheless represent the heights of our imagination as a democratic culture, and deserve to be given expression, if only as a reminder of what a painful abandonment of such ideals our cynicism demands.

Henry Fonda's Lincoln is truer than true. He looks nothing like him until about ten minutes into the picture, at which time the force of his embodiment causes you to readjust your notion of the historical man, to replace his face with the one in front of you. The story itself is slight, a quaint and tangential courtroom drama, in and around which the more significant historical figures--Mary Todd, Stephen Douglas, even Lincoln himself in some ways--hover as detached observers, or phantoms. The young Mr. Lincoln is mercurially buffoonish, melancholy, gallant, mischievous, inscrutable, more like a trickster hybrid of Paul Bunyan and Mr. Deeds than a president-in-the-making. He splits logs, wolfs down alternate bites of peach and apple pie, cheats at a tug-of-war, mopes over graves, goes into reveries over rivers. He cuts an endearingly absurd figure in his stovepipe hat and frontier boots, riding a mule into Springfield to begin his practice of law. At a moment's notice, he clouds over with an inconsolable darkness, lost in his private apprehension of bleak truths too painful for words.

Sergei Eisenstein said that Young Mr. Lincoln was the dearest to him of all American films (his essay on it is included in the liner notes to the Criterion DVD, along with an appreciation by Geoffrey O'Brien). This will not surprise those who see the obvious affinities between Eisenstein and Ford, most notably their reliance on the stirring historicized tableau as the central visual force in their work, Eisenstein's pioneering approach to montage notwithstanding. In addition, however, he is responding to what so many others have responded to in the movie: its sweetness that is never saccharine, its wistfulness that obliquely foreshadows events beyond the frame of the story.

The brief two-part Ann Rutledge episode near the beginning acts as a sort of reverse coda, a setting-up of the overall mood, with its juxtaposition of youthful blitheness and fatal disappointment. Like so much else in the film, it does not resolve into the main plot. It is there for us in the same way it is for Lincoln himself, as part of what is real and inescapable, what colors all other everyday events with its memory and implications. It takes a few moments to sink in that this movie, with all its vitality and grace and light touches, is a death hymn.

Oh, if you haven't yet, see it at once!


phaneronoemikon said...

That is a classic!
Lincoln is like the Anti-Baudelaire.
He's a caricature of himself but comes out of a different mirror..

historicity's affect
its succinctness
absurdly inconsequential monumentalism
is so blindingly weird
its almost worth the suffering
it is!

not sure how you feel about Mark Ryden's Lincolns
but I've seen two today

Now I'm thinking there's
a resonance between
Ichabod Crane..



some are
jst rding

K. Silem Mohammad said...

I almost mentioned Ichabod Crane in my post!

phaneronoemikon said...

Ichabod Lincoln

wears Peter Van Winkle's mummy
like a yankee-love-charm
like a yuppy papoose
sternum headlight
and hunts in the swamp
for the rebel headless horseman


I'll catch your hairs

eh? EEEH?
Bobby Lee says.
Ichabod rounds a chewgum tree
to see none other than
the Headless Rebel Horseman
General Bobby E. Lee

whose body is put up
in a crisp gingham dress
with just a few swamp stains

and that bearded white visage
bonneted is sitting on 'her'

The body is working
the head up an down
like an applet on a chora

By God Bobby
Not That!

The old Ghost Opens
its mouth

and let's its big
old wrinkly

copula flop out!


phaneronoemikon said...

Abraham Lincoln's Compassion for Animals

Today we celebrate February birthday boys George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but the sixteenth U.S. president, Lincoln, merits special Born Animal honors. What you might not have read in your history books is that he loved animals and extended tremendous compassion towards them throughout his lifetime. When first lady Mary Tood Lincoln was asked if her husband had a hobby, she replied, "Cats." In fact, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, President Lincoln stumbled upon three orphaned kittens in a telegraph hut. He placed them on his lap and inquired about their mother. When told she had died, he helped to find the kittens a good home.

Lincoln loved dogs too. The National Park Service says that the Lincoln family pooch, a mixed, floppy-eared canine with a yellow coat named Fido, freaked out during the noise and hubbub following Lincoln's 1860 presidential victory. Worried about his welfare, the newly elected president gave the dog to two boys—John and Frank Roll—with personal instructions that they should let Fido inside whenever he scratched at the front door, never scold him for having muddy paws and feed him should Fido come to the dinner table.

President Lincoln had pet goats and rabbits as well. His son, Tad, even took a shine to a turkey named "Tom" that the family was supposed to eat for Thanksgiving. Lincoln interrupted a cabinet meeting to spare Tom's life, beginning an American presidential tradition still observed today for Thanksgiving.

It's fitting that Lincoln's beloved horse, "Old Bob," took center stage in the funeral procession following the president's tragic assassination. A pair of boots, placed backwards in the stirrups, represented the now rider-less horse that marched along the procession route.

wv: qukeu (that's me) :)