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Criterion remasters “Young Mr. Lincoln”


Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln questions a witness during the murder trial of the Clay brothers (Adam & Matt). (Frame shots courtesy of The Criterion Collection)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1939; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video

Best extra: Commentary with author Joseph McBride

ACTOR Henry Fonda initially resisted the opportunity to play the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. “It’s a little like playing God,” Fonda said in a 50-minute, 1975 BBC interview on the Criterion Collection’s new presentation.

Eventually, writer Lamar Trotti, nominated for an Oscar for his script, and producer Kenneth Macgowan persuaded him to make a screen test wearing a false nose and wart. The next day, Fonda stared at the screen; he couldn’t recognize the actor playing Lincoln. Finally, it hit him, “I’m the SOB that looks like Lincoln,” he said. Author Joseph McBride recounts the story in his absorbing commentary track. But when Fonda heard his voice, he was again convinced he wasn’t the right guy: “Sorry, fellows it won’t work.”

Fox studio tycoon Darryl F. Zanuck signed cantankerous Irishman and con artist John Ford, who was – and still is – considered by many to be America’s greatest director. Ford ruled Hollywood for nearly 60 years through his popular “historically themed epics, which brought out the best of him,” British producer/writer Lindsay Anderson says in his documentary highlighting Ford’s career.

Ford summoned Fonda to his office like a young recruit to the admiral’s quarters, shaming him into taking the role. “What are you thinking – he’s the Great Emancipator? He’s only a young Jackleg lawyer from Springfield.”

It was Fonda’s first performance for Ford. They went on to produce seven more great films including “The Grapes of Wrath” and “My Darling Clementine.”

Ford gives us a glimpse into the 1830s in Southern Illinois, where Lincoln’s politics are “short and sweet, just like the ladies dance.” Fonda gives a remarkable performance as the raw young lawyer, driven to defend two brothers wrongly accused of murder. The trial, loosely based on a real case, shows “the chaos of the courtroom and provides a vision, at once comic and horrific, of an [realistic] democracy,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien in his essay, featured in a 28-page booklet.


Twentieth Century Fox and the fine folks at The Criterion Collection joined forces to produce a flawless new 4K master (1.37:1 aspect ratio), scanned from a first generation 35mm print held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and a safety print from Fox’s vaults in California. The best moments of the two were assembled scene-by-scene and frame-by-frame. The nearly 80-year old film has a black and white grandeur that displays superb grayscale from highlights to shadows. All markings and scratches have been removed. Controlled, natural film grain emphasizes the cinematic experience.

Sharpness and detail are also excellent on the Blu-ray, especially the masterfully composed wide shots by cinematographer Arthur C. Miller filmed along the Sacramento River in Northern California subbing for the Sangamon River near Springfield, Illinois. Viewers can spot extra detail when Fonda lies on his back, with his legs propped up on a tree trunk, reading a law book with the river in the background. We find the same clarity in fore- and background footage in a surprising wide tracking shot from Ford, who normally kept his camera stationary. Fonda and Pauline Moore, playing Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge, walk along the riverbank with a split rail fence in the foreground adding depth and framing.

A final scene – another wide shot – is unforgettable as Fonda walks up a gentle dirt road wearing Lincoln’s trademark top hat and long black coat. His silhouette contrasts against gray clouds and a barren tree symbolizing difficult days and years to come.

Ford couldn’t have captured this iconic image any better. “God was good that day,” he said in an interview recorded by his grandson Dan Ford in 1967.


The original mono has been remastered in 24-bit soundtrack, removing all clicks, pops, hiss and hum for clear, upfront and center audio delivery. Dialogue, effects and music score from the great Alfred Newman (“All About Eve,” “How the West Was Won”) are balanced.

Additional bonus features include a 1975 talk show appearance with Fonda; audio interviews with Ford and Fonda from the 1970s; and an Academy Award radio dramatization of the film.

With Lincoln’s birthday just around the corner, there’s no better way to celebrate one of America’s finest than with this new 4K restoration of “Young Mr. Lincoln.”

- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

The closing shot from "Young Mr. Lincoln"



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