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Some actors play great characters, and other actors have great characters thrust upon them. That seems to have been the case for Henry Fonda, at least as far as the role of Abraham Lincoln was concerned. It took some rather profane convincing from director John Ford before Fonda finally accepted the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Fifty-eight years later, it's hard to imagine any other actor from the period pulling off this particular performance.
Lamar Trotti's screenplay for Young Mr. Lincoln is hardly a model of historical accuracy. The picture, which is set in the early 1830s, features Lincoln - who, at this point in his life, is a country lawyer - defending two young men against murder charges. The case, however, is a work of complete fiction. Many of the pivotal people in Lincoln's life appear in the film, including the future First Lady, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). The narrative plays up Lincoln's gifts as a no-nonsense communicator, both as a public and private man. Ford and Trotti were interested in examining the character traits that would one day make Lincoln a great President, regardless of whether the scenes they used to do it actually occurred in real life.
Fonda greatly admired Lincoln, but, even after 20th Century Fox's makeup department turned him into a replica of the President, he couldn't abide by his own voice coming out of such a monumental figure. "To me it was like playing Jesus Christ or God," Fonda later told director Lindsay Anderson. Everyone involved with the picture loved what they saw in Fonda's screen test, but he turned down the role. Shortly thereafter, he was summoned by Ford to discuss the problem.
Although Fonda had never met Ford before, he once hung out on the set of Stagecoach (1939) to watch him direct John Wayne. So he had an idea what he was getting into when he agreed to visit Ford's office. He was, however, a bit taken aback by Ford's outfit, which he later described as looking like it "came from the Salvation Army, too large for him, too raggedy for anybody." Ford was also alternating, as was his habit, between smoking a pipe and chewing on a handkerchief while he talked.
There may have been better ways to phrase it but Fonda understood exactly what Ford was after. During the period in which the movie takes place, there was no way for anyone to know that Lincoln would eventually become one of the most important men in America history. "It's a movie about a young lawyer in 1830," Fonda said. "Anyway, Ford shamed me into it, I agreed, and I did the film."
Fonda was endlessly impressed with Ford the director, and would go on to make several other classic films with him. "(Young Mr. Lincoln) was a beautiful script," he would tell Anderson, "but like in My Darling Clementine (1946) there were things (Ford) put in at the moment, just little pieces of business, sometimes little pieces of dialogue that were so right on. I've often been asked if I didn't want to direct. No way. Because I know those things wouldn't occur to me and if I wasn't that good I wouldn't want to be a director."
Fonda was lucky he had already read several books about Lincoln before finally caving in. Ford didn't insist on actors doing research when appearing in historical epics- he simply expected it, and would even quiz secondary performers about their characters, just to make sure they were on their toes.
Milburn Stone, who played Stephen A. Douglas in Young Mr. Lincoln, said Ford once approached him on the set and asked, "Who held Lincoln's hat when he was inaugurated?" "Stephen A. Douglas," Stone responded. Ford nodded and walked away, but he came back a few minutes later and said, "Who was the first man President Lincoln sent for when Fort Sumter was fired on?" Stone answered, "Stephen A. Douglas."
Ford left Stone alone after that, so the actor had apparently passed the test. At any rate, he's barely in the movie.
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Arthur C. Miller
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Arleen Whelan (Sarah Clay), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge).
by Paul Tatara