Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Super Delegates: Abraham Lincoln in "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939)

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Young Mr. Lincoln
Release Date: June 9, 1939
Directed By: John Ford
Written By: Lamar Trotti
Starring: Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Original Screenplay
Delegates in Question:
-Abraham Lincoln

No matter how many decades and centuries pass, it doesn't seem likely that anyone will dethrone Abraham Lincoln as the United State's most iconic president outside of the Founding Fathers. Outside of the few before and after that have greatly altered this country's landscape, Lincoln is continually referenced as the best of the bunch. After all, he was the president who sought to end slavery and, as Doris Kearns-Goodwin suggests in "Team of Rivals," wanted to leave behind a legacy. Everything about him definitely lived up to the hype from his policies to his speeches to his beard and hat. He's so popular that he's the president with the most Oscar-nominated portrayals (and the only president to win for 2012's Lincoln). To say the least, there's something inspiring about him that cinema keeps coming back to.

While a bit of a detour from Super Delegates' general goal of focusing on politicians in office, director John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln focuses on the 16th president's life before turning from lawyer into politician. The events are based on a real murder case involving William "Duff" Armstrong from 1858 in Beardstown, Illinois: the only courthouse that was still in operation from when Lincoln was practicing law. While characters such as Mary Todd and Abigail Clay are real, the story is generally fictionalized and done to sentimentalize Lincoln in the form of an underdog wanting to do good for the world. Of course, the team behind the film definitely was reassuring before a frame was even shot. Director John Ford's love of the American West made him a perfect candidate for showing and law and order in motion. Henry Fonda - an actor whose resume includes iconic do gooders in 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath (done with Ford the following year) - only meant that it would be impossible to find an ounce of despair in Lincoln; even if both parties were initially opposed to making the film due to the wealth of Lincoln-based films that had been made before 1939.

The story of Lincoln is itself one of those inspiring tales alongside Rocky that history has forced everyone to know by heart. Lincoln grew up in a log cabin and taught himself to read. The fact that a man who never had proper schooling could become such an iconic president is astounding unto itself. However, this film doesn't even cover an ounce of his political career. At most, it hints at his optimistic and bright future. Ford is more interested in making Lincoln into the underdog who righted wrongs. This just happened to be done in a courtroom drama where his protagonist had a twinkle in his eye and a few witty remarks. There is struggle, but it's at times convenient to the plot. When he figures out the murder case, it is a moment of triumph: as if it's Lincoln's first act of public service. The story begins him off as a simple traveler who bought a law book before moving to the big city and enjoying life among his peers. To drive the patriotic subtext home, the crime that the film hinges on takes place on July 4, which is the most American day of the year.

It would be difficult to assess this as being that inaccurate for the pop culture understanding of Lincoln in 1939, especially as the events took place over a century (1837) before. When one pictures Lincoln, there is a need to make him enthusiastic and focused. He seems alien in that his willpower far exceeds the common man. It's what makes him more cinematic than Fonda himself. We want Lincoln to succeed. Even during the president's lifetime, he was respected by soldiers for his bravery against oppression. This is all baggage that a person viewing Young Mr. Lincoln will inevitably bring in, even if it's logically not explored. There's a reverence that we expect, and which is frankly the set norm for depictions for most of the 20th century and beyond. Even in The Birth of a Nation from 1915, he was the stoic leader (D.W. Griffiths would later make a biopic of the president in 1930) despite painting the end of slavery as a bad thing. 

Fonda's performance is one of those early iconic takes of the good-hearted type of Lincoln. Not only does he strike a passing resemblance in Young Mr. Lincoln, but he makes the president one of the most likable lawyers in early cinematic history. The case may not be all that complicated, but Ford's direction allows each beat to have an overbearing touch that makes this case seem very important to Lincoln's reputation. He has to come through. Add in that Ford's cinematography remains some of the most gorgeous black-and-white ever captured on film, and you begin to understand the allure of what is otherwise a stock courtroom drama. Yes, it does allude to a future that we all know - including his marriage to Mary Todd. However, it is wise that the idea to have a young John Wilkes Booth meet Lincoln was struck down, if just for how in poor of tastes it comes across.

Of course, there's a difference between Lincoln's early portrayals and the later versions that are more human and, by Goodwin's account, more accurate. This is specifically seen in director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln where the enthusiastic husk that we know is replaced with an often reserved and aloof figure. He still has an enviable willpower, yet it's not nearly as romantic as Young Mr. Lincoln, or any later adaptations for that matter. He does have a few barn burner moments that make you understand Lincoln's power, but it's not nearly as easygoing and Midwestern as Fonda makes him out to be. To some extent, one could make the argument that Lincoln as a cinematic icon doesn't need to be accurate. It just needs to rally up the patriotism in American viewers to make them believe that they too can come from nothing to change the world.

It's a tactic that doesn't get thrown around a lot in modern politics, if just because of the increasing budgets for election campaigning. Bernie Sanders maybe is the closest that 2016 had to a grassroots candidate, as he preaches a sympathetic agenda for college students and those suffering from financial struggles. It's sympathetic towards a certain progressive group, which is similar to Lincoln's desire to end slavery. The difference is that Lincoln was the first Republican president, and he promised to end slavery regardless of any backlash (he was eventually shot because of it). Sanders has all but dropped out of the race, endorsing Hillary Clinton as the Democratic party candidate: a move met with controversy at the Democratic National Convention when Sanders supporters walked out in protest of his loss. While morally different, the actual Republican party nominee Donald Trump also fits the Lincoln mythology in that he is an outsider with no political experience. However, that's about where things end when you begin to differentiate history and each one's policy towards minorities. In fact, the only recent presidents that have had any "small town" campaign story has been Democrats. There's Jimmy Carter, who was famously "The Man from Plains" who was better known as a peanut farmer than a politician.

Another thing that gets thrown around a lot is the Republicans being "The Party of Lincoln" as opposed to the Democrats being the party who endorsed slavery. In fact, it's been used as an antagonistic way to suggest dominance, especially in conservative propaganda like Hillary's America. It's true. Lincoln did end slavery, and presidents like Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan were some of the most regressive racially. This is all despite the Democrats appearing to be more open to racial diversity. The fact that Lincoln could be held as a sign of respect, regardless on if the policies expressed are accurate, shows how much people want to emulate him, even if the Republican party has evolved over time to express changing views. In fact, conservatives have come to hold Ronald Reagan as an idol of sorts, which may be one of the more recent significant Republican evolution. 

It is impossible to attribute this all to Young Mr. Lincoln, which doesn't cover all that much of a political ground. However, it is a riveting story that politics clearly wants to adapt for its own good. We see him as the progressive hero who took culture socially to the next level. Regardless on if everyone agrees that it's been executed perfectly, it shows something that most citizens can relate to. Lincoln is the American Dream in a nutshell, in that he - to quote Drake - "Started from the bottom, now we're here." We all aspire to do our version of good for the world, and sometimes it takes small steps, such as a murder trial, to get there. Still, few are given the patriotic flourish as frequently as Lincoln. With the promise of more Super Delegates columns focused on Lincoln, you can expect his actual time as president to be more directly explored. For now, it feels right to give an umbrella exploration of a unique and powerful man that changed history forever.

*NOTE: Due to my absence last week, there will be an additional Super Delegates column next Tuesday.

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