(director: John Ford; screenwriter: Lamar Trotti; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: Walter Thompson; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Arleen Whelan (Sarah Clay), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Donald Meek (Prosecutor John Felder), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge), Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay), Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay), Ward Bond (John Palmer Cass), Fred Kohler Jr. (Scrub White), Edwin Maxwell (John T. Stuart), Spencer Charters (Judge); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; The Criterion Collection; 1939)

“This just might be Fonda’s most spellbinding performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz …

John Ford’s (“The Grapes of Wrath”/”My Darling Clementine”/”Fort Apache”) valentine to Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) tells a fictionalized story based on real events in Lincoln’s early years. It starts in New Salem, Illinois, and shows his folksy style on the political stump, his romance with the ill-fated Ann Rutledge and his first reading of the rights and wrongs of the law when he’s given Blackstone’s Commentaries in barter for groceries; it follows with Abe’s stint as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, a colorful Independence Day celebration, Abe judging a pie-eating contest, as a rail-splitter and an awkward courtship with visiting southern society lady Mary Todd at a society ball.

The second half of the film shows the young lawyer successfully defending two brothers (Richard Cromwell & Eddie Quillan), by use of an almanac, who are charged with murder, as it moves from covering anecdotal episodic events to an old-fashioned courtroom drama. In the final shot Lincoln walks to the top of a hill to the ominous gloom of an approaching storm, a hint to his rise in power and the coming crisis that will split the United States.

This just might be Fonda’s most spellbinding performance, as the shrewd country lawyer who cares about people. The entire cast performs splendidly in this moving dramatization of an American icon, which includes Alice Brady as a warm-hearted frontier mom who loves both her sons accused of murder and Donald Meek as the sly prosecutor. Writer Lamar Trotti maintains a straightforward biopic, that’s folksy and has an appealing screenplay. Ford recreates an endearing myth-making period piece that swings between the folksy inconsequential and that which is historically necessary in understanding the future 16th president of the United States as a young man.