Film: Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln is a 1939 film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. It dramatizes the early adulthood of, you guessed it, Abraham Lincoln, a period extending from roughly 1832 to 1837. The film follows Lincoln's career as a shopkeeper and aspiring politician, his decision to study law, and his move to Springfield, Illinois to go into law practice. A challenging murder case then provides the inexperienced lawyer a chance to make a name for himself.


  • Art Imitates Art: As Lincoln leaves the courthouse, there's a shot framed to look quite a bit like the pose of the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial.
  • As the Good Book Says: Lincoln quotes from the Beatitudes—"blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy"—when he is Shaming the Mob into leaving his clients alone.
  • As You Know: Ann Rutledge telling Lincoln things he already knows about how he had almost no formal education.
  • Blowing Smoke Rings: A completely relaxed Palmer Cass is doing this during the cross-examination scene, right before Lincoln drops the bomb on him.
  • Call Forward: Lincoln plays "Dixie" on a mouth organ, and his friend says that it "makes you want to march".
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Clay family doesn't have any scratch paper for Lincoln to take notes on when they're interviewing him, so they give him an almanac to scribble on. This proves crucial to the climax, when Lincoln uses said almanac to prove that Cass is lying.
  • Dances and Balls: Lincoln courts Mary Todd at a dance, dancing quite badly.
  • Dueling Movies: Came out just a few months before Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring Raymond Massey.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Abe is playing a game of tug of war. He knows his team is losing so he hitches the rope to a wagon.
  • He's Dead, Jim: Palmer Cass takes about five seconds to determine that Scrub White is dead. Justified at the end, when Cass confesses that he actually stabbed White himself.
  • The Perry Mason Method: Palmer Cass has claimed that he saw one of the Clay brothers stab Scrub White. When asked how he could see that well from 100 yards away at 11 p.m., Cass said that it was "moon bright" that night. Lincoln whips out an almanac that shows that on the night in question the moon 1) was only in its first quarter, and 2) had already set anyway. He then accuses Cass of killing White himself. Cass breaks down and confesses.
  • Shaming the Mob: Lincoln does this to stop the lynch mob that is about to hang his prospective clients.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Lincoln leans on this hard in the trial, in contrast to his opponent, who is much more fastidious in his manner and dress.
  • A Storm Is Coming: The American Civil War is coming, and it's alluded to here in the final shot, where a thunderstorm hits as Lincoln is walking away.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: A torch-wielding mob almost lynches the two murder suspects, but Lincoln convinces them to go home.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There really was a murder case in which Lincoln used an almanac to discredit a witness. That case, the William Armstrong murder trial, took place in 1858, a good 20 years after this movie's time frame, when Lincoln was a nationally known political figure.
  • Young Future Famous People: Not just Lincoln as an aspiring lawyer in his twenties, but also a young Stephen Douglas as both Lincoln's political rival and his rival for the hand of Mary Todd.