Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln is a 1939 American biographical drama film about the early life of President Abraham Lincoln, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.[1][2] Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck fought for control of the film, to the point where Ford destroyed unwanted takes for fear the studio would use them in the film. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing/Original Story.

Young Mr. Lincoln
Directed byJohn Ford
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Kenneth Macgowan
Written byLamar Trotti
StarringHenry Fonda
Alice Brady
Marjorie Weaver
Arleen Whelan
Music byAlfred Newman
CinematographyBert Glennon
Arthur C. Miller
Edited byWalter Thompson
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • May 30, 1939 (1939-05-30)
Running time
100 min.
Budget$1,500,000 (estimated)

In 2003, Young Mr. Lincoln was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The year is 1832. A family traveling through New Salem, Illinois in their wagon need groceries from Lincoln's (Henry Fonda) store and the only thing of value they have to trade is a barrel of old books including a law book, Blackstone's Commentaries. After thoroughly reading the book, Abe opts for the law after receiving encouragement from his early, ill-fated love, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), who soon dies. Too poor to own even a horse, he arrives in Springfield on a mule and soon establishes a law practice in 1837 with friend John Stuart (Edwin Maxwell). After a raucous, day-long Independence Day celebration, a man named Skrub White is killed after pulling a gun in a fight; the accused are two brothers, Matt and Adam Clay (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan). Lincoln prevents the lynching of the accused at the jail by shaming the angry, drunken mob. He also convinces them that he really needs these clients for his first real case.

Admiring his courage, Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) invites Lincoln to her sister's soiree. Despite being aggressively courted by the very polished Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone) Mary is interested in Lincoln. She faithfully attends the trial of the Clay boys, and sits in the front row, listening closely.

The boys' mother, Abigail Clay (Alice Brady), who witnessed the end of the fight; and Lincoln are pressured by the prosecutor (Donald Meek) to save one of the brothers at the expense of the other's conviction. But the key witness to the crime, J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond), is a friend of the victim who claims to have seen the murder at a distance of about 100 yards under the light of the moon. "It was moon bright." said Cass. But Lincoln persists and is able, through the use of an almanac, to demonstrate that on the night in question the moon had set before the time of death. He then drives Cass to confess that he had in fact stabbed his friend.



The film has as its basis the murder case against William "Duff" Armstrong, which took place in 1858 at the courthouse in Beardstown, Illinois—the only courthouse where Lincoln practiced law that is still in use. Referred to as the "Almanac Trial" on Armstrong's grave,[3] Lincoln proved the witness against the accused was lying about being able to see by the light of the moon, using an almanac. Armstrong was acquitted. This is the closest element of reality referenced in the film.


Young Mr. Lincoln was adapted as a radio play on the July 10, 1946 episode of Academy Award Theater.[4]

The Village Theatre of Everett and Issaquah, Washington has commissioned a new musical based on the film titled Lincoln in Love, book and lyrics by Peter S. Kellogg and music by David Friedman.

See also


  1. Variety film review; June 7, 1939, page 12.
  2. Harrison's Reports film review; June 17, 1939, page 94.
  3. "William Duff Armstrong - Find a Grave". Retrieved 2019-02-10.
  4. Academy Award Theater archives at the Internet Archive
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