From George Washington to George W. Bush, the American presidency has always inspired film composers. Though this post is a bit late to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in February, it’s never too late to visit John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN(1939) and Alfred Newman’s typically excellent score.
The ever-popular Honest Abe has starred alongside such unlikely co-stars as Shirley Temple (THE LITTLEST REBEL, 1935) and Keanu Reeves (BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, 1989). Though the character of Lincoln had already appeared in silent films, Walter Huston was the first actor during the sound era to portray the 16th U.S. President, in D.W. Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1930). Griffith’s first sound picture also marks the only feature film to date to attempt to portray Lincoln’s days in the White House.
Raymond Massey’s Oscar-nominated reprise of his celebrated stage performance in Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940) may be the most recognizable portrayal of Lincoln on celluloid. But YOUNG MR. LINCOLN is a far more satisfying film. With large doses of fiction, the film focuses on Lincoln’s early years as a lawyer. Henry Fonda imbues Lincoln with a humanity missing from what author Mark C. Carnes calls Massey’s “statue hiding in homespun.” But Fonda originally turned down the part.
“I didn’t think I could play Lincoln,” Fonda said in an earlier interview. “Lincoln to me was a god.” The studio persuaded him to do a screen test wearing a false nose and a wart. When he saw his image onscreen, he thought, “‘Well, I’m a son of a bitch! It looks like Lincoln!’…Then he started to talk, and my voice came out, and it destroyed it for me. I said, ‘I’m sorry, fellows, it won’t work.” Ford would have none of it: “You think you’d be playing the Great Emancipator, huh? He’s a goddamn f-cking jake-legged lawyer in Springfield, for Christ’s sake!” (A far more sanitized version of the exchange was supplied to the press.)
Alfred Newman’s moving score occupies only the first half of the film leading up to the trial. Newman identified four themes in the score. The lovely main theme, “Lincoln’s Destiny,” may sound familiar to Golden Age fans. Newman used the “Destiny” motif again in numerous films, including the Shirley Temple vehicle, THE BLUE BIRD (1940); A MAN CALLED PETER (1955); and in the Civil War segment of HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1963), with Raymond Massey once again playing the doomed president.
Other themes include an upbeat “Funny Lincoln,” a plaintive English horn solo for Alice Brady’s “Mrs. Clay,” and a delicate love theme for Lincoln’s romance with “Ann Rutledge.” “Generally, I hate music in pictures—a little bit now and then, at the end or at the beginning,” Ford later told Peter Bogdanovich, “but something like the Ann Rutledge theme belongs.” It also “belonged” in Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962).
If the score is hiding somewhere in the 20th Century Fox vaults, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN would make a welcome release on CD. Until then, like many film score fans, I am eagerly awaiting John Williams’ score for Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, starring Liam Neeson and a rumored Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, due for release in 2010.