Young Mr. Lincoln

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to get back to blogging regularly. So, here we go with John Ford’s hymn to the moral courage and human decency of the martyred American leader who steered our nation in the direction of justice.

Henry Fonda almost didn’t take the role when Ford lincoln-posteroffered it to him. He held Lincoln in such reverence, he said, that it would have been like “portraying Christ himself on film.” But Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) aims to show the great man before he was great, warts and all. (In fact, between the nose and the wart, it took three hours in make-up to get Fonda looking the part.) Honest Abe was not above cheating in the Fourth of July tug-of-war to help his team win. That self-deprecating humor of his may have disarmed dull-witted Midwesterners, but we in the audience recognize a skillful manipulator when we see one.

Abe was way smarter than the townspeople of Springfield, Illinois—smart enough to know that intelligence scares people. Better to hide your light under a bushel. But make no mistake about it: Abe’s light shines forth for all to see. Even as a young man, Lincoln was guided by his conscience, not by self-interest. When he rescues two brothers falsely-accused of murder from a lynch mob, it’s clear that he is dedicated to a higher purpose.

We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves!

Lynchings were all too common in the Jim Crow South. In the 1930s, when John Ford was making this picture, the trials of the “Scottsboro Boys” drew attention to the issue of racial bias in the American legal system. Nine black teenagers were accused in 1931, on flimsy evidence, of raping two white women. The case dragged on for seven years, going all the way up to the Supreme Court, and became known in left-wing circles as “the case of The White People of Alabama vs. The Rest of the World.”  Blues musician Lead Belly even wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys.

lead-belly

There are clear parallels between the righteous Alabama Judge James Horton, whom newspapers at the time described as looking like “Lincoln without the beard,” and young Lincoln’s defense of the two brothers.

young-mr-lincoln-fonda
Henry Fonda Looking Presidential

 Judge Horton sacrificed his own career to see justice done, setting aside the guilty verdict reached by the all-white jury and calling for a new trial after he became convinced that the chief witness to the alleged crime was lying. It didn’t help. Fonda’s Lincoln has no beard. While his own legal career is at stake, Abe succeeds in catching out the chief witness in the boys’ case in a “crude, cold-blooded lie.” Hollywood being Hollywood, the perpetrator admits to lying and justice prevails.

 

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.

Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.

Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.

Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.

Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features charactersOUTITW_Jill1 of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.

But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.”  I think he’s right.

Jezebel

Bette Davis claimed than an affair between a star and her director produces electricity that the audience feels. She was thinking about Jezebel, the film she made with William Wyler, and it’s true.

Julie Marsden, the southern belle she plays, has all the foot-stomping petulance of Scarlett O’Hara, but there’s more SEX to her. When she shows up at the ball in her red dress, the men are terrified. One after another, they flee to their proper young ladies in white. The very thought of dancing with Miss Julie has them perspiring.

Henry Fonda is smitten, despite himself. He can’t allow himself to be humiliated by Julie — he has his pride — but damned if he wants to see her with anyone else, least of all the aptly-named Buck, his rival for Julie’s affections. He’s jealous of Buck, even when he’s there at Julie’s house, introducing her to his new wife.

Jezebel is definitely a woman’s picture; we could care less about Buck or Fonda’s character. Bette Davis could be any one of us, when we’ve made a mistake and there’s no undoing it. Bad as she is, we’re rooting for Julie. Deep down, we know she deserves to redeem herself at the end.

Good of Wyler to let us see Bette Davis in this grown-up, frankly seductive role. They must have had quite a thing going.

The Lady Eve

Half-brilliant (the first half). Half-baked (the second half). You put up with the second half because the first half is so wonderful, and the ending is your reward.

Why do Barbara Stanwyck’s character and Henry Fonda’s character fall in love? Well, there’s the sexual chemistry. Even in black and white, and in spite of the Hays code, the frisson between these two fine actors is impossible to miss.

Jean has Hopsy exactly where she wants him. Then she realizes she really does want him. For all his innocence, there’s something, well, manly about the dear boy. But it takes him an awfully long time to realize that he wants her, too. Not his fantasy of her, but the clever, flawed, and vulnerable woman she is. He loves her complexity.

I think the second half of the movie is disappointing because Stanwyck’s character is not herself. She’s playing a shallow aristocrat and you forget how conflicted she is. Slapstick takes over at this point; Fonda’s character falls for Stanwyck, but literally this time. Over and over. It’s tiresome.

Only in the final minutes does Stanwyck regain her edge.

Her victory is fleeting because, darn it, she still loves the guy and can’t bring herself to take advantage of him. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Good old Hopsy comes around, realizes what he’s got, and lets Stanwyck win him back.