Following the Independence Day Parade, there is a pie judging contest. Newly arrived bachelor Abe Lincoln is the judge with a large female audience.

Abe explains the apple slice is very good, but then he’s tempted by the peach one, and vice versa, thus having to eat more and more to make up his mind.

At the establishing shot of the tug o’war, three hours after the pie contest, Abe appears, moving to the rear of his team to be the anchorman. He is still stuffing pie in his mouth.

Ann Rutledge finds Abe reading his law book by the river and walks and talks with him. Taking the initiative, she reveals she will be going away for education and hopes that Abe would go to college in the same town.

In a symbolic wedding, under a curving tree and beside a flowing river, Abe utters the word “love” while returning her basket of flowers. Hands connected, he says “I do.” Cahiers sees a deep connection of Woman-Nature-Law.

At the parade Lincoln moves on to compliment Ninian Edwards (grey hat) on the quality of the parade at what seems like the formal or informal reviewing stand. Anyone familiar with small towns would understand the compliment is most likely appropriate because Edwards was probably a key organizer of the event and possibly a financial backer of the celebration. ...

... Lincoln, the freshman lawyer, would defer to the higher status Edwards. Lincoln sits on the curb, but rises when Mrs. Edwards introduces her sister, Mary Todd, visiting from Lexington, Kentucky.

Seated next to Stephen Douglas, Mary Todd takes the initiative and asks Lincoln about himself. Douglas exhibits coldness to Lincoln, while Lincoln and Todd trade glances.

With a lynch mob outside trying to break in, Cass cries out for the Sheriff to open the door and let him get out. The Sheriff refuses. Cass exhibits extreme fear at the situation, and eyeing his new deputy badge, takes it off and throws it away, demonstrating his cowardice.

At the conclusion of the film, Lincoln and the restored Clay family part. They leave in their wagon, and Abe decides to walk to the top of the hill.

As Lincoln approaches the top of the hill a storm begins: thunder, lightening, and rain. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the North’s militant anthem during the Civil War rises on the soundtrack with the thunder sounding much like cannon fire, the flash of lightening appearing much like battlefield explosions. Emotionally the scene portends Lincoln’s future role in the Civil War. Cahiers reads this scene as showing Lincoln as monstrous, “an intolerable figure.”

In the U.S. context, YML’s grand conclusion with over-the-top effects and sentiment may seem less “monstrous” than well within the popular American vein. In the later part of his performance career, Elvis Presley ended his shows with “American Trilogy” a grand finale in which he sang parts of “Dixie,” “Hush Little Children,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in an oversaturated sentimental medley drawing on some of the most predictable and banal clichés of U.S. culture. It always brought the audience to its feet, moved even to tears, and then applause.


What every woman knows

For all of its rigorousness, close attention to detail, and earnest concern for ideology, the Cahiers YML discussion has its own “structuring absences,” and some of these have to do with matters that “every woman knows.” In other words, there are matters of style, presentation, and narration present in the film text that would be understood by most women viewers (and a fair number of men) but about which the Cahiers editors seem clueless.

A good example is the pie-eating scene. As part of the series of July 4th festivities, Abe is shown as the judge in a common fairground domestic competition and celebration. He is seen with two large slices of pie, one in each hand. First he tastes one, judges it very good, and then the other, same thing, so back to the first. Cahiers’ discussion of the Celebration events covers the different episodes, pointing to how each reveals a different aspect of Lincoln: solemnity with the veteran’s parade, physical strength in the rail-splitting context, and cunning in the tug-of-war by tying his end of the rope to a horse-drawn wagon.

“Finally, more subtly, faced with the undecidable character of a situation (the ethic, or gastronomic, impossibility of preferring the product of one cook to that of another) the fiction itself must, by abandoning the scene, censor the moment of choice and not show Lincoln making an impossible choice, for both the sake of the scene and for that of the myth.”

Cahiers reads the edit before declaring the decision as essentially a foreshadowing of the later dilemma of having to choose which of the two boys is guilty (and following their mother’s determination, not deciding between them). They declare it is impossible to decide between two cooks.[34] [open endnotes in new window]

In glossing this part of the Cahiers essay, Peter Wollen observes:

“Unable to choose, he tastes first one, then the other, proclaiming each in turn excellent, until they have both been completely devoured. Clearly, this is a gag, a light-hearted interpolation into the narrative. However, it is also, I think, an allusion to the Civil War and the view expressed by Lincoln is not simply that both slices of pie are good, but that both sides in the Civil War, North and South, are good: Lincoln, the bringer of unity rather than division.” [p. 45]

But there’s another aspect to the sequence. It’s a classic sort of gag: being indecisive, he gets to eat more. Indeed, at the start of the tug o’war (three hours later in diegetic time), Lincoln appears in a crowd longshot still stuffing his pie hole. And behind this, unstated in the film, is why is Abe Lincoln the judge? Every woman knows that he is one of the most eligible bachelors in Springfield (established with Mary Todd maneuvering an introduction), and every woman knows that bachelors are always hungry for home cooked food (reinforced later when the Clay women offer turnip greens for dinner when Lincoln visits the farm—his favorite food), and thus he’d be the perfect person to judge the pies.

And behind this, also unstated, the commonplace folk wisdom that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”[35] This cluster of silent assumptions lies behind the scene, giving force to one of the often-noted Fordian tropes: a depiction of community through the presentation of familiar folksy characters, a “peasant cinema,” as Bertrand Tavernier once termed it.[36] Thus the gag is not just a joke, a comic exclamation mark (he’s tricking them into getting to eat two pies), but also presents a received wisdom, a reinforcement of grassroots knowledge, and one particularly known by the community of women.

The Cahiers' blindness to this aspect of the scene is hardly egregious in terms of interpretation, and their main point about Lincoln being a unifier stands. And indeed, this very fine reading of all the strands of a developing narrative is exactly what is new in film analysis at this point in history. But Cahiers tends to slight various points in Young Mr. Lincoln that are probably read by women viewers with more sophistication and nuance that the Cahiers editors can muster.

Consider the arrival of Lincoln’s “first love,” Anne Rutledge. Neither Cahiers nor any of the subsequent (male) commentators on the film notice two significant details in the scene. After Ann arrives and says hello, Lincoln who had been seated, leaning against a tree trunk, says,

Lincoln. (rising) Hello Ann. Give me a minute to kind of untangle myself,
Ann. Aren’t you afraid you’ll put your eyes out, reading like that upside down.

This marks that she had been watching him earlier, unseen, when he was lying on his back with his long legs stretched out up the tree trunk. The meeting is not fortuitous; and (to be Lacanian about it) she possessed the gaze (off-screen, but she initiated the meeting). She says clearly that he is smart, and ambitious, and while Lincoln defers with a kind of shy folksy modesty, averring,

Lincoln. Got to have education to get anywhere. I never went to school as much as a year in my whole life.
Rutledge. But you’ve educated yourself! You’ve read poetry, and Shakespeare, and now Law. [pause] I just had my heart set on you’re going over to Jacksonville to college when I go to the seminary there. And….
[long significant pause]
Lincoln. You’re mighty pretty, Ann.
Rutledge. Some folks I know don’t like red hair
Lincoln. I do
Rutledge. Do ya, Abe?
Lincoln. I love red hair
[Silence, they join hands on the basket.][37]

The scene has him actually uttering the word “love,” and the pair joining hands on the flower basket, uniting them in a kind of symbolic marriage. Throughout the scene Ann Rutledge plays at being demure, but actually stages the scene. She finds him, reveals she’s been watching him, compliments him on his mind and his ambition, expresses her desire that he go away to Jacksonville with her. Few women would miss just how proactive she is in the scene, though many guys, just like Abe, wouldn’t quite figure it out.

If we’re alert to this aspect of the narrative, all the appearances of Mary Todd are revealed as classic examples of a Southern Belle using “feminine charm” to push her own agenda and interests. After being formally introduced by her sister as visiting Springfield from Lexington (Kentucky), Lincoln bows. He sees she is seated next to Stephen Douglas who gives his rival a cold stare. Rather than continuing the exchange, Lincoln accedes to Douglas being the alpha dog and sits back down on the curb. Todd then takes the initiative to ask more about him, and Lincoln replies with self-deprecating humor. Later, she takes the initiative to invite him to the party and dance. When he arrives, Lincoln chats with a group of older men until Todd fetches him and insists, against his protestations that he hasn’t learned to dance, that he take her to the floor.

She scolds him into dancing, and again scolds him for his lack of grace in dancing and thus induces him going to the balcony with her. This light domination is well-recognized as a Southern Belle technique to gain some power within the gender imbalance. Men have to accede to a woman’s minor requests, being “a gentleman,” and thus women get to take temporary charge of the situation, even criticizing the man’s behavior in order to get what they want. Criticism spoken, the man is put in a position to try to please with the next action. But, significantly, the balcony scene ends with Lincoln spellbound by the river, and Mary Todd dropping out of the picture: literally, out of the frame.

Notably, Mary Todd sits with Lincoln’s rival, Steven Douglas, at the trial, and in the evening after the first day passes by Lincoln’s office window in an open carriage with Douglas, clearly showing Lincoln who she is with, and asking Douglas about his political plans. The editors point out that the shot sequence is such that it “allows” Lincoln to overhear the remark. Cahiers reads the moment thus: “…everything in Mary Todd’s behaviour, look, and gestures points to her obvious spite, and to her speech as a denial of her desire.” But, from a woman’s point of view, the action reveals her continuing interest in Lincoln, and willingness to use feminine wiles (Abe’s rivalry with Douglas) to keep him interested by provoking potential jealousy. The Cahiers boys don’t seem to catch on to the trick.

Foreshadowing Cass’ guilt

Cahiers doesn’t discuss it, only labeling them “bad boys,” but various clues appear early in the film marking J. Palmer Cass and his companion Scrub White as bully characters. At the Independence Day Parade and the fair during the pie contest, just as the Clay family arrives to see the event, Cass is briefly seen grabbing a small jug (presumed to be liquor) from an onlooker. The fellow protests the theft, and Cass’ buddy, Scrub, wearing a deputy sheriff’s badge, roughly pushes the fellow to the ground. The action is quite fast, leaving the impression of bullying activity. Then, as the family looks on, Cass encourages Scrub to tease Sarah by brushing his riding crop against the side of her head. She brushes the irritation, as if it were an insect and as Scrub and Cass laugh, finally she realizes she is being harassed and draws closer to her husband and infant.[38] The guys move away.

During the Tug O’War, Cass and Scrub again stand behind the family, and Scrub again teases her with the whip end while Cass is amused. Again, she tries to withdraw, but when the cord is dangled in front of her, her husband notices and responds, “Leave my wife alone.” Scrub challenges Matt and pushes him with his arm. Mrs. Clay intervenes telling the intruders to leave them alone, and they leave, but Scrub calls out, “Bye Honey, see you later.” Cass laughs with his friend through the whole episode. Public sexual harassment in the form of teasing and violating personal space physically and verbally: Cass is guilty of aiding and abetting. Cahiers passes this off as “an incident between the family and two roughnecks.”[39]

At the murder scene, Cass is deputized on the spot by the Sheriff and escorts the boys to the jail. Once the crowd gets unruly, Cass first tries to leave. Looking desperate, he appeals to the sheriff, “Open it up, Sheriff! Let me get out of here!” But the lawman won’t allow it. Then, standing against the jailhouse door, with the crowd having begun to pound the door with a log as a battering ram, Cass cowers. Seeing his deputy badge, he takes it off and throws it away: definitively revealing his cowardice. Cowardice at least to a U.S. audience; Cahiers on the final trial moments: “…Cass, around whom the whole film has accumulated the clichés of hypervirility….” A deputy throwing away his badge is just the opposite of “virile” in U.S. understandings of appropriate masculinity.

At the edge of the pie contest onlookers, J. Palmer Cass grabs a jug of whiskey from a fellow. When he protests, Cass’s buddy, deputy Scrub White, pushes the guy to the ground. The Clay family arrives. The bully boys continue their antics. As Cass holds the stolen jug of liquor, White uses the end of his riding crop to tease Sara Clay who is watching the pie contest with her husband, baby, and other family members.
Sara first thinks an insect brushed her hair, but then realizes the laughing bullies are sexually harassing her. The jerks move off, laughing about their clever dickishness.
Later, while the Clay family watches the tug o’war, Clay and White recommence their sexist invasion of personal space ... ... as White again touches Sara.
Matt Clay confronts White, telling him, “leave my wife alone!” White is belligerent and pushes the husband while his buddy Cass chortles.  

Lynching (an aside)

Of course, Cahiers discusses the entire lynching scene in some depth. And they observe that lynching was an issue in the United States c. 1939, referencing several films: Fury (Lang, 1936), They Won’t Forget (LeRoy, 1937) and Black Legion (Mayo, 1937). In his later comments, Ben Brewster mentions these films involve only whites whereas lynching was an issue at the time for black Americans.

Lynching, killing by mob action outside of the judicial system, and its role in the United States as racial terrorism is a large topic that has received increasing attention in recent years. It’s much too big a topic to elaborate here, but we can mark two aspects in relation to cinema. Roughly there are two phases to lynching as a practice. The first is linked to the frontier and is framed (read excused) within a justice system still in formation. Actually, it is most often employed as a power play by dominant parties against minorities and opposition elements (and was thus used against abolitionists in the pre-war South and rebellious slaves). In fiction, lynching reappears as a common narrative trope about transition in the West in various forms, especially cattlemen vs. farmers, gunslingers vs. lawmen, and so forth. The lynching, as a group activity and public spectacle, often of someone already in custody taken forcibly from jail, appears again and again in written and cinematic fiction, long after the closing of the frontier.

The second phase in U.S. history begins with the end of Reconstruction in 1876, and the growth of racial terrorism visited on African Americans, especially in the South, as whites tried to re-establish their power. It is especially worth noting that African American women were the leaders in anti-lynching campaigns and organizations, and that asking for Federal intervention was a recurrent legislative issue Republicans put forward federal anti-lynching legislation in Congress only to have it blocked by Southern Democrat filibuster in the Senate. In U.S. film history then, due to the prominence of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the ongoing organizing against the film by the NAACP, depictions of lynching were always heavily charged. Although effective organizing had actually reduced the incidence of lynching in the 1930s, from 1931-1937 the trials and retrials of the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of black men accused of raping two white women, was an ongoing national story that highlighted racial injustice in Alabama. The initial events included an attempted lynching. Lynching was still a potent issue as seen by the 1940 bestseller status of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, a white-on-white violence Western that was subsequently made into a 1943 film starring Henry Fonda (d. William Wellman). Racial lynching was famously addressed by Billie Holiday’s performance of the song Strange Fruit (1939), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Thorpe, 1939) includes a finale with Huck (Mickey Rooney) arriving just in time to save Jim (Rex Ingram) from a lynch mob.

On method

The Cahiers YML analysis shows just how dense and complex a “classic cinema” film can be. At the start, discussing methodology, they explain that they will not be doing the usual modes of writing a commentary (distilling “an ideally constituted sense presented as the object’s ultimate meaning”) nor offering a new interpretation (“the translation of what is supposed to be already in the film into a critical system”), nor a dissection (in the familiar mode of French rhetorical explication which they see as mechanical), nor a demystification (in the mechanical materialist mode of Cinéthique). They explicitly refer to Walter Benjamin’s idea to consider an artwork not as a direct reflection of the relations of production (a vulgar Marxist view that the superstructure simply reflects the economic base), but rather as having a place within production (that is the author considered as producer). Their reference to Macherey also shows concern for the production of meaning rather than just assuming it is immanent in the work.[40] By pursuing their method of “active reading” Cahiers is moving from a synchronic analysis to a diachronic one. Thus they discuss the film by breaking it down from scene to scene and showing the gradual emergence and unfolding of meaning. This way of working through a film text is clearly indebted to Roland Barthes then-recently-published book, S/Z.[41]

Actually proceeding along with the Cahiers reading, one senses that they were not only working as a group with divergent talents and interests but also that they were absorbing everything they could from every different possible source. But from a perspective of 40 years later, their use of psychoanalysis seems especially stunted and dated.

“Thus if the dance scene signifies the hero’s social recognition (reward), the dance with Mary Todd puts him into a real castration, the retroactive effect of the lynching scene (which already implied it logically, writing it into the unconscious of Ford’s text). There the castrating action was made on the basis of a castration which becomes effective in the dance scene and particularly in the balcony scene…Ann’s death must be read as the real origin both of his castration and of his identification with the Law; and the “inversion” of the dance scene as well as sits relation to the lynching scene take on their true meaning: Lincoln does not have the phallus, he is the phallus (see Lacan “La signification du phallus”).”

A relatively short time later in the mix (could we say maelstrom?) of film theory the common meme would be “the text produces the subject,” that is, that through its complex and dynamic unfolding (demonstrated through the vast detailing of close analysis) a film produces a meaning-effect for the individual receiving it. But that theoretical position—stridently argued as it was—soon had to give way to a more sophisticated understanding, that “meaning” is created by the interaction of a text and a reader/audience and that the audience is historically and socially situated (thus allowing for richer views of cultural difference, gender, identity, and so forth), and that any one individual has a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of the work.

In retrospect, the stance on YML is skewed by resting on the unsupported assumption of the producer’s intention. There is no clear external evidence for this, and although internal textual evidence can be found, and Cahiers does find it, they assume that the piece as a whole marches toward a singular conclusion: Lincoln mythic and eternal. But another plausible reading can be supported: the film largely operates to validate the shrewd wit of Honest Abe, frontier man of the people. The conclusion, with Lincoln cheered for the trial victory by an offscreen throng, stepping onto a balcony to face the public, can be read as an uplifting finale, a sudden rise which forecasts the (well-known) future: the famous debates with Douglas, the Presidency while conducting the Civil War.

Famously, Cahiers describes the last scenes of the film as presenting Lincoln as “an intolerable figure”—stressing “his castrating power” and “excessive violence,” in interrogating Cass to get the confession. [42] In the final scene, they argue,

“…it is the excesses of Ford’s writing (accumulation of lightening, rain, wind, thunder, etc.) which by overlaying all the clichés, underlines the monstrous character of the figure of Lincoln: he leaves the frame and the film (like Nosferatu) as if it had become impossible for him to be filmed any longer; he is an intolerable figure,…”

And yet this grand finale also reads metonymically as a reference to his greatest future task. The wind, thunder, and lightening all read as foreshadowing of the wartime battlefield with thunder sounding much like distant cannon fire. And the swelling music (which Cahiers doesn’t mention) is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the North’s Civil War anthem.[43] Is Ford being excessive? Or does he just more deeply understand the collective psyche of the U.S. audience? We might reality check by comparing Ford’s final scene with, say, the famous Elvis Presley showstopper of his 70s shows. “An American Trilogy” wove together “Dixie,” “All My Trials,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in a stadium performance finale that always brought the audience to its feet and an emotional peak. Sentiment, tears, patriotism, the grand gesture.[44]

Summing it up

Because the YML study was one moment in a longer and complicated process, any attempt to discuss it ends up freezing the essay: catching it as a finish line photo that can show some relations to what surrounded it but not explaining where it came from and how it fit into what happened later. Reading it today, we need to think of it in terms of two larger theoretical matters in film analysis: realism and Bazin’s aesthetics.

These are themselves big issues that need (and already have) book-length consideration, but I’ll reduce them to a simple shorthand. Bazin’s vastly influential postwar formulations rested on a core conception of a unitary and coherent subject, a fully formed person, understanding a film. Film has a special ability to capture the impression of reality. For the French theorist, the process is fairly transparent, and therefore realism is good. The major historically contrasting movements to realism at the time were Expressionism and (Russian) Formalism in which directors heavily and obviously manipulated the film to deliver strong emotional (and intellectual) effects. In contrast, the humanist mood of realism (especially Italian Neo-realism) seemed to give the audience a more democratic, less dramatic, less manipulated experience.

Because in this model “content” is largely pre-given, a fairly transparent form is good, and the film can be well discussed as a unitary experience, a memorial experience. Meaning can be summed up nicely. But from the later 1950s on a counter-trend gained considerable intellectual force in France.[45] Brecht’s work in theatre and his aesthetic and political concerns offered a powerful critique of conventional realism. Increasingly known after his long exile from Hitler’s Germany, and providing a clear alternative to Stalinist period Soviet art while remaining obviously Left, Brecht challenged realism by offering the idea that progressive theater should disrupt the audience, challenge it, open up space for active rather than passive spectatorship. And complimentary examples appeared in the 1960s, both in Theatre of the Absurd on stage and within the New Wave most obviously with Godard’s obvious fascination with a Brechtian aesthetic.[46]

We can see the results of these trends in post-68 Cahiers. Picking upon Brecht’s critique of a passive audience, blandly consuming a “culinary” theatre, and having an Aristotlean catharsis that raised emotions and problems only to wash them away, they turned against realism.[47] A bold innovation in the YML essay is to shift attention to the films dynamic process, to the process of signification. We can counterpose Cahiers’ position as “the (dynamic, unfolding) film creates meaning” against Bazin’s classic formulation, “style creates meaning.” For Bazin “style,” or at least accomplished style, was something an auteur-director had as an expressive core and could use in shaping a pre-given content. Cahiers, in contrast and in the YML piece, argues that the text is not coherent, it has absences and fissures, at least some of which are more readily revealed by looking at unconscious elements. Therefore, to study the film text one must consider it as mostly in process, in motion: thus the scene-by-scene breakdown in the YML essay. And one should assume that the subject-viewer is not a unified being, but rather is in constant adjustment during the film. Given the (relatively new, at least to them) idea that ideology produces subjectivity, Bazin’s model produced a conformist spectator experience.[48] While championing an active, avant garde, Brechtian cinema, Cahiers found a way to still validate some apparently mainstream films, the “category e” group because those films, with their cracks and contradictions, produced a disrupted and thus (potentially) progressive subject/viewer experience.

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