Sunday, September 04, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Judge Priest (1934)

With the calendar turning to September, I've suddenly realized I need to get going on my list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2016!

I saw one film on the list, SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), at the TCM Classic Film Festival and loved it. I haven't yet written about it here at length as I wanted to revisit it on DVD first to refresh my memory; some things blur when you see 15 movies in three and a half days! I recently obtained the DVD and plan to watch it again soon.

My 10 Classics lists have helped push me to fill in some unseen films directed by John Ford, and this is one of them! JUDGE PRIEST also gave me the opportunity to see more of Will Rogers' work; I believe the only previous Rogers film I've seen was Ford's STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND (1935) a couple of years ago. I have several other Rogers films in my collection which I hope to start exploring before long.

JUDGE PRIEST is a lovely Valentine to Rogers and life in a small Kentucky town, a film which is somehow both leisurely yet a briskly paced 80 minutes. It's a deceptively simple movie, filled with incidents of fishing, croquet, and taffy pulling, yet it has a lot to say about kindness and how to treat one's fellow man.

Rogers plays the title character, an unorthodox jurist if ever there was one; for instance, when Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) is accused of being a chicken thief, he ends up being the kindly judge's constant companion.

The film is a series of vignettes in which the judge's beloved nephew Rome (Tom Brown) comes home from a northern law school. Rome loves the judge's next-door neighbor, a pretty teacher named Ellie May (Anita Louise).

Rome's mother (Brenda Fowler) looks askance on Ellie May, as her "people" are unknown, and prefers that Rome court a senator's daughter (Rochelle Hudson). Rome's mother is no match for true love, however...and Ellie May's father will soon be revealed in a surprising way.

This film is quintessential Ford, a look at a community in general and one man in particular, mixing comedy and tears as only Ford can do.

The sequence where the judge visits the grave of his late wife and children would later be emulated in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949). It's quite touching, especially the scene where the lonely judge looks at a photograph of his family; it's sentimental yet not overdone.

Other scenes are quite funny, including a scene where the judge scares off the nasty barber (Frank Melton) from courting Ellie May by having a "conversation" in which he imitates the voice of Jeff (Fetchit).

There's a wonderful role for Hattie McDaniel as the judge's singing housekeeper; the moment when the judge joins her in singing might be my favorite scene in the movie. There's also an excellent performance by Henry Walthall as the local Episcopal priest.

Tragically this was the last film for actor David Landau (DEATH ON THE DIAMOND), who passed away at the age of 56 the year after the movie's release. (In fact, I would add that Will Rogers also passed away in 1935.) He says little in the film in his role as Rome's first client, but his expressive face and presence give the film a poignancy it would not otherwise have.

Unfortunately, in today's world I think some people react so reflexively to things such as the Confederate flag or the Stepin Fetchit characterization, without regard to the context of either the time the film was made or the world it depicts, that they may be unable to appreciate the great beauty and positive lessons to be found in this film. I hope I'm wrong about that.

Ford loved the story and the Judge Priest character created by Irvin S. Cobb so much he remade the movie two decades later as THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953), with Charles Winninger as Judge Priest. Rather remarkably, Stepin Fetchit repeated his role as Jeff Poindexter. Francis Ford was also in both versions. (Update: THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is not a direct remake; see the comments for more on this.)

JUDGE PRIEST was filmed by John Schneiderman. The supporting cast also includes Berton Churchill, Roger Imhof, and Charley Grapewin.

JUDGE PRIEST is available on DVD in the Ford at Fox Collection or the smaller John Ford's American Comedies Collection. It may be streamed via Amazon Instant Video. It also had a release on VHS.


Blogger barrylane said...

Might be both interesting and entertaining to do a breakdown of The sun Shines Bright with Judge Priest.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, definitely. I have a copy of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT on hand thanks to the kindness of Blake Lucas, and I look forward to watching it. I'm especially intrigued as it has a prominent role for John Russell, who I enjoy very much, and it will also be interesting to see Arleen Whelan, who was in Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939).

Best wishes,

11:15 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is often referred to as a remake of JUDGE PRIEST but it is not. It's also based on Irvin S. Cobb and has some of the same characters, especially the title character and Jeff, but integrates a number of stories, all different than this one, and takes place at a later time. And though the Ford of the 30s was already great, and had Will Rogers here, the Ford of 1953 was an even more mature, deeper artist.

Your observations about how this film might be taken today prompt me to comment on that. Both this film and THE SUN (the later film even more) are studies of a community coming to tolerance and--though set in the past--some level of integration, even racially, at least in terms of respect among these parts of the community. And in this regard, these films (and again it's especially so of the later one though true of both) are actually visionary, and--on a deeper, poetic level that allows for the historical time as well as their being fiction--way ahead of where we are now. I believe if we can look beyond superficial ideas of stereotypes, we can see this and see Ford's vision of what he wanted for America.

I have no hesitation in saying that Stepin Fetchit is for me a brilliant comic actor who contributes beautifully to the Fordian world. More important than that in terms of the films, may I point out that Jeff quickly becomes the Judge's friend in this film. In THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, as you'll see, he is very plainly the Judge's closest companion--the two men have lived together for years at that point, and, in different ways, take care of each other, and I find their relationship a moving one.

Laura, when you see DOCTOR BULL (and I would encourage you to do this sooner rather than later--next year anyway), I'll share with you how I rank the three Ford/Rogers movies but will say I treasure them all.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake,

Thanks so much for taking the time to leave your thoughts on this special film. I've updated my post for accuracy regarding it being a remake.

That's a great point about the community having tolerance and integration -- although I didn't say it explicitly, that's the kind of positive thing I took away from the movie. Aside from the Judge's friendships with Jeff and Dilsey (Hattie McDaniel), I was struck by things like the integrated church social where all were clearly welcome. (I'd love to know more about the three Brown sisters who sang with McDaniel at the close of that sequence.) I hope that other viewers can see past the things which tend to be "red flags" these days and see the many positive messages about friendship and how to treat one's fellow man.

Best wishes,

12:44 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Supposedly one of the reasons Ford so wanted to make THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT was that he was not allowed to include an anti-lynching scene in JUDGE PRIEST and wanted to rectify that.

Also supposedly, Stepin Fetchit was one of Ford's closest friends. When Ford and company went to Annapolis to shoot scenes for SALUTE, Ford assigned young bit actor Duke Morrison (John Wayne, of course) to act as Fetchit's dresser.

Here's a favorite quote of mine. I found it in Joseph McBride's book, SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD. British film critic Dilys Powell on THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT:

"Perhaps life is not like a film by John Ford. Perhaps old gentlemen do not single-handedly deflect a murderous mob, perhaps an election is not so easily shamed by example into Christian charity. But it seems to me that this is acceptable as an artist’s abstract of life: not what life is, but what it ought to be. At any rate it sends you away not, as so many films do, nauseated and angry, but with the mortal desire for happiness and justice appeased."

1:35 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you for all that, Rick! You've got me even more curious to see THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT.

Lovely quote. :)

Best wishes,

2:09 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Lovely and smart comment from Dilys Powell. Thanks for sharing that, Rick.

2:16 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

It's fascinating that you picked up on the controversy that JUDGE PRIEST can generate. I like this film very much and think it communicates a message of tolerance quite wonderfully. However, I've been in heated arguments with others who have difficulty finding that message within the context of the era in which the film was made. I think Will Rogers' performance is a gem. I've seen many Will Rogers films where he simply repeats his "aw, shucks" character so it was a revelation to see him do some fine acting in this film. I, too, was moved by the graveyard scene and delighted by the singing scene between Rogers and McDaniel. Thank you, Laura, for your perceptive review. Best, Jane

6:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your note, Jane, and for sharing your take on the movie as well as your experiences discussing it with others. It's interesting that some of us find it so warm and encouraging yet others can't get past certain issues from the eras it was made and set in.

Rogers was so good, it made me want to see more of his films soon, and indeed, I'm going to be posting a review of STATE FAIR (1933) shortly! I also hope to see his other John Ford film, DOCTOR BULL (1933), in the near future.

I love knowing that you were as touched and delighted by those scenes as I was!

Best wishes,

7:49 PM  

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