Judge Priest (1934)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Hattie McDaniel, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Berton Churchill, Stepin Fetchit
  • Judge Priest, a proud Confederate veteran, dispenses justice in small town Kentucky.

“Maybe I did have a hankering for the spirit of the law and not the letter.”

Judge Priest is pre-Monument Valley John Ford as you’ve frequently seen him before—chasing the spirit of America through near-mythological visions of his small-town upbringing. Not a lot of the film worked for me necessarily–I needed more resonance and less broad, slow-to-unwind portraiture–but the more that I think about it I realize that it is pivotal in helping to piece together the director’s vision of the country’s rich past and present.

Like many other Ford works, the film highlights patriotism on an intensely personal level, as if the many trials, stains, and lessons of our country’s history were boiled down into the soul of just one man. This concept translates to his Westerns as well, but aesthetically what Judge Priest brings to mind most is 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Both centered on a contentious court case and the leads of each, with their strong convictions and folksy charm, both lead the lonely life of a widow during rapidly changing times. The latter film executed everything better in my view, the script especially, but I suspect that Ford held Judge Priest in higher esteem because in 1953 he revisited the Irvin S. Cobb series of stories for The Sun Shines Bright, on record as Ford’s favorite Ford. Perhaps I would be more forgiving of the film had this been an origin story, the first adaptation of Cobb’s series instead of a standalone piece. There are too few minutes devoted to actual plot and the film takes a lot of time scene-setting, kind of forcing the audience to adopt the lackadaisical, julep-sipping attitude of its geography.

We open with Priest passing down a judgment on Stepin Fetchit’s character, an accused chicken thief. Fetchit was the go-to guy for Hollywood if a script called for a buffoonish cartoon character of an African American. Just as the film’s other black star, Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, was the proud and tuneful Mammy choice of the time. These were deeply stereotypical portrayals as were the hootin’ and hollerin, tabacca-chewin’ Confederate Pride folks in the film. There was also Will Rogers’ Colonel Sanders outfit to contend with, as well as a taffy pulling party, which is apparently a thing where people socialize while literally pulling taffy between each other. There should have been no surprise of what was in store from the opening title crawl which placed the film in a small Kentucky town in 1890, but it was indeed the Old South turned up to about a 20 out of 10.

Ford even brought into the fold Henry B. Walthall, one of the more memorable faces from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The veteran actor’s epic scene that closes the film is the typical stuff of Confederate romance novels everywhere, but it is the most visually striking scene of the film, with Walthall’s free-floating head superimposed over great Civil War battle scenes, and his speech is delivered with striking charisma and stoicism.

For all the wince-inducing moments of Judge Priest, I give praise to both Ford and Rogers for the solid undercurrent of tolerance and racial acceptance running through the film. Ford’s reliance on stereotype in this case was not one of ignorance but to draw lines as stark as possible and perhaps heighten the audience’s response in the process. For Rogers’ part, the film definitely clicks best in the scenes which see Priest connecting with Fetchit’s Jeff Poindexter or McDaniel’s Aunt Dilsey on a personal level, whether in song or leisurely jest.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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