A Movie A Day: Quint on JUDGE PRIEST (1934) Lord help you, white child! What them Yankees been feedin’ you?
Published at: Nov. 11, 2008, 4:47 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Now this is more like it. After two early John Ford comedies I found one that I really dug. We jump from yesterday’s DOCTOR BULL via Mr. Ford and star Will Rogers.
I’m not a big fan of either DOCTOR BULL or UP THE RIVER, the other two Ford comedies we’ve covered so far, but this one really worked for me.
First of all, the transfer comes from a real, complete print with no “best materials available” type deal that we’ve had to put up with for the previous two, but that’s all surface matters. What really works here is the story.
Based on a novel by Irvin S. Cobb, this film takes place in the late 1800s, post Civil War, where most of the Kentucky townspeople we see are Union veterans. The aim isn’t to focus on race or excuse the South’s positions during the war, but to look fondly at these men as people.
The opening crawl is a note from Mr. Cobb explaining that he grew up knowing many of these people and wanted to accurately portray them, especially Judge Priest who was a real person.
I think the world could use more Judge Priests, especially if the real man was even half as kind-hearted and smart as the way Will Rogers played him.
It’s a bizarre little movie. In my filmgoing experience, I don’t see too many films nostalgic about the post-war South, so that adds a whole layer to this film that I think is a big part of my enjoyment of it.
In many ways this film is about tolerance, not just of different races, but of different people in general. Judge Priest spends the majority of the movie playing dumb, but quietly manipulating everyone around him to be better people.
The main story is probably how he deals with his nephew, played by Tom Brown, fresh out of law school with the ambition to be a lawyer. Brown is innocent as innocent can be, in love with a girl his mother radically disapproves of, a neighbor and childhood crush played by Anita Louise.
The poor girl’s mother died in childbirth and they don’t know who the father is, so obviously that means she will tarnish the Priest family name if Tom Brown picks her instead of the arranged bride, a snooty brunette and daughter of local sleazy politician.
Will Rogers doesn’t quite cotton to that idea and manipulates everybody, including his rigid sister, to arrange things so Brown and Louise have as much alone time as possible.
There’s another layer to this movie having to do with a trial of a man who knifed a barber (the skeazy bastard had it coming, though) and seeing how Rogers pulls strings and sets the stage just right, even when he’s removed from the bench for being partial to the case, is kind of joyous.
I think a lot of people will focus on the race issues of the movie and I can’t argue against that too much. This is my first Stepin Fetchit movie, actually. If you don’t know that name, he was a vaudeville performer who became the first African American superstar. But he became so famous by portraying a pretty offensive stereotype, the lazy black guy with a fistful of fried chicken, etc, etc.
So I feel a little guilty that I was so enteretained by him in this movie. Yes, yes… it’s offensive, but there’s something innocent about his performance (a character oddly named Poindexter) and the way he works with Will Rogers. I never got the feeling that Rogers treats him as inferior.
Also in the movie is Hattie McDaniel who works for the Judge. I’m no fan of GONE WITH THE WIND and find that flick to be roundly overrated, but I’ve always loved Hattie McDaniel in the movie. She’s just as likable and warm here… If Jolly had a face, she’d be wrestling with Santa Claus to claim the label.
That’s the thing with the African Americans represented in this movie… if you can look at it considering not only the time-frame in which the movie is set, but also when it was made you can overlook some of the overt stereotypes, or at least accept them as part of history. Much like SONG OF THE SOUTH, this is post-Civil War and also like SOUTH OF THE SOUTH most of the white characters don’t really treat the black characters with disrespect. In fact, I would argue that in Song of the South Uncle Remus is the most likable person, the only reasonable adult role-model for the children.
Here Hattie is very much a mother hen type, but she does sing spirituals… actually, our introduction to her is singing about washing the Judge’s clothes as she picks them from the line. So, yeah, there’s a lot of stereotyping, but I believe that in McDaniel’s case it’s more or less an accurate post-War representation. Maybe not so much with Stepin Fetchit’s bumbling, lazy, thieving, high-pitched caricature. Maybe I’m an evil, evil racist bastard for laughing at his jokes, but I don’t think so. I think he’s just funny and I like some really wrong humor sometimes.
Final Thoughts: Judge Priest is a charming, funny little movie. The plot isn’t very deep, but the characters are all interesting and well-developed. I believe Irvin S. Cobb’s intro. I can see all these people existing in one form or another. There is a reality and a healthy nostalgia for this time period and its people that comes off as very sweet. It’s definitely the most successful of the three early Ford comedies I’ve seen and one that I feel I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Tuesday, November 11th: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)
Wednesday, November 12th: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Thursday, November 13th: DANIEL (1983)
Friday, November 14th: EL DORADO (1967)
Saturday, November 15th: THE GAMBLER (1974)
Sunday, November 16th: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Monday, November 17th: SALVADOR (1986)
We leave John Ford and dive into some Agatha Christie for the next couple of AMADs. See you folks tomorrow for TEN LITTLE INDIANS!