(John Ford, 1934)Judge Priest
follows very closely the template of Doctor Bull
, the first collaboration between Ford and Will Rogers, but the result is a comparative let-down. I'm guessing that's mostly attributable to quality of the source material, with Irvin S. Cobb's short stories about Judge Priest likely lacking the cohesion of the James Gould Cozzens novel from which Doctor Bull
The change in setting is equally problematic, especially with the film's uncritical attitude towards The Cause (i.e., the war to preserve the institution of slavery). The ending swells with Dixie pride
that's rather abhorrent not just by today's standards but even in the context of the film. When it's mentioned in a court proceeding that one character saved the life of a Union solider in battle, I fully expected it to elicit boos from the crowd in the courtroom. The fact that it doesn't lacks credibility, in context, and seems a bone thrown to any potential progressive viewers in the northern states.
An opening quotation from Cobb says of the man who inspired Judge Priest, "...I tried to draw reasonably fair likenesses of him and his neighbors and the town in which he lived." That declaration started me off on the wrong foot with the film, which quickly revealed itself to be populated with caricatures. Most notable in that regard is Stepin Fetchit, inexplicable playing his character as a simpleton. I liked him in The World Moves On
, but he's really poorly used here, and it's uncomfortable how the otherwise humane Priest (Rogers just radiates humanity) treats Fetchit like a slave, taking credit for saving him from a lynching.
I came into Judge Priest
excited to see another Will Rogers film, but the movie turns into a showcase for Henry B. Walthall
instead. It's such a shame that he (like Rogers) died so soon after this film, because he completely commands the screen in his appearances. (Walthall's other most notable role is in Griffith's Birth of a Nation
, a connection that underscores the problematic thematic nature of this film.)
Although there are good moments throughout Judge Priest
— highlighted by an absolutely wonderful duet
between Rogers and Hattie McDaniel — it's really the final act that makes the film worthwhile. Not only is that when Walthall takes over the film, but it's also when Ford comes alive with his highest quality filmmaking, combining Walthall's monologue with some dramatic battle footage and an exceptional use of diegetic music.
Funny to see Tom Brown
again — though I'm disappointed that he wasn't playing a character named Tom Brown
Up next: The Whole Town's Talking