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Month: August 2008

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest (1934)

“The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood…”

Synopsis:
A judge (Will Rogers) in turn-of-the-century Kentucky helps his nephew (Tom Brown) romance a fatherless neighbor girl (Anita Louise).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Courtroom Drama
  • Deep South
  • John Ford Films
  • Judges
  • Will Rogers Films

Review:
Judge Priest — the second of Will Rogers’ three collaborations with director John Ford — is considered by many to be the best of the bunch. As the long-time judge in a small southern town (circa 1890), Rogers’ Judge Priest — like his Doctor Bull — is perhaps a bit too complacent in his status, taking for granted that his well-meaning nature will prevent nay-sayers from complaining about either his decisions or his laid-back demeanor. From the very beginning of the film, we learn that Priest is the type of judge who would rather read a newspaper than listen to pompous lawyers grandstanding in his courtroom:


and who feels no compunction at all about going fishing with an accused thief (Stepin Fetchit) who was on trial in front of him not half-an-hour earlier. His insistence on helping his love-struck nephew (Brown) romance a fatherless young woman (Louise) against his snooty sister’s protestations is further proof that “Judge Priest” (a strategically chosen name, no doubt) is able to see beyond the petty constraints of social prejudices.

It should be noted that while Fetchit’s role in this film — as well as that of Hattie McDaniel (Priest’s housekeeper) and other “happy” African-American servants — falls into stereotypically offensive territory, Rogers’ interactions with both Fetchit and McDaniel allow for a slightly more nuanced representation of race relations than was usual for the time. His laid-back friendship with Fetchit implies that he cares more about enjoying life than maintaining the illusion of racial superiority, and his participation in McDaniel’s “call and response” singing while she’s cleaning once again shows that the pure joy of music making means more to him than either class or race.


While minor, these tiny deviations from the norm make it clear that Rogers really did try to live by his famous credo of “never meeting a man [sic] he didn’t like”. It’s too bad, then, that Ford’s decision to end the film with a group of black man cheerily bursting into “Dixie” outside the courtroom ultimately turns the film into yet another naively revisionist depiction of Southern history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Will Rogers as Judge Priest
  • Many subtly humorous moments

Must See?
Yes, but only to see Rogers in one of his most notable screen appearances; the film itself remains flawed. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Dr. Bull (1933)

Dr. Bull (1933)

“We’re ashamed of your goings-on in this town… It’s a shame and a scandal in the community!”

Synopsis:
A country doctor (Will Rogers) dating a widower (Vera Allen) must endure the mean-spirited gossip of his dissatisfied small-town clients.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Doctors and Nurses
  • John Ford Films
  • Small Town America
  • Will Rogers Films

Review:
In the first of his three collaborations with director John Ford, famed showman and journalist Will Rogers (the “most popular actor in America” in 1934) embodies the homespun persona so beloved by his many fans: a down-to-earth, quick-witted individual who must fight quietly yet insistently against provincialism. His Dr. Bull is a well-meaning, laid-back physician whose refusal to indulge the whims of his small-minded patrons — or care much about their incessant gossip — ultimately puts his career in jeopardy; while he eventually “saves the day” (in classic Hollywood fashion), he’s never portrayed as anything other than a three-dimensional, flawed human being. Far from heroic, Dr. Bull is in fact boyish and immature in many ways: he still lives with his elderly aunt, is unable to get serious with his long-time “acquaintance” (Allen), and enjoys — perhaps a bit too much — tweaking the sensibility of his priggish female neighbors (when passing by a group of churchgoing women standing near a graveyard, he nonchalantly mortifies them by asking, “What’re y’all gathered here… Whatsa matter — somebody get out?”). While Dr. Bull is widely considered to be the least of Rogers’ three films with Ford, it will — naturally — be of interest to fans of this early American icon.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Will Rogers as Dr. Bull

Must See?
No, unless you’re a Will Rogers fan or a John Ford completist.

Links:

Exile, The (1947)

Exile, The (1947)

“You all know my terms as well as I: we’ll go home when we are freely called, by all our countrymen — and not one day before!”

Synopsis:
While living in exile in Holland, King Charles Stuart (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) falls in love with a local farmer (Rita Corday) and tries to escape the clutches of his enemies, the puritanical Roundheads (led by Henry Daniell).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Max Ophuls Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., wrote, produced, and starred in this Anglophilic imagining (based on Cosmo Hamilton’s novel His Majesty, the King) of King Charles Stuart II’s life in exile before the Restoration in 1660. The plot focuses primarily on Stuart’s (fictional) romance with a Dutch girl (Corday), and, ultimately, his dilemma over whether to maintain his blissful working class existence with her, or return to the throne of England to serve his “larger” purpose in life. In the meantime, the indomitable Charles is pursued by Oliver Cromwell’s supporters (embodied primarily by the bloodthirsty character of black-hatted Colonel Ingram — a perfectly cast Henry Daniell), and must persuade Corday that a former flame (Maria Montez) no longer holds any sway over his heart. [Montez is simply delightful — and typically over-the-top — in her few shorts scenes midway through the film.] Fortunately, director Max Ophuls (in his first American production) adds his inimitable touch to the proceedings, elevating what would otherwise be a mundane historical drama into something slightly more involving; by the end of the film, we can’t help caring about Charles and the fate of his country.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as exiled King Charles
  • Rita Corday as Katie
  • Maria Montez as a visiting French countess
  • Henry Daniell as Colonel Ingram
  • Ophuls’ unique directorial touch
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look.

Links: