Judge Priest (1934)

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

Judge Priest Poster

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

Genres:

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
    Judge Priest Rogers
  • Many subtly humorous moments — such as Rogers and an accused chicken thief (Stepin Fetchit) heading off to fish together after leaving the courthouse
    Judge Priest Stepin
  • Rogers and Hattie McDaniel singing in “call-and-response” together
    Judge Priest McDaniel

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.

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

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One Response to “Judge Priest (1934)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history, its solid performances (with a fine turn by Rogers), and for Ford’s confident direction.

    I’d seen this once before. A revisit now has reminded how well this film stands up. It’s a simple story – mostly a character study of the Judge – but it has a compact plot structure which augments the film’s main focus on character.

    In fact, the whole town the story is set in is nicely characterized – with peripheral, seemingly unimportant scenes (i.e., those depicting McDaniel going about her daily duties while singing) serving to sharpen the film’s atmosphere.

    This is 80 minutes used very wisely, without a moment wasted and with nothing needlessly added. It’s simply a well-made drama, sprinkled with welcome humor throughout – an all-around ‘good show’.

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