“I must know what’s going on: who am I?”
With help from his loyal servant (Stepin Fetchit), a Southern judge (Charles Winninger) defends the rights and dignities of the downtrodden in his town, including a young black man (Elzie Emanuel) falsely accused of rape and a newly repatriated sickly prostitute (Dorothy Jordan). Meanwhile, a beautiful southern belle (Arleen Whelan) is courted by a handsome young man (John Russell) who is unaware of her true parentage, and who battles on her behalf against a local bully (Grant Withers).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Deep South
- John Ford Films
- Mistaken or Hidden Identities
- Morality Police
- Prostitutes and Gigolos
John Ford’s follow-up to his 1934 film Judge Priest — based on characters in several short stories by Irvin S. Cobb — was, along with Wagon Master (1950), purportedly one of Ford’s personal favorites. It tells a meandering if ultimately coherent tale of numerous small-town events, all centering around morality and the need to stand up for the innocent and unfairly maligned. Unfortunately, the film’s morals come across as decidedly problematic, given that Fetchit is reduced yet again to playing a typically servile, lazy, incomprehensible, and fumbling Black companion, while Winninger’s defense of Emanuel posits him unambiguously as the town’s necessary White Savior. This is especially ironic given an extended sequence early in the film — one seemingly included as character enhancement rather than to further the plot — in which Winninger celebrates his former role in the Confederacy. While the final funeral procession does arouse one’s emotions, it seems to come at the cost of a misremembered sense of chivalry, nobility, and racial justice — ideals that have yet to manifest in our nation.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Atmospheric cinematography
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Ford completist.