1930s, 3/4, Comedy, Drama, John Ford, Review

Judge Priest

Judge Priest (1934) - IMDb

#43 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

An adaptation of Irvin S. Cobb’s comic character of the same name, Judge Priest is a thoroughly Southern and nostalgic look at post-Civil War Kentucky centered around Will Rogers’ titular character, based, assumedly, on a man Cobb knew in his youth. Much like Doctor Bull, this movie is largely carried by Rogers’ performance, an aw-shucks authority figure who holds his power lightly, happier to find an easy way through life than strictly applying the law at all costs. He’s a fun rock to build a film off of, and this surprisingly sweet look at Reconstruction life is an amusing and light entertainment.

Judge Priest is the circuit court judge in a small Kentucky town. His introduction is a case brought before him by his local rival, the former state senator prepping a run for Priest’s judgeship, Horace Maydew (Berton Churchill) against Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) for stealing some chickens. Priest is unconcerned with the case, much more concerned with a good fishing spot Poindexter notes, using Poindexter’s past helping the Confederate cause to turn the jury against Maydew and end the affair with Priest and Poindexter fishing.

Priest, widowed for some years, having lost both wife and son to some unspoken of accident, has a nephew fresh from law school, having passed the bar and moved back to town from the North and waiting for his first client. His nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), has some affection for Priest’s young neighbor Ellie May (Anita Louise), but Jerome’s mother Caroline (Brenda Fowler) has designs for Jerome to marry a woman with a better name than Ellie May, who doesn’t even know who her father is. Priest, though, suddenly figures it out when he goes to visit his wife’s grave and sees Bob Gillis (David Landau) laying flowers on the grave of Ellie May’s mother. I like how Priest figures it out instantly, along  with us, but holds onto the information until he decides to dole it out at opportune moments. It’s a strong use of point of view.

Gillis gets into a pair of fights with Flem Talley (Frank Melton), the local barber after Talley says some ungentlemanly things about Ellie May, but Gillis will simply not explain why. He refuses to bring Ellie May’s name into the situation even after he’s arrested for attacking Talley and two other men with a knife. He didn’t start the fight, but the words of three townspeople weigh more heavily than the words of a single outsider. When Priest must recuse himself from the case, he becomes part of the defense team along with Jerome, taking on his first client, and Priest is able to use his old tricks in new ways when he finds out the full history of Gillis’ past.

This film is unabashedly pro-Lost Cause. The finale is a rousing speech of patriotism in service of that cause, and the movie ends with two renditions of “Dixie”. These are men who fought in the Civil War and continue to feel pride for their service, sadness for the men they lost, and hope that their just cause will find victory again. It is largely the canvas on which the story is painted, and it convincingly conveys the time, place, and attitudes. It’s mostly controversial these days because of Stepin Fetchit, the stage name for Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, playing the coon stereotype that wasn’t all that accepted in the day but made the man incredibly wealthy personally. It’s there, as it has been in several Ford films, but whatever. It’s there.

There’s a lot to really like about this film. Rogers was just a fun personality that gave each character he played a humanity and warm patriarchal air that is kind of infectious when combined with his plain-talking sort of way. His aw-shucks attitude is endearing, and he uses his wits and whiles to win small moral victories along the way. Cleanly filmed by Ford, it’s a nice film that deserves some reappraisal.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “Judge Priest”

  1. I love everything I’ve seen and read by Will Rogers. I wish he’d lived a little bit longer and we’d gotten more films with him. It’s worth noting or nit picking maybe that Kentucky was very divided during and after the Civil War. There would be a whole lotta folks whom Confederate service would be a negative, not a positive. But it’s fiction, I shouldn’t expect the real world to enter into it much.

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    1. He’s a wonderful personality, though I can’t help the thought in the back of my mind linking Rogers with Andy Griffith’s character in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. I don’t want Rogers to have been like that, but I can’t quite escape the idea.

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