#21 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A sort of remake of Judge Priest, taking on a slightly different selection of short stories by Irvin S. Cobb about his character of Billy Priest, The Sun Shines Bright is a more refined telling of a very similar set of stories than the earlier version. Still steeped in nostalgia for an idealized Kentucky post-Civil War and missing the presence of Will Rogers, replaced capably by Charles Winninger, the movie is a sweet look at one man making his little town better by simply being good and decent. Ford would later say that it was one of his favorite movies he made himself, holding it up as an example of what he was trying to do in the movies.
Billy Priest (Winninger) is a local judge up for re-election in the next few days against his opponent, the county prosecutor Horace K. Maydew (Milburn Stone). Priest helps to let off a young black man, US Grant Woodford (Elzie Emanuel), son to Priest’s servant Uncle Plez (Ernest Whitman) of a small charge, helped by his ability with a banjo. That same day, Ashby Corwin (John Russell) returns to town after years away and gains an eye for the social pariah Lucy Lee Lake (Arleen Whelan), a woman of unknown parentage, the ward of the local doctor. She’s pretty and young, but no one will approach her because of the knowledge that her mother was a woman of not a well-looked upon profession.
The closest thing this film has to a plot is Priest navigating the eventful few days before the election to both do what he thinks is right and to try and win re-election. The central piece to all of this is US going into a white part of town where a trio of hound dogs chase him up a tree after a young white woman is attacked and left unconscious. Because the dogs went after US, the people in the small community think it was him and they’re ready to lynch him the first chance they get. In a scene reminiscent of the future president talking down a mob in Young Mr. Lincoln, Priest tries to talk down the mob before pulling a gun on them and threatening to shoot them should they try to break down the door, scattering them for a time. At a teetotalling election dinner where Priest must try to keep his fellow ex-Confederate soldiers happy in the face of an evening without alcohol, the sheriff rolls up with the actual perpetrator whom the girl identified after she woke up, Buck (Grant Withers) whom had insulted Lucy on the street earlier in the film.
Concurrently, an older woman (Dorothy Jordan), sick with disease, comes into town and dies in the local brothel despite the doctor’s good care. She is Lucy’s mother, a former paramour of the Confederate general Fairfield (James Kirkwood) whom has known that Lucy was his daughter for years due to her resemblance to the woman he had known and refused to acknowledge her as well. The woman’s dying wish was to have a real funeral with a preacher giving a sermon. When she does die, Priest leads the funeral procession that he pays for himself, his act of goodwill towards an unwanted member of society inspiring the people of the town to join in and attend her funeral where he reads the story of Jesus saving Mary Magdalene. It’s a real sweet moment as Priest uses his status of authority in the town to extend a gracious hand towards a woman forgotten and cast aside, even in death.
Needless to say, his efforts at just being a decent man, saving US’s life by holding off the mob, being a gracious individual to the veterans of the Union army also living in the town, and holding a funeral for a forgotten woman, end up giving him the necessary votes to winning his re-election. It’s not challenging, but it is heartfelt and warm. I do miss the easy charm of Will Rogers in the role, but Charles Winninger is nice as Priest. He’s a good old man, set in his ways, but he just doesn’t have that same kind of appeal as Rogers that I found so affectionate in Judge Priest. Overall, though, I find this to be the better film.
The story is more cohesive, comes to a nicer conclusion that’s not as steeped in Confederate rose-colored glasses, and is more emotionally resonant. It’s a very nice movie.