Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest
Some of these old films come with a dismal sound quality. Add to that a heavy southern accent, even dialect, and a lot of mumbling and I get desperate for subtitles. Unfortunately “Judge Priest” is all that and my copy did not come with subtitles. I put it on the big television for the first 45 minutes, but it was hopeless. The ambient noise around me meant that much of the dialogue was a blur of which much of the meaning was derived through interpolation and most of the subtle details were lost on me.

I then changed to the laptop and a headset and suddenly I actually understood what everybody were saying. What a difference that made! Cause this film is all about the dialogue. Will Rogers as Judge Priest is having a running conversation with just about everybody including himself and is saying a lot of wonderful things. Missing that is missing the movie. I am not sure I am doing the movie justice as I strongly suspect it is better than what I got out of it.

John Ford was apparently nostalgic disposed. In his movies he tends to look back on a past long gone with a longing and nostalgia that said period may or may not deserve. So far I have commented on his “How green was my Valley” and “Stagecoach” and while all three pictures are very different they have that in common. “Judge Priest” does not have the action saturated pace of “Stagecoach” or the melodrama of “How green…”, but is a much more low key and unassuming portrait of an idealized south at the end of the nineteen century that could have been. This is a very harmonic community, where the problems are small and can be handled by a friendly talk, where people live peacefully together, black and white, rich and poor and those who think otherwise are obviously pompous, stupid people who can be punctured with the right remark.

It sounds a bit silly and I guess it is, but it is also very charming and as a whole a heartwarming film. I found it curious that the entire community including the black segment could rally around the confederate cause and use that to solve all other problems. I mean, a group of black musicians playing Dixie with a passion and thus promoting a cause that kept them in slavery sounds entirely odd to me. But then, I am not American and much less Southern, so I guess I am not supposed to understand that.

At the center of the action is Judge Priest (Will Rogers), who represents a pastoral, common sense with an easy relationship to just about everybody. A good example is the initial court case against Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), where Jeff sleeps and Priest reads a newspaper through the pompous speech of the prosecutor Senator Maydew (Berton Churchill). Priest dismisses (I think) the case, find out that Jeff fishes for catfish using chickens for bait and so they go fishing together.

The drama (or excuse for drama) of the film comes from two separate subplots that get tied up in the end.

Priest nephew, Jerome Priest (Tom Brown) has just returned from law school as a lawyer, young and full of energy. He is in love with the neighboring girl Ellie (Anita Louise), but that relationship is sabotaged by his pompous mother (Brenda Fowler), who despises the girl for not knowing her father and actively promotes a marriage with the bland daughter of Senator Maydew. Judge Priest does his best to help the youngsters including scaring away a potential (and disgusting) suitor and engaging the senator’s daughter so Jerome can run off and be with Ellie. He also does his best to disarm his sister and I love his remarks to her. When she comes, all puffed up in righteous anger, and complains to him he asks her if she has been too long in the sun. See, that is exactly what she deserves.   

The second subplot is the case against Bob Gillis (David Landau). He is a quiet blacksmith whose origin is unknown and is thus considered a stranger in this community where everybody know everybody. The local ruffians decide to get him down after he punched the aforementioned suitor in the nose for insulting Ellie. Three of them gang up on Gillis and in that scramble he pulls a knife and stabs the suitor. Now the entire community is up against this outsider whose case seems lost from the outset. Jerome gets the case defending Gillis and gets an ally in his uncle.

How they end up turning the case around and get Ellie and Jerome united I will leave unsaid. The resolution is less important than how it comes about.

Every character in this community is a caricature, which of course heightens the fun, but it is also a bit disturbing. Jerome is so naïve, the neighbor daughter is so pretty, Gillis is in fact an over the top brave war hero, the disgusting barber is indeed gross and the Senator is pompous beyond belief. For a minute there I thought it was W.C. Fields playing the senator. On top of this are all those loonie veterans running around as if the war was still on while the blacks community is represented by oversize singing black mamas and the halfwit Jeff Poindexter. This is all playing on prejudices, which are not all too healthy. Particularly Stepin Fetchit has taken some smoke for his stereotypical simple minded character. I do not know if this is offensive, I mean, he is funny and it is the pompous white folks who get crucified here, but still, playing with stereotypes is a minefield.

When I finally changed to the headphones and discovered the depth and wit of the dialogue this little film won me over, until that point I felt I was wasting my time. What a difference.


  1. Will Rogers was a famous "humorist" in the U.S. back at this time. That means that he told stories that were amusing or heartfelt or that had a clever point - much like the character he plays in this film. To me, this is an example of a movie being placed in the list in order to have something representing a person, in this case Will Rogers. (Other examples are Dance Girl Dance to get a Lucille Ball movie or The Paleface to get a Bob Hope movie.)

    My understanding is that even black communities are divided on Stepin Fetchit's whole act - is it catering to the worst stereotypes of his race, or is it a cleverly portrayed middle finger at white people? I have no opinion on that, but I do know that I found the voice he used to be extremely irritating to listen to - so much so that I hated his scenes even without getting into the whole offensive/clever argument.

    Ultimately, I liked Will Rogers, but not much else about this movie.

    1. That was more or less my conclusion as well. This film lives or dies with Will Rogers and particularly with his remarks and dialogue.

  2. Judge Priest is yet another one of those films that is a product of its time. Stereotypical racism runs through so many older films, and this surely is one. Hard to believe with all of the great films Ford made that this was his favorite. Glad to see the headphones worked--remember them for other sound quality issue films.

    1. I think perhaps it was the nostalgic element he liked. He seemed to have been a sucker for nostalgia and this does not come more sepia tinted.