Judge Priest, 1934
Dir: John Ford
So apparently John Ford could do "courtroom comedies" just as well as he could do Westerns. Will Rodgers has a great deal to do with why this is so good, but Ford's sense of place had no equal at this point in Hollywood. Even more than Stars in My Crown (1950), Ford establishes a southern, Reconstruction-era Kentucky town that has this amazing sense of cinematic poetry, the kind that only Ford could create.
The film is built around a trial, but it isn't entirely confined to it (though all the scenes in the courthouse are really great). William Priest (Will Rodgers) has been the local judge for quite some time. His unorthodox, laid-back style isn’t exactly professional, but his personality has become woven into the fabric of the town. His nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), has recently returned home from a "Yankee" law school and now has a job as an attorney. When the local barber and his pals are severely beaten up by the town’s “quiet” character, it is Jerome that takes his case. This, of course, creates a possible conflict of interest, which leads many to question Priest’s fairness as a judge. In the meantime, he also sets up his nephew with a girl who, according to his nephew’s mother, isn’t up to the family standards. Probably the really only uninteresting thing in the whole film is the "relationship" that the two youngsters have.
This is the first Ford film that I've seen with Stephen Fetchit in it, and it's really hard to talk about it without saying outright that it's "disgustingly racist." Fetchit plays a sterotypical "negro," talks in incoherent jigaboo (which Rodger's understands somehow; must be a southern thang), and is constantly chided for being lazy (even if it's mostly by Priest, who is teasing). It is racist. But there is something about the way that it is just out in the open in the film that helps it a lot, and along with Hattie McDaniels, who plays Aunt Dilsey, the maid/servant in the Priest household, helps the segregation/racism seep into the community. It's there, but there isn't anything malicious about it. If the film was about racism (which Stars in My Crown sort of turns into), it wouldn't be very good. This is cinema though, so obviously it's an alt-reality, and Ford was all about perpetuating Americana myths, but most likely Kentucky was probably kind of like this after the Civil War. Perhaps the circumstances are not that pleasant, but sometimes, real life isn’t either.
That’s not to say Ford was actually a forward-thinking genius or anything, but many directors would have never made Priest’s sidekick a remotely important character. It’s also worth mentioning that no one in the film comes off as being particularly smart (the Reverend at the end, maybe). Will Rodger’s whole persona is “dumb…but charming” but he never comes off as being a superior character. He's not stupid, he's just a Good Ol' Boy who doesn't have hateful bone in his body. Most of the characters are Good Ol' Boys actually, and the way the film ends is indicative of this, given the fact the the trial doesn't really end and southern pride trumps all. In fact, I think Ford’s characterization of all the characters is one of the most curious elements in the film. While it is, like many things Fordian, quite simple on the surface, it does ask for deep pondering.