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Synopsis: William Pitman Priest is a plain-talking, sharp-minded judge living in the idyllic world of 1890s Kentucky. When his nephew Rome (Jerome) returns from law school, he encourages the young man's courtship of Ellie May, a childhood friend who lives across the street. Rome's mother, however, objects to Ellie May's lowly origins and another man, the barber Flem Tally, is competing for her attention. When the blacksmith Bob Gillis attacks Tally for speaking ill of Ellie May, Rome offers to represent him in his first big court case. Horace Maydew, a pompous former Senator who's campaigning for Judge Priest's position on the bench, forces the Judge to step down during the trial on the grounds of partiality. Undeterred, Judge Priest decides to help solve the case behind the scenes.
While they were both under contract to Fox Studios, the actor Will Rogers and the director John Ford worked together on three films: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), and Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935). (The latter film was actually released after Rogers' tragic plane crash in Alaska.) During this time, Rogers was the top-grossing star in Hollywood, and it seemed only natural that he and Ford should work together, given their mutual affinity for folksy Americana. In fact, one could argue that specific plot and character elements from Judge Priest later found their way into Ford's 1939 masterpiece, Young Mr. Lincoln, his ultimate statement on the American spirit. Common elements include the rough-and-tumble courtroom scenes, plain-spoken protagonists who are dedicated to truth and show basic compassion for ordinary folk, and parallel scenes where the two men--Judge Priest and Abraham Lincoln--stand at the graves of their departed wives and speak to them. Veteran screenwriter Lamar Trotti worked on both films, which may explain these similarities.
John Ford and Will Rogers' working relationship was not without tensions. Rogers had a penchant for ad-libbing, which created difficulties for the other actors. At one point Ford declared to another crew member, "Better consult Mr. Rogers. He does most of the directing in this picture." Still, he held his Will Rogers films in high regard, especially Judge Priest. Years later, Ford stated in a 1964 interview for Cosmopolitan: "The men of the West were like Will Rogers."
The source material for Judge Priest was an extremely popular series of stories by Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944), who was among the most popular writers of his day. Born in Paducah, Kentucky, he drew heavily upon his childhood years in the South for his literary inspiration. Although he initially planned to study law as a young man, family troubles forced him to find a permanent job. He first worked as a reporter for the Paducah Evening News, then worked for a brief stint in Louisville before moving to New York in 1904, where he eventually worked as a staff reporter for a Pulitzer newspaper. At this time he also began publishing short stories; the first collection featuring Judge Priest was Back Home (1912). Cobb's real-life model for the character of Judge William Pitman Priest was a certain Judge William Pitman Bishop--the kind of straightforward real-life borrowing that would generate sternly worded legal memos today. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, Cobb objected to Twentieth-Century Fox's title credit "Based on the Judge Priest stories by Irvin S. Cobb," maintaining that the wording might affect sales of future Judge Priest stories, and that the screenplay "practically created a new and different story from the material."
Judge Priest is also noteworthy for the significant roles it gives to two African-American character actors, Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniels. While their film personas undeniably play into dated racial stereotypes against Will Rogers' "paternalism," to use the wording of biographer Ray Robinson, there is considerably more going on in the film. In fact, it is very characteristic of John Ford as a director to use typecasting and stereotypes--however uncomfortable such stereotypes make us today--as a kind of shorthand upon which he embellishes characters and subsequently deepens our understanding of them. How this operates becomes clear viewing Will Roger's onscreen interactions with the Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniels characters. At a crucial turning point in the narrative, the Judge joins in a call-and-response with Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniels). And after some bantering between Judge Priest and the defendant Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) fishing bait in the opening courtroom scene, we see, in the next scene, the evident pleasure the two take in a fishing outing together, strolling side by side down the road. Stepin Fetchit later said of the film, "When people saw me and Will Rogers like brothers, that said something to them."
Originally, John Ford intended to make the film a sharper and more direct commentary on race by including an attempted lynching of the Stepin Fetchit character and an impassioned anti-lynching speech by Judge Priest, but the studio executives cut the footage from the final release version, claiming that the scenes clashed with the lighter tone of the film as a whole. Ford returned to the Judge Priest stories almost two decades later with The Sun Shines Bright (1953), this time with the lynching subplot intact and Stepin Fetchit returning in a supporting role. Ford himself regarded The Sun Shines Bright as the finest work of his career. Whether or not one shares his judgment, it indicates how much the two Judge Priest films meant to the director personally.
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Irvin S. Cobb, Dudley Nichols, Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Art Direction: William Darling
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: Will Rogers (Judge William Priest), Tom Brown (Jerome Priest), Anita Louise (Ellie May Gillespie), Henry B. Walthall (Rev. Ashby Brand), David Landau (Roger Gillespie), Rochelle Hudson (Virginia Maydew).
by James Steffen