Judge Priest (1934)
7/10
Unpleasant Confederate frame around wonderful portrait of humane judge
14 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
There is so much to like about this movie that it almost overcomes the so much to dislike. Almost, but not quite. The good part starts with Will Rogers playing the part of a decent, unpretentious small-town Kentucky judge. His warmth and low-key charm translates on screen to the equivalent of a kind of simple, populist wisdom. Some of the characters in the movie serve as a foil to Billy Priest's decency: the hysterically snobbish sister-in-law, the blimpishly pompous Senator Horace Maydew (Berton Churchill), and the creepily vulgar barber Flem Tally (Frank Melton)—all of whom represent the "better sort." The judge has two black servants in his household, Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniel) and Jeff Poindexter (Stepinfetchit). The latter shuffles and speaks with a musical slurring that makes Bobcat Goldthwait sound like a master of elocution, and he plays the stereotyped part of the simple rural black man, shiftless, slow, lazy, and interested only in chickens, fishing, and music. This sort of thing made him the target of black social critics who lambasted him as the worst of the Uncle Tom players of the white man's Negro. Perhaps credit ought to be given to him for making the white man's stereotypes so self-parodically funny. Hattie McDaniel, on the other hand, is strong and merry and sarcastic—the only cast member capable of stealing scenes from Rogers, which she does from time to time. The best parts are where she seems to be singing spirituals but has substituted amusing words about whatever's been going on. Rogers sings harmony. There is a harmless enough romantic comedy subplot: the snobs lose and the lovers win. So far so good. The difficult part is the way the movie is set in a haze of romantically glorified nostalgia for the Confederate south. This provides a good deal for the character actors playing veterans to do, and suggests a sort of community of values, but the marching and the storytelling and the Confederate battle flags on parade and the black musicians playing "Dixie" and everything of the sort is unsettling. After all, the Civil War was fought in part to deal with the problem of slavery, while this movie simply glorifies the patriotism of southern men. Judge Priest can kid Jeff about getting into trouble by saying he's rescued him from lynching once already (it was a court appearance for stealing chickens the judge quashed by pointing out several veterans had stolen chickens as well when they were soldiers. Aunt Dilsey and Jeff aren't slaves, but they are still represented not as people but as types. Judge Priest may not be the most unregenerate view of the Confederacy—that distinction belongs to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation—but there's a sufficiency of the sort of visual vocabulary of Confederate racism to taint an otherwise warm and well-intentioned movie.
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