Judge Priest (1934)
6/10
Early, inexpensive, relaxed Ford/Will Rogers
29 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
If you want to see what the Hollywood world was like before everyone became politically correct, this one is worth seeing. Hear Hattie MacDaniel sing about "the darkies". Watch Stepin Fetchit as he explains that he's not wearing his shoes because he's saving them for when his feet wear out. Watch the small Kentucky town's darkies get together and play a rousing version of "Dixie" outside the courtroom in order to help free a heroic ex-Confederate soldier and murderer who is on trial inside the building. Listen to Will Rogers as he tells Fetchit that if he, Fetchit, plays "Marching Through Georgia" on his harmonica he, Rogers, will join the lynching party. How extremely amusing.

Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) and Sleep 'n' Eat (Willie Best) played lazy, superstitious, gluttonous characters through the 1930s and 1940s. Whence such stereotypes? Adam Smith considered free labor more efficient than slave labor because a free worker was driven by a chance to better himself. A slave, wrote Smith, "can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible." That's known as sleeping and eating.

Yet, the whole thing is pretty good natured. Sure, the blacks are all happy and supportive in this Reconstruction piece. But it isn't clear that they're treated less condignly that most of the white folks. Or that the stereotypes are any worse than the ever-popular and award-winning "Gone With the Wind." Everything is so relaxed, so shambling, so easy going, like Will Rogers' character, that the offense we inevitably take has to be bracketed. This was the mid-1930s and audiences of all colors laughed.

The story itself is a relatively simple tale of a basically good man put on trial and saved by a surprise witness for the defense. Mostly Ford is interested in character and community relations. There's a ritual taffy-pulling in which every towns person participates. There's a lot of whiskey floating around. There's John Ford's tobacco-chewing brother, Frank, hitting a spittoon hidden around a corner. At the end, Frank is able to spit a great distance in a trajectory like a rainbow in order to land inside the bloviating Berton Churchill's top hat. There's Rogers talking to the portrait of his deceased wife and children, bringing them up to date.

Ford sometimes claimed that this was his favorite picture, but he lied so often that it's hard to tell. His current "favorite" was always one that hadn't done well with the critics.

It's not a major effort by any measure, nor an important one, but quietly amusing in its own quietly amusing way.
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