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Simple mastery, masterful simplicity: a great work
FilmartDD8 August 2003
John Ford adopts and works within the conventions of this homespun genre. As he did with the genre of every film he made. Yes, racial stereotyping -- but Ford knew it was, and let you see it for what it was. Yes, sentimental and corny, but knowing and loving that way, presenting it for what you the viewer want to make of it.

After seventy years, still so funny, so affectionate, so insightful. And topical for 2003: is there any better depiction of populist politics, or expression of faith in the democratic mystery of the common man?

The art that conceals art. Try to see it on a film-projected screen. I'm off to look at THE SUN SHINES BR
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Enjoyable classic film upon a good judge against the injustices in a small town
ma-cortes24 February 2006
In spite of the bonfires war had finished however the ashes and sequels still remain.The war between the states-the Union and Confederacy-was over but its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man's mind.Taken from the Irvin S. Cobb stories which after main title picture says the following :¨The events were swapped took deep root in my memory and are familiar ghost of my boyhood.There was one man ¨Down Yonder¨I came specially to admire for he seemed typical of the tolerance of that day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation.I called Judge Priest and I tried to draw reasonably fair likeness of him and his neighbors and the town in which he lived¨.

The film deals a southern Judge(Will Rogers) with good humor ,common sense,jingoist and with a heart of gold who makes many goods deeds,helping to unfortunates and hapless and doing as matchmaker of his nephew(T.Brown) with a beautiful young(Anita Louise).The film is well set during the reconstruction although is eventually hampered by racist stereotypes on the black people characterizations.Biggest film are the musical duet among Will Rogers and Hattie McDaniel and the jokes about the spitting on the pot during trial court celebration. Besides appears Hattie McDaniel in her second greatest role of her career,the first was, of course,Mammy in ¨Gone with the wind¨,she is in a number of ways,superior to most of the white folk surrounding her.She was the first African-American to win an Academy Award.She became the first African-American to attend the Academy Award as a guest,not a servant. Musical direction is by Cryl Mockridge who along with Dudley Nichols are habituals in John Ford movies.A worst remake was realized by Ford's own in 1953¨The sun shines bright¨ with Charles Winninger with little success. Motion picture will like to cinema classics moviegoers
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Excellent subtle '30's John Ford comedy.
Boba_Fett113829 March 2008
'30's comedies aren't exactly known for their subtlety and they mostly consist out of physical humor. This movie forms a great and wonderful exception to this.

This is one great subtle comedy that is mostly funny thanks to its very amusing and extreme stereotyped characters. It of course also really helps that they are being portrayed by some really great actors and are being directed by one great director; John Ford.

Will Rogers was totally great in his role. He seemed very natural with his acting but at the same time managed to play his character in a comical way. He was a greatly talented comedy actor, who was already a popular one during the silent era. He would had continued to play many more comical roles I'm sure, had he not died one year after this movie, in a plane crash piloted by the one-eyed pioneer aviator Wiley Post. Hattie McDaniel also does in this movie what she is best known for, playing a likable maid role. She is best known for her Acedemy Award winning role in "Gone with the Wind", which also made her the first black actor winning the great award.

Even though John Ford began directing movies as early as 1917, it wasn't until the '30's that his career really took off and he gained a real big celebrity status. He also isn't best known for comedies but mostly for his western's, often starring John Wayne. Till this date he is still the director with the most Academy Awards for best directing (4 of them). I think that says already enough about the qualities of this man. With this movie he also really seemed ahead of its time, by picking an all different and very humble approach of the story and comedy.

The story is actually quite simple but oh so great. It actually is quite well layered, even though the movie its simplicity might make you overlook this. It features lots of different element involving the characters in this movie, on both the comical as well as the more dramatic level. I also especially really like how the judge tries to hook up his cousin with his neighbor girl.

The movie also truly benefits from its typical southern atmosphere. The movie is set in a southern town, which shows in the movie its characters, their accents and just overall atmosphere of the entire movie.

This movie was a great pleasant surprise!


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In Old Kentucky
bkoganbing27 March 2010
Will Rogers did three films with director John Ford who probably knew best how to utilize Will Rogers folksy charm and personality on the screen. Judge Priest is the best of the three films Rogers did with Ford. The film is based on a character created by Rogers fellow American humorist Irvin S. Cobb.

Cobb's Judge Priest stories are based on characters created from his childhood in Paducah, Kentucky. Priest is a man very much like Will Rogers in real life, full of homespun wisdom and common sense. The casting is almost perfect, I can't think of anyone else who could have done the role better.

The film is an amalgam of several of those stories the main plot line being the assault of Frank Melton by town misanthrope David Landau. The case would normally come before Will Rogers, but he's forced to recuse himself because it's the first case of Tom Brown who is the nephew of Rogers. Brown is back home now, a newly minted lawyer and he's involved with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Anita Louise. There's a connection between his personal and professional life that Brown little suspects.

Cobb's childhood Kentucky is an idyllic place where even the newly freed black people are contented in their second class status. The racist overtone of Judge Priest is unmistakable and why the film is criticized today. However Irvin S. Cobb was painting an accurate picture of the servile blacks, servile because they had to be. But the Stepin Fetchit character goes way over the top.

Judge Priest was later remade by Ford in the Fifties as The Sun Shines Bright and though the more obvious racial stereotyping got cleaned up somewhat, it could never be eliminated from the film.

But the film because of the presence of Will Rogers gets a high rating from me. It's a chance to see one America's wittiest and wisest men at his homespun best and that opportunity should not be passed up.
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The Little Colonel Meets Colonel Sanders
movingpicturegal10 May 2006
In the South, Kentucky circa 1890, we meet Judge Priest (played by Will Rogers), laid-back circuit court judge who dresses like Colonel Sanders and has bigger interests than court trials - namely lawn croquet, mint juleps, Confederate veteran social gatherings, taffy pulls, and his new-found friendship with an accused chicken thief (played by Stepin Fetchit) put on trial in his courtroom, who gives the judge tips on fishing for catfish. The judge also enjoys matchmaking for his nephew Rome (Tom Brown), a young man who has just graduated from law school and who is in love with the pretty girl next door in spite of his stuffy mama's protests (seems the girl isn't good enough for the mighty "Kentucky Priest's", mama has her eye on someone else for her son). Soon the film switches gear when our young lawyer gets his first case and defends a local man put on trial.

This film was actually quite a bit better than I was expecting - Will Rogers, whose role dominates this film (aside from Henry B. Walthall, who has a smaller, but important piece here) was more interesting in this than I have seen him in other roles, probably because he comes across as more like himself than a character. Henry B. Walthall, the handsome "Little Colonel" in "The Birth of a Nation", still looks attractive here nearly 20 years later, a real silver fox to my eyes. Hattie McDaniel plays a stereotypical black mammy, singing and hanging laundry and preparing the judge yet another mint julep in most of her scenes, yet comes across with loads of charm. Really quite an interesting film.
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Will Rogers' Dixie Drama
Ron Oliver19 January 2000
Will Rogers stars in this backward glance at life in a small town of the deep South at the end of the 19th century, with its pleasures & joys, bigotries & suspicions.

Will is the local judge & champion of the social pariahs, not hesitant to stick his neck out to make a point or puncture a pompous ego. His unique brand of homespun humor is given ample scope to tickle our funny bone.

This is one of three films Will made with director John Ford, a remarkable collaboration. Others in the cast include Henry B. Walthal, Hattie McDaniel, Tom Brown, Anita Louise, Stepin Fetchit, Berton Churchill, Charley Grapewin & Rochelle Hudson.

There is some racial stereotyping in the film, not at all unusual for 1934 Hollywood.
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Will Rogers as Will Rogers.
mkilmer28 February 2007
This is warm movie with plenty of sympathetic characters. And plenty of nasty ones. A young love is threatened by a class-conscious mother, while the uncle is… well, he's Will Rogers. (The character's name is the title, Judge Billy Priest, but I suspect he's the "Will Rogers" character.) As with anything cast in the deep south in the 1890s, there are some moments and characters with which you might find yourself uncomfortable. I was taken aback by "Jeff Poindexter," portrayed by then-popular black actor Stepin Fetchit. (Fetchit has an awful, partisan political bio here at IMDb – the man deserves much better -- but he is an interesting story.) He seemed to me to be a set of overblown stereotypes, but the Judge befriends him and my wife was simply taken with him.

There's a lot to like about this film, although it does drag in places. (I was surprised when the lawn party ends.) I had to smile, though, when the judge got to play lawyer, called on witness, and the universe stood still to the strains of "Dixie."
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Very good Ford
Michael_Elliott25 February 2008
Judge Priest (1934)

*** 1/2 (out of 4)

Wonderful film has Will Rogers playing the title role who has his own way of making justice prevail. Set in a small Kentucky town, the judge must battle a wide range of subjects but all of them seem to center around a mysterious man who is charged with assault. I wasn't too thrilled with the previous Rogers/Ford film that I watched but this one here hits all the right marks. Ford's love of Southern loyalty is certainly on full display from start to finish but he also paints a film that isn't really about anything yet it's about everything. Ford paints a terrific and authentic view of the South and even manages to work other items in like patriotic war battles and moving on in time. I think some of the best moments happen between Rogers and a black man named Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) who the judge saved from being hung. The two share several scenes together and their relationship comes off very sweet and human. The performances are all extremely good with Rogers leading the way as the soft spoken judge. Tom Brown and Anita Louise are also very good as Rogers' nephew and his girlfriend. The scene stealer comes from Henry B. Walthall who plays a Reverend with a secret past that comes out during the final courtroom scene. It's forgotten today that at one time Walthall was considered one of the greatest actors out there and his performance here is very thrilling and certainly grabs ones attention.
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Early, inexpensive, relaxed Ford/Will Rogers
rmax30482329 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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Excellent Ford/Will Rogers film!
zetes28 September 2002
This film is pure Ford, so, if you're a fan, definitely seek it out. Will Rogers plays the title character, a relaxed judge in a small, Southern town at the end of the 19th Century. He's a kind man with a homespun sense of justice. Others in the legal profession around him disdain him for his casualness, and Judge Priest dislikes their rigid sense of formality. The film opens with the dour Berton Churchill (best known for playing the wicked banker in Stagecoach) prosecuting an ignorant black man, Jeff, for stealing chickens. Jeff claims that he was out fishing for catfish at the time he is supposed to have nabbed the poultry. This activity excites Judge Priest so much that he lets Jeff go and they both go off fishing for catfish. Jeff afterwards becomes his servant. The plot of this film, which was the kernel for the plot of Ford's later (and lesser) Young Mr. Lincoln, involves a stabbing in self-defense. Judge Priest's young nephew, Jerome, back from law school, takes it up as his first case. The courtroom scenes are good for courtroom scenes, but that was never what interested me. The sense of Southern nostalgia, which I love so much from William Faulkner, is enveloping in this film. Will Rogers' kind judge is such a good character. He apparently improvised most of his dialogue, which was his style. He speaks slowly, but with conviction. It's a very good performance. People will certainly object to the treatment and characterization of black characters in the film. This is more just a product of the times, and it doesn't worry me much. Besides, I really found Judge Priest's interactions with Jeff and his maid, Dilsey (played by Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel), touching. Aunt Dilsey, as she is called, is also the name of one of Faulkner's more memorable characters, the black maid in The Sound and the Fury. She and Will Rogers actually have quite a fantastic duet at one point. Rogers also sings with McDaniel and a few other black women, as well. 9/10.
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Great Black actors in bit parts
gardmawm29 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I love old movies and was looking forward to seeing my first Will Rogers movie. However, this film is an embarrassment with decent actors struggling to overcome a corn-pone plot. The only reason to watch this creaking antique is to catch a glimpse of Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit who provide the "comic" relief. As Ms. McDaniel said, better to play the maid than to be one. She and Will Rogers were apparently actually good friends in real life, something which makes the movie's depiction of the happy, ignorant, thieving "darkies" doubly painful.

The plot is archaic not just because it depicts former slaves happily singing "My Old Kentucky Home" as they steal the white folks's food. It is based on a story that celebrates the Confederacy and its soldiers, with Will Rogers as a former soldier (now a judge). It ends with a triumphant march through town of the Confederate veterans on Memorial Day. Although Rogers mentions in passing that he's saved Stepin Fetchit from a lynching at some point, it's done as a humorous throw away line. I really think movies like this should be seen more often: they are an excellent reminder of the world as it was not so long ago and how grateful we should be that it has passed away.
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A taste of things to come.
barhound785 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
John Ford's often whimsical view of 19th century mid-west America is on full display here in this comic reflection about, as the authors prologue puts it, "the familiar ghosts of my own boyhood".

The immensely likable Will Rogers is the eponymous hero of the title. A small town judge who has sat on the local bench since the civil war ended without necessarily having all the right credentials to do so. Indeed, as Priest himself puts it, during his tenure he has tended to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it! Never-the-less, his Confederate war-stories and his folksy approach to justice (and life in general) make him a much loved figure amongst the community... Much to the chagrin of an over-orating state senator (Berton Churchill) who is eyeing his position enviously!

Things are further complicated by the fact that Priests young lawyer nephew (Tom Brown) is caught in something of an innocent love triangle with the senators daughter (Rochelle Hudson) and his own childhood sweetheart(Anita Louise). When the latter unknowingly becomes the catalyst for what soon becomes the towns latest trial it is up for the Judge to get to the bottom of the matter before an innocent man - well, half-innocent anyway - is sent to gaol!

Of course, the courtroom drama isn't really what matters here. It is Fords heavily mythologised evocation of 1890's Kansas life that really takes centre stage. A laconic, gentry led backwater full of Southern ideals where the struggle of the Confederacy is idealised and celebrated and a town where a love of fishing, a tale of gallantry or the playing "Dixie" outside of a courtroom can swing a jury in a man's favour. A place where white men and singing Negroes happily co-exist as if the civil war never really changed anything anyway!

Yet, despite this somewhat outmoded (and superficially un-PC) rose-tinted view of mid-west life, Judge Priest succeeds in presenting itself with such charm and good-natured humour that it is almost lovable. Indeed, whilst Ford presents this as a heavily romanticised reminiscence he also plays it as a delightfully knowing satire too. To this end, the director makes particularly good use of the legendary (and hugely controversial) black comic Stepin Fetchit – manically lampooning every "coon" stereotype in the book.

Ford would go on to hone the kind of bawdy, knockabout humour and lively stock of characters found here almost constantly throughout his career. As such, Judge Priest may not quite be amongst the great directors very best work but, with the help of the talented Rogers and Fetchit, it is still an extremely enjoyable entry upon his illustrious CV.
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Despite prejudices, John Ford's film is worth seeing
Andy-29624 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In a sleepy small town in Kentucky during the 1890s, an idiosyncratic judge (the Priest of the title, played by Will Rogers, in one of his last roles) defends the innocence of a taciturn man accused of assailing other town folk, by proving that he was a hero of the Confederacy during the Civil War. If you forget the blatant, unthinking racism of the movie (by the end, you have the dimwitted blacks of the town playing Dixie) and its saccharine sentimentality, this film is a good portrayal of the mores and traditions of the Scotch-Irish (or, if you prefer, the rednecks) that forms the backbone of America's personal character. Also, this movie also shows why Stepin Fetchit was such a controversial performer. Recommended with reservations.
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Slower than molasses in a Kentucky winter
LCShackley9 April 2008
This film has about as much content and charm as could fit into a 30-minute short feature. Yet John Ford et al spread this syrupy molasses mixture over 80 minutes.

I like Will Rogers, but his performance as JUDGE PRIEST seems like he's talking in his sleep. His dialog goes so slowly that it almost seems like he's making it up on the spot, while recovering from a blow to the head.

The stock characters and situations may charm a hard-core Dixielander, but for modern viewers, JUDGE PRIEST will seem cornball or downright embarrassing. For instance, it's nice to hear Hattie McDaniel sing, but not Stephen Foster's line, "'tis summer, the darkies are gay." And there's only so much of Stepin Fetchit that anyone, black or white, can take in one sitting. (One of the worst moments is when Will Rogers does an excruciatingly slow bit of dialog where he plays two characters: his own and Fetchit's.) There are some cute Rogers moments, and Francis Ford steals the show as an old Reb jury member who has a sharp eye for a spittoon. But I found myself wanting to hit "fast forward" just to get this slow mule-cart of a movie to get going.
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Unpleasant Confederate frame around wonderful portrait of humane judge
netwallah14 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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dougdoepke30 August 2009
The movie is not only about the Confederacy, but seems to have been made during the Confederacy. It not only looks like an antique, but also plays like one. From the snail-like pacing to the exaggerated acting to the crude racial stereotypes, it points to a long gone era of film-making and, in the process, shows why that era is long gone. Frankly, I tuned in because I'd never seen humorist Will Rogers in a movie, but I had enjoyed his trenchant iconoclasm, so I guess I had expectations. Now I think he should have stuck to rope twirling and skewering politicians because his Judge Priest is so unrelentingly folksy as to rival the slow-talking Fetchit in knee-deep stereotype. Director Ford was always more comfortable directing caricature than catching nuance, though he could do the latter on occasion. So, it's no surprise that he fairly wallows in the opportunities proffered here. Then too, this romanticized view of the Old South, circa 1890, must have appealed to a director who specialized in romanticizing the past, especially in the so-called winning-of-the-West. In fact, Ford was so enamored with the whitewashed material here, he made it again twenty years later under the title The Sun Shines Bright. In my view, once was more than enough.
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John Ford Tells It Exactly Like It Wasn't
Theo Robertson24 July 2013
I watched this film down to a promise I made to another IMDb member that I would check out at least one film featuring Harry Tenbrook an extremely prolific extra of American cinema in the golden decades of Hollywood . In theory JUDGE PRIEST should be something of a classic being directed by John Ford and was a big box office hit on its release in 1934 . After seeing it I can't help thinking it was popular for all the wrong reasons

Set in Kentucky just after the American Civil War this would have been popular film for a 1934 audience of a certain dress sense , ones who wear white cloaks and hoods probably . The film starts with a black man facing court and some good old Southern boys reminiscing about the War . The black defendant is somewhat portrayed as retarded but being black has a great natural singing voice because ... well he's black . Indeed every black character has natural singing tones and are never happier than when singing their hearts out , so much so you might be forgiven for asking when are these stereotypes getting the vote ? The film ends with a rousing speech by a character lamenting losing the war because the South ran out of resources . This probably wasn't untrue but when you see the white Southern characters they're like the caricatures seen in THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and you'll be puzzled how any of these guys could field an army in the first place being dumb hicks

It's also a film with a misplaced sense of humour . We have one scene where a character takes it upon himself to have a mock conversation by emulating an out of sight black man sounding like British comedian Jim Davidson having a stroke . Certainly it can be classed as amusing but you'll find yourself laughing at the scene rather than with it . It's not surprising Harry Tenbrook appeared in this film uncredited and one wonders why John Ford just didn't ask to be credited as Alan Smithee ?
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In Old Kentucky
lugonian18 February 2018
JUDGE PRIEST (Fox, 1934), directed by John Ford, stars humorist/actor, Will Rogers, not playing a priest but a judge whose last name happens to be Priest. A touch of Americana set at the turn of the century, this is the sort of story with folksy characters both Ford and Fox Films are noted for, past, present and future. Often claimed as Rogers' best movie, it's not centered upon his character throughout its 80 minutes but often upon its citizens of the community, many being Civil War veterans and former slaves. The title character, however, is based on Irvin S. Cobb stories said to be lifted from characters from his childhood. The opening passage by Cobb himself is as reads: "The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood. The War between the States was over but the tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man's mind. The stories that were swapped took deep root in my memory. There was one man down yonder I came especially to admire, for he seemed typical of the tolerance of that day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation. I called him Judge Priest, and I tried to draw reasonably fair likeness of him and his neighbors and the town in which he lived."

In Old Kentucky Town, 1890: William Pitman Priest (Will Rogers), is a small town judge of the circuit court. While on the bench reading the comic pages of a local newspaper, he forces himself to endure the testimony of Horace Maydew (Berton Churchill) on the floor for the trial of ex-slave/chicken thief, Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit). Because Jeff knows the best fishing places in town, rather than sentence him to jail, the judge dismisses the trial only to spend the day fishing with him. Judge Priest's nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), affectionately called "Rome," has returned home after graduating from a northern law school. He's in love with Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise), his childhood sweetheart living next door. Because nobody knows about her heritage and questionable background, Rome's snobbish mother, Carrie (Brenda Fowler) prefers Rome be going with an upper-class girl, Virginia Maydew (Rochelle Hudson). Though Ellie tries to let Rome off easy by going with the uncouth Gabby Rives (Matt McHugh), Judge Priest makes sure nothing develops from that relationship. Also in town is the mysterious Bob Gillis (David Landau), a blacksmith who says little and keeps very much to himself. Because Flem Talley (Frank Melton) quips some unkind words about Ellie May passing his barber ship, Gillis socks him to the floor in anger. Later Flem and his friends attack Gillis in a bar in vengeance. Gillis defends himself with a knife, wounding Flem. Gillis gives himself up to authorities, hires Rome as his attorney for the upcoming trial. Before the trial commences, Judge Priest is forced to withdraw from the case and have Judge Floyd Farleigh (Winter Hall) taking his place. While the trial seems to be going against Gillis for refusing to testify on his behalf, the Reverend Ashby Brand (Henry B. Walthall), a character witness, steps in with a very surprising testimony.

Others members of the cast include: Roger Imhof (Billy Gaynor); Charley Grapewin (Jimmy Bagby); Hattie McDaniel (Aunt Dilsy); and Si Jenks. Francis Ford (John's brother) gets plenty of laughs as a tobacco chewing drunk looking for a good place to spit, even in the courtroom and parade. Other bits of nostalgia include taffy pulling and gathering of folks at functions or Sundays at the Episcopal Church.

A well done comedy-drama with Will Rogers giving a commendable performance. Aside from his laid-back character with interesting things to say, he has somber moments too, where he talks to the photo and tombstone of his late wife, Margaret Breckenridge Priest, for comfort. He's a lonely man who, refusing to remarry, makes things right with others in the community. Hattie McDaniel, playing the maid, sings the traditional theme song, "My Old Kentucky Home." While the Judge Priest character was played earlier in a silent Will Rogers movie, BOYS WILL BE BOYS (Goldwyn, 1921) that role was enacted by another performer named Edward Kimball. John Ford brought back Judge Priest to the screen in THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (Republic, 1953) by which Charles Winninger took over the old Will Rogers role with Stepin Fetchit once again playing Jeff Poindexter.

Unavailable for viewing until the 1970s when JUDGE PRIEST emerged in revival movie houses, and decade later when introduced public television. Because it's become a public domain title, JUDGE PRIEST was distributed on video cassette by various companies (some including black screen exit music following its closing cast credits). Also available on DVD with Will Rogers' other comedy-drama, DOCTOR BULL (1933) on its flip side, and occasionally found on cable television, ranging from Encore Westerns to Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: May 9, 2006). While some of the humor and stereotypes might not prove favorable to contemporary viewers, for anyone who's never seen a Will Rogers movie, maybe JUDGE PRIEST would be a good introduction anyway. "Here, here. Court called to order." (***1/2).
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Severely dated and offensive
MartinHafer30 December 2006
This is a Will Rogers film directed by the great John Ford. However, despite this excellent pedigree, the film is a big misfire--particularly when seen with 21st century sensibilities. The biggest problem is that the film is also a Stepin Fetchit vehicle and this Black actor is at his worst in portraying the offensive and clichéd "stupid Negro" role. Fetchit is slow, shiftless and dumb--an image many White Americans at the time would laugh at or at least ignore. Now, his entire act just seems gross and insulting.

Now if you ignore Fetchit's rantings, what are you left with in this film? Well, even without it, you've got a comedy set in Kentucky that is not particularly interesting or compelling. While Rogers is good as the leading character and he did a funny imitation of Fetchit in one scene, the rest of the characters are either wooden and dull (such as the niece and nephew) or like characters from a Li'l Abner cartoon! This one-dimensionality and poor writing conspired to make this more of a historical curio than a film any sane person would want to see.
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"The sun shines bright"
Steffi_P20 June 2011
While this 1934 production from Fox styles itself as a twee bit of nostalgia for the late nineteenth century, it serves us today as a twee bit of nostalgia for 1930s cinema. One thing that really stands out about these smaller movies is how they were peopled and essentially driven by stock characters, played by actors who always played the same persona. In pictures like Judge Priest, starring the great Will Rogers, this was even the case for the leads.

Being directed by John Ford, the character players were likely to rise to the surface in this one. Ford was known to tear out pages of script if he thought too much plot was getting in the way, whilst getting comedy supporting players to adlib extensive material. However the love angle in Judge Priest, a cute girl-next-door romance, was deemed worthy by the director of being nicely done. The first glimpse we get of Anita Louise is a point-of-view shot of her framed delicately amid the blossoms. A really neat moment comes later as Will Rogers and Tom Brown are sat talking on the porch, and Rogers hints to Brown that his love interest might be "on that swing". At that exact moment the woman in question walks slowly into the frame, deep in the background. Without the line coming at the same time, we might not have noticed her entrance, and without her appearance, we might not have attached much importance to the line, but happening together as they do brings them both to our attention without the need to cut or move the camera. This romantic diversion is soon reduced to a MacGuffin as the older, earthier characters take over the story, but the smoothness with which it is shot makes it stay with us and pays off with emotional resonance in the later stages of the movie. You see, while Ford had few writing credits and seldom interfered directly with the screenplay, he just gave varying weight to different parts of the story in how he shot them.

And the supporting players in Judge Priest are certainly a worthy enough bunch to carry a movie. We get Hattie MacDaniel in her first credited role, and one of the few to show off her singing talents. David Landau normally played sinister villains, but here appears as a mysterious stranger who turns out to be a hero, and proves himself to be a fine actor in the process. Silent screen veteran Henry B. Walthall gives an incredible reverence to his court testimonial in the finale, in what is a very apt bit of casting. One controversial figure here is black comic actor Stepin Fetchit, whose unintelligible drawl and dopey persona would later come under fire from the Civil Rights generation. It's worth bearing mind though that Fetchit was an intelligent comedian who created his own character, and his daffy exaggeration essentially sends up the stereotype. Just watch him here, with his shuffling walk like a puppet that's missing a few strings, the tired face and deliberately slurred lines – he isn't obediently doing the "Yes massa" dialogue to fit in with some crude racial image, he's stretching it to the point of silliness, and surely knew exactly what he was doing. Really, what is more objectionable is Judge Priest's more general depiction of black people as simple folk happy in servitude.

And finally we come to the main man, Mr Will Rogers. Rogers is one of those figures that really characterises 1930s Hollywood. He's neither young nor dashing, and looks for all the world like a supporting player, yet audiences loved him and he had numerous starring roles. What makes Rogers stand out is a very basic and honest friendliness, under which lies some considerable acting skill. On the face of it, Rogers doesn't alter his manner or mannerisms very much. He has the same steady movements, and measured delivery whatever happens. But he conveys emotion through the tiniest changes in inflection and body language. This can make for some funny moments – such as his insult in the barber shop, made comical by the casualness of his delivery, yet with that hint of suppressed anger to it – as well as some deeply poignant ones – like his heartfelt chat by his wife's graveside. It was that mix of the everyday simplicity with the larger-than-life personality that made Rogers such a hit, and it's enough to make these movies touching to us, a whole lifetime later.
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An epitome of ambivalence
samhill521529 May 2011
There's quite a lot to recommend this one, the John Ford touches mainly. The way the scenes are arranged, the attention to detail are his trademarks. His direction is tight, focused, the actors deliver their lines in a believable, realistic manner. Nothing stagy about this. As for the actors they performed pretty much as expected. Will Rogers was his usual self, not the greatest of thespians but entertaining nonetheless. Anita Louise was simply delicious. I don't think I've ever seen her in better form and I credit Ford for extracting that performance as well as Tom Brown's who managed to keep his earnestness and wide-eyed innocence under check. Even stone-faced David Landau and bombastic Berton Churchill managed to give their stereotypical parts some originality.

My ambivalence is about the overt racism here, even granting the film's time frame and the period in our history it depicts. The least of it is that two of the central characters, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, are listed last in the credits, after Juror No. 12, whose only contribution was hitting the spittoon during the court scenes. Frankly it was difficult to watch despite some genuine tender scenes between the Rogers character and his servants. The one that stands out has him and McDaniel singing an impromptu spiritual and that one alone is worth the price of admission. The judge's relationship with the Fetchit character is much more problematic, even granting the "Coon" persona that Fetchit employed so successfully in his career he became a millionaire. There were just too many instances of the judge ordering him about just for the sake of it. It's painful to consider how humiliating it must have been for these two talented professionals to adopt their screen personae in order to earn a living.

I know I'm judging this film by 21st century standards, seventy-seven years after its release and if nothing else one might say that it exposed our country's shameful past, let the sunlight in on our deep, dark, secret. And in all fairness this is a film about southerners right after they had lost the Civil War. One can't really expect them to feel and express any remorse. People don't work that way. So from that angle I have no qualms. If anything I suspect the presentation of that society was probably mostly accurate. But I wonder at the motivations of the society that felt the need to make a film such as this, about a society that existed seventy years prior. And given Ford's sympathetic, realistic, treatment of American Indians in his later Westerns I wonder if he wasn't making just that point.
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Here Come the Judge
wes-connors31 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Writer Irvin S Cobb explains, "The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood. The War between the States was over, but its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man's mind, and the stories that were swapped took deep root in my memory. There was one man 'Down Yonder' I came specially to admire for he seemed typical of the tolerance of that day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation. I called him 'Judge Priest', and I tried to draw reasonably fair likeness of him and his neighbors and the town in which he lived. An old Kentucky town in 1890."

The fair-minded judge is Will Rogers (as William "Billy" Priest), who reads the newspaper in his circuit courtroom while ex-Confederates try to jail sleepy ex-slave Stepin Fetchit (Jeff Poindexter) for stealing chickens. "Judge Priest" diverts the prosecutors with old Confederate stories, and takes the vagrant Mr. Fetchit back to his home, after a fishing trip. Meanwhile, singin' and dancin' "Mammy" Hattie McDaniel (as "Aunt" Dilsey) welcomes the Judge's handsome son Tom Brown (as Jerome "Rome" Priest) home. Mr. Brown has just received his law degree, from a college "up North"…

Brown loves pretty neighbor Anita Louise (as Ellie May Gillespie), but a secret about her parentage threatens their relationship. All is resolved by the good Judge with help from town Reverend Henry B. Walthall (as Ashby Brand). It ends with a rousing celebration of the old Confederacy by director John Ford; he pointedly triggers the final parade with a mesmerizing Mr. Walthall, who bravely fought for the South in D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915).

The Walthall connection would not have been lost on audiences in 1934, who made "Judge Priest" one of the year's biggest box office hits. That, and the racially insensitive impressions made by Fetchit and Ms. McDaniel, have sent this film to the back of the bus. "Judge Priest" was seen relatively rarely over the years, and still has the potential to offend. Fetchit's "Jeff" became a classic of its kind, unfortunately; at least, Mr. Rogers softens him. McDaniel is not able to infuse her "Mammy" with much depth or dignity (she would eventually accomplish this). Mr. Ford once called this his favorite film.

Great moments include Rogers talking to his deceased wife - the scene where he speaks to the wall portrait of "Margaret" and their two dead children is classic. And, that "lonesome kind of sound" of the whippoorwill, as described by Brown, possibly lingered with likely young cinema goer Hank Williams. Fox Film's clout in the "Academy Awards" process had dimmed by 1934, or Rogers and Ford might have received "Best Actor" and "Best Director" nominations; and, if "Supporting Actor" awards were offered, Walthall's dramatic courtroom performance would have certainly been considered for one.

******* Judge Priest (9/28/34) John Ford ~ Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Henry B. Walthall, Stepin Fetchit
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Ford, Rogers And Fetchit
boblipton5 October 2019
Will Rogers plays the title role in the movie that John Ford later said was his favorite of his movies. It's easy to see why. It features the folksy, self-satisfied humor and unvarnished sentimentality which a transplanted Irishman -- born in Maine, but stuffed with the hereditary anger of a lost cause that won him Oscars for THE INFORMER and THE QUIET MAN. It was also a financial winner for Fox Films; it must have played to packed audiences in the Whites-Only theaters of the South.

Rogers is superb, of course, but I found, as I always do, that the comedy of Stepin Fetchit hard to take, with his inert character and difficult-to-understand dialect. Fetchit, (born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) has long been problematic. His comedy character made him a rich man, but it personified the stereotyped of the lazy Black man. For me there is also a strong element of passive-aggressive behavior in it. I recall reading that a part of his stage act was to put a recording of his in-character voice on a player, and then sit and read a newspaper on stage while it ran.

Regardless of these issues, there are some very strong elements in this movie. It is a must-see for fans of John Ford.
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A light dose of Will Rogers humor
SimonJack25 June 2018
Will Rogers spread his humor across America during the height of the Great Depression. Rogers was a comedian, storyteller, actor, poet, writer and all around performer from Oklahoma. He traveled across the country, appeared on stage and performed on the radio. Rogers's homespun common sense humor registered with folks everywhere.

One sees that in full flower in "Judge Priest." Rogers stars as a small town Southern judge named Priest, who presides over local justice. John Ford directed the film. The plot is very light, and the film gives a look at the culture of the time and place. In modern times, some might cry, "stereotyping" for potdrayal of the African-Americans.

"Judge Priest" has some light humor with a look at the lingering affections of loyalty in the Confederacy well after the Civil War. But, the film doesn't have great comedy and otherwise is quite light.
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A stupid movie about Dixie and keeping the South under Slavery
deadzombie3 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
What the hell is Will Rogers doing in this movie.Will Rogers and all these old Gezzers shouting about Dixie.The Fox Studio must have been desperate to make a crappy movie about a man accused of some wrong doing and being exonerated for being brave in a confederate Battle,I thought the South lost the war. because you would never know.Total crap. Whats heroic about the keeping of slaves?? This is the same inhumanness that kept people in bondage and your trying to portray the Confederate Army as Heroic. total crap.This was an excuse to portray the South as Heroic. I am embarrassed to watch this stupid movie and explain to some young people about what the civil war was about, and more disgraceful they used poor Negroes to play Dixie songs outside the courthouse.and then parade them through town. what a total disgrace. there was nothing funny about slavery,there is nothing funny about War.Insulting to Americans and all free peoples.
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