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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