The Daily Telegraph recently had a list of criminally underrated films that included John Ford's "Judge Priest", which I had never seen. I note that on Amazon US it has 25 reviews to date, so it is obviously appreciated more in the country of its birth. I am one of those who tends to stick to Ford's more well known westerns, with a few notable exceptions. I have also never watched Will Rogers, so thought there were enough reasons to watch this film. Watching films made as far back as 1934 is always difficult, because the passage of time tends to erode much of the innocence of those days. It is easy to see why modern audiences would be offended by the stereo typed characters portrayed, especially Stepin Fetchit's usual black simpleton routine. As it happens Fetchit was highly literate and became very wealthy on the back of his character. So perhaps he was no idiot and merely exploited a niche, that some ignorant whites may have supported. One could argue either way.
The film is a whimsical portrayal of a Judge in 1890's Kentucky, with a sort of Davy Crockett backwoods wisdom approach to politics and the law, which given the people of that time period was highly effective. But Will Rogers as Priest is no hanging judge in the Judge Roy Bean mould. He is a man with a heart of gold who thinks of others above himself. He is concerned that his young lawyer nephew will marry the wrong sort of girl, and does his very best to ensure he is hitched with the right sort, in the attractive Anita Louise. Much of the film centres around his mischievious activities, including one delightful scene where he mimics a conversation between himself and Fetchit to frighten off a would be suitor of Louise's. The humour is all of the whiter than driven white variety, that some modern viewers may struggle with. The film concludes with a very funny court room scene, where appropriate to a place of justice some important truths are revealed.
Yes the film does feel a bit dated at times and the picture is not of the highest quality, but then this is part of films character. It seems to give a highly authentic Kentucky period feel. Those from America's South may still want to sing along with some of the songs, which incidentally are very good. Hattie McDaniel has one lovely scene with Will Rogers that is worth the admission fee alone. Rogers himself grew on me more and more as the film progressed. The scenes where he talks to his dead wife in front of her photo and in the graveyard are genuinely moving. It is a pity that his death in a plane crash shortly after this film was made, robbed us of the opportunity to see him in further sound films. His real life friend Fetchit has some funny moments although his character does tend to grate a bit. He reprised the same character a few times, although I tend to remember him best in the Anthony Mann western "Bend in the River". Willie Best notably did a pretty good Stepin Fetchit impersonation in "High Sierra".
The film is based on the character created by Kentucky humorist Irvin S Cobb. John Ford manages to pick up the flavour of the book giving it a real Southern charm. He later remade the film in 1953 as "The Sun Shines Bright", which I cannot recall seeing. The film is sprinkled with old Confederate veteran characters like Ford's spittoon fixated brother Francis, a brother once more famous than him whom he kept regularly employed. The film almost had me whistling Dixie at the end. Whilst I don't consider the film to be a classic, it kept me entertained and I found it to be much better than I expected. Certainly worth watching.