Judge Priest was one of a boxed set of three Western DVDs and so I am reviewing it, although it’s hardly a Western at all. As you may know, I have a pretty liberal idea of what constitutes a Western anyway, and am probably the despair of your average passing purist.
Not a Western but worth seeing for Will
It was one of Will Rogers’s last films (he died in a plane crash in 1935) and he certainly shines as the judge, bringing to the role all his humor and character. It’s a juicy part and he makes the most of it. He is an eccentric but decent Kentucky judge, deposed from his bench by the pompous ass Senator Horace Maydew (very well played in full pomposity by Berton Churchill, later the pompous crooked banker in Stagecoach). But Rogers returns to the courtroom as defense counsel.
Yours for fun...
Everyone loves Will Rogers. There’s an excellent thumbnail biography of him on IMDb by Bill Tackacs firstname.lastname@example.org which reads as follows:
World-famous, widely popular American humorist of the vaudeville stage and of silent and sound films, Will Rogers graduated from military school, but his first real job was in the livestock business in Argentina, of all places. He transported pack animals across the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires to South Africa for use in the Boer War (1899-1902). He stayed in Johannesburg for a short while, appearing there in Wild West shows where he drew upon his expertise with horse and lasso. Returning to America, he brought his talents to vaudeville and by 1917 was a Ziegfeld Follies star. Over the years he gradually blended into his act his unique style of topical, iconoclastic humor, in which he speared the efforts of the powerful to trample the rights of the common man, while twirling his lariat and perhaps chewing on a blade of straw. Although appearing in many silents, he reached his motion-picture zenith with the arrival of sound. Now mass audiences could hear his rural twang as he delivered his homespun philosophy on behalf of Everyman. The appeal and weight of his words carried such weight with the average citizen that he was even nominated for governor of Oklahoma (which he declined).
Judge Priest is a courtroom drama, really, but actually quite a good one. Written by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, based on the Judge Priest character by Irvin S Cobb, it is well-written, amusing and quite clever.
Pompous ass Berton
It was John Ford’s 82nd film as director. Stagecoach, the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers all still lay before him. In a 1972 interview Ford claimed it was his favorite film of all (though he claimed that about other movies at other times). In Judge Priest he had full rein to indulge his penchant for comedy, we might even say low comedy. By today’s standards it is corny and it is sentimental.
It is also filled with cheerful singing ‘darkies’, and Stepin Fetchit features largely. It revels in Confederate nostalgia (Stepin and his band are quite content to play Dixie) and has a whole regiment of crusty veterans (it is set in 1890) who contribute acting ‘business’, notably with a spittoon.
Acceptable humor in 1934
The New York Times film critic of the day, André Sennwald, reported “the tearful collapse of the lady film reviewer when the camera faded out on the heartbreaking parade of the Confederate veterans.” What we find unbearably saccharine, was clearly in 1934 considered rather moving.
In a very Fordian scene, the judge chats with his dead wife at her graveside about what’s going on day by day. Ford was to use this idea again in Young Mr. Lincoln and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
John Ford’s brother Francis Ford is, as so often, relegated to a menial part, this time as ‘Juror No. 12’, but I suppose at least John was giving him work.
A slice of Americana
The defendant is saved by a treacly testimony delivered by the local parson (Henry B. Walthall, the little colonel from The Birth of a Nation), and in fact the notion of ‘Judge Priest’ is quite appropriate as justice and religion mingle into one syrupy concoction.
Quite frankly it’s not a film I’d want to see again (so that DVD purchase was a bust) but it has to be said that Will Rogers is very fine and at times really quite touching. Time Out called it “A warmly funny, richly atmospheric slice of Americana”, which is about right.
There is a good game of croquet anyway.