Friday, July 8, 2011

Judge Priest (1934)

I suspect a lot of people would be surprised to learn that this little-known 1934 film was director John Ford’s favorite of his countless cinematic endeavors.  Some have argued that the title character, Judge Billy Priest (Will Rogers), was really a facsimile of Ford himself, just played by a more amiable personality in Will Rogers. This might explain why it was his favorite, especially when you consider he made many more highly regarded films like Stagecoach (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952)—just to name a few. And, when you think about it, who wouldn’t prefer the film that most represents them?

priesAll that said, Judge Priest is just a mildly amusing film, and far from my favorite Ford Film—that place is reserved for The Quiet Man. Still, it is a somewhat interesting film to watch because Will Rogers does a nice job playing a home-spun, down-to-earth Kentucky judge who has to step aside when a legal client of his nephew is brought before his court.  What makes Judge Priest so likable is his overall irreverence for proper courtroom decorum. His outright hilarious interactions with his would-be nemesis Senator “Yankee” Maydew (Berton Churchill) are also a delight to watch. Most critics believe that Rogers didn’t really have to stretch himself in the role, because he was just playing a fictional representation of his commonsensical self. This is probably an accurate assessment, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that Rogers plays the role to the hilt.

There is one element of the film that many viewers do not like—the shamelessly stereotypical role that black comedian Stepin Fetchit plays as Jeff Poindexter. Some pricritics have said that Fetchit plays nothing more than a human lawn jockey in the film.  It is true that he comes off as a shiftless trickster. Yet, it is also true that his conversations with Judge Priest are the most enjoyable parts of the movie. And, when you take a minute to think about it you might ask yourself what the film was saying about a judge in 1890s Kentucky who would go fishing with a grown black man. Still, the fact the the Judge jokingly tells Jeff that he might join a lynch-mob if Jeff plays “Marching Through Georgia” is not necessarily politically correct either.  Oddly enough, Fetchit would play Jeff Poindexter again in Ford’s, The Sun Shines Bright (1953)—another installment of the Judge Priest story, this time played by Charles Winninger. 

Not the greatest John Ford film, but still worth a watch.


  1. Welcome back, Kim! It's always a pleasure to read your well-written, thoughtful reviews at the Cafe. I haven't seen JUDGE PRIEST, though I confess that Will Rogers seemed to play himself in everything I've seen him in. That's not a bad thing, as he had a high likability quotient. As for the racial stereotypes, I try to remind myself of the society norms thAt existed when a film was made. Otherwise, it'd be difficult to appreciate a film like BIRTH OF A NATION.

  2. I love reading your writing, Kim, and the photos you select are always great. I, too, have not seen "Judge Priest" and was surprised to read that it was Ford's favorite, but the rationale you provided makes sense. I will have to try to watch for it on cable. I think that viewing a film knowing how well a performer or director or writer thought of it makes it an extra enjoyable experience. Thank you, Kim, for sharing with us. You have been missed!

  3. It's great to see something new from you, Kim! I always enjoy reading your write-ups, even when I haven't seen the film you've written about, which is the case with JUDGE PRIEST. I've noticed that a lot of directors tend to pick a more obscure or lesser known title from their own work to name as a favorite. As you suggested, it was likely a personal film for Ford, and those aren't usually commercially viable or at least aren't remembered by fans. Anyway, informative piece and excellent writing!

  4. Kim! I have to echo the sentiments already expressed -- it's great to see you back! I'm also one who hasn't seen this film -- actually I never even heard of it. Your review interests me, and I'd like to find it. As Sark said, it's usually a surprise to find out which is a director or actor's favorite of their work. I remember an interview with Michael Caine where he said his was Jaws 3, which I'm sure was a joke!

    I feel like you do -- poor Stepin Fetchit. He had the unenviable role of playing one of the first, most blatant talkie stereotypes. I completely understand that you liked his conversations with the Judge the best. One of my favorite black actors is Willie Best, who I believe was at least half the reason one of my favorite comedies, The Ghost Breakers, was as good as it was. But again, although subtler than Stepin Fetchit, it was quite stereotypical.

    From your description, I can well imagine that Rogers was great in his "overall irreverence" for court procedure. I have to see this one. Wonderful review, Kim, as usual!

  5. Well, it was one of my shorter reviews, but I'm glad you all enjoyed it. LOL! I have been so swamped with family issues and work headaches that I haven't had time to watch many movies--let alone write about any. I wish I had picked one that someone other than myself had seen...but still, now I have educated our readers! I promise to make my next one on a film most have seen. As usual, I'm always glad to read your feedback. Oh, and I'm glad to be back too...will try to write another one in the near future.

  6. Just a short note from me -- personally I love to hear about movies I haven't seen. It's very interesting to me, and gives me a chance to be intrigued to see something new (even though it's old--LOL!)

  7. I absolutely LOVED this movie. It is sooo funny. When this movie is on there is such a calmness in my living room unlike the tension you feel while watching the new movies of today. Great movie !!