Judge Priest (dir. John Ford, 1934) is a small-town comedy set in Kentucky around 1890. An introductory message suggests that events and characters are based on reminiscences of small-town life by Irwin S. Cobb, author of the stories that inspired and provided models for the film. Many elements in Judge Priest might prevent it from connecting with modern audiences, and it would take some time to list them all. The opening credits list among the actors Hattie McDaniel, the ever-present Mammy in films of the 1930s and 40s, and, in bolded type, Stepin Fetchit, the embodiment of offensive African American portrayals in film in the first half of the 20th century. In the film he plays Jeff Poindexter, servant to Judge Priest. He shuffles, walks in a slouch, mumbles almost incoherently, is lazy, covets fancy clothes, and seems not too intelligent. He follows Judge Priest around like a loyal hound and shows little will or thought of his own. He’s like a cartoon figure, and it’s difficult to imagine a figure more insulting to African Americans or to people in general who appreciate the dignity of humankind. (In Cobb’s stories Poindexter is less of a clown figure—he’s literate, articulate in his light dialect, but possessed of many of the traits one might expect in the stereotypical figure of a 19th century African American male from the American South). The film plays Stepin Fetchit and, to a lesser extent, Hattie McDaniel’s character Dilsey, for comic effect. Hattie McDaniel’s singing, her generally jolly demeanor, enliven the film whenever she appears, but she doesn’t seem to be acting so much as following directions, filling in the required elements of her role--she acts less in this film than in others I’ve seen her in—there’s no sense of the fully embodied character we see her play in Gone with the Wind.
Judge Priest isn’t deliberately racist—that is, it doesn’t set out to embody a racist agenda (as we might argue such films as W. B. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation do). It simply reflects the ingrained racism of its time, and of the Irwin S. Cobb stories on which it was based. But the film certainly enforces the racist status quo of the times and the culture it portrays.
All that said, race is not a major aspect of the film. We notice it because Stepin Fetchit appears early in the film. Because we are not accustomed to such blatantly racist stereotypes as the one he portrays, we are shocked. In the 1930s, I suspect there was far less shock among white viewers, if any. In a sense, the film’s racism is a reflection of its innocence—it gives no sense of the barest awareness that its portrayal of how African Americans live and act should be questioned.
In a similar way, the film doesn’t do much more than gently satirize the Confederate nostalgia that infuses it. Set in a small Kentucky town that might be placed, because of the intensely Southern sympathies of its residents, in the depths of Mississippi or South Carolina, the film doesn’t explore any of the implications of the border state setting of Kentucky, which was not a part of the Confederacy. Twenty-five years after the end of the Civil War, veterans sit around drinking and smoking and reminiscing about various battles and exploits they claim to have been a part of. Some of them are blowhards; all of them are believers in the Cause. The women of the town are no different. As Judge Priest tells his sister-in-law, the women in the town have more war medals than the men. Everyone is stuck in the past, except for a few, who represent the possibility of change. These are a young man and woman in love (who could have guessed?) and Judge Priest himself, played by American humorist Will Rogers.
The Judge hasn’t necessarily abandoned his former Confederate loyalties, but his speech and actions show he believes the war is over, defeat was the outcome, and the town must move forward. He brings this perspective to bear in the courtroom and in his advice to his young nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), and the girl he loves, Ellie Mae Gillespie (Anita Louise). Jerome has returned from the North with a law degree. Ellie Mae is a school teacher and the daughter of a young itinerant woman who came into town, gave birth, and died. She never identified Ellie Mae’s father, so the girl is not regarded by many in the town as acceptable in proper society, although the men leer at her because of her beauty. (They never say the word, but they regard her as illegitimate and therefore as pariah). She behaves in the prim and proper fashion of a young lady of her times, of course, and although she knows of the opinion others hold about her, she does her best to ignore them. (She also speaks with a vaguely British accent meant, I think, to enforce her intelligence and good character). Jerome’s mother Caroline wants her son to have nothing to do with Ellie Mae. She stresses good breeding and respectability, and tries to interest him in Virginia Maydew, the daughter of a senator who is Judge Priest’s political rival. The Judge clearly doesn’t approve of Caroline’s prejudices and does what he can to support and encourage his young friends.
The first half of the film establishes scene and ambience and character, while the second half focuses on the romance of Jerome and Ellie Mae and the courtroom trial of a man named Bob Gillis, who’s accused of attacking three men playing billiards in a local bar. In fact, Gillis was himself the victim--the billiard players beat him with billiard cues because a few days earlier he had assaulted one of them in the local barbershop—he heard his victim joking about Ellie Mae’s attractiveness and punched the offender in the kisser. Why does Gillis attack the man? Because, unknown to her, he is Ellie Mae’s father, living under an assumed name, supporting her with the salary he earns at a local stable. This revelation makes for much melodrama and pathos, of course. Judge Priest withdraws from the trial when Senator Maydew accuses him of prejudice. But behind the scenes, working with the local preacher and Jeff Poindexter, Judge Priest brings about Gillis’ release. Ironically, he’s not released because he’s found innocent of the charges, but because the preacher, who fought with him in the Civil War, testifies to the courtroom about his heroic exploits. Outside the courtroom window Poindexter assembles a band that begins playing “Dixie,” and all hell breaks loose. The result is the trial’s collapse in a frenzy of hysterical hero worship and Confederate nostalgia. What Judge Priest has managed to do is to play on the extremist Confederate sympathies of the townspeople to draw attention away from the crime Gillis is accused of. As soon as they learn of Gillis’ Civil War record, they forgive him and his daughter everything. All is made right.
Rogers doesn’t so much act in this film as pose. He sits on his porch or in his courtroom bench smoking his pipe, sipping a mint julep, pondering the past, and issuing homespun witticisms. Some of the most humorous exchanges come between him and Percival. I remember my mother recalling how her grandmother, my great grandmother, wept at the news that Will Rogers had been lost in a plane crash involving aviator Wiley Post in Alaska in 1935. My wife’s grandfather stopped watching movies after Rogers no longer appeared in them. He was an important figure in the popular imagination of America in the 1930s.