Tom Brown, Anita Louise, and Will Rogers in Judge Priest (1934)


(director: John Ford; screenwriters: Irvin S. Cobb/Dudley Nichols/Lamar Trotti; cinematographer: George Schneiderman; editor: Paul Weatherwax; music: Cyril Mockridge/Samuel Kaylin; cast: Will Rogers (Judge William ‘Billy’ Priest), Tom Brown (Jerome Priest), Stepin Fetchit (Jeff Poindexter), Anita Louise (Ellie May Gillespie), Henry B. Walthall (Rev. Ashby Brand), David Landau (Roger Gillespie, aka Bob Gillis), Rochelle Hudson (Virginia Maydew), Berton Churchill (Senator Horace Maydew), Hattie McDaniel (Aunt Dilsey), Charley Grapewin (Sergeant Jimmy Bagby), Roger Imhof (Billy Gaynor), Frank Melton (Flem Talley), Brenda Fowler (Mrs. Caroline Priest), Winter Hall (Judge Fairleigh) ; Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol M. Wurtzel; Fox Film Corporation; 1934)

“Will Rogers has found a part that is best suited for his talents as a populist humorist.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford claimed in a 1972 interview that Judge Priest was the film he favored most of all his films (I would have thought the 1952 The Quiet Man would have been his favorite!). It’s based on an idea from Irvin S. Cobb. It lyrically paints a colorful picture of the Old South in 1890 in Kentucky. Ford further developed that idea in the superior 1953 follow-up called The Sun Shines Bright. In modern times the racial stereotyping of black actors Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel caused anger in the black community, especially at Fetchit for giving blacks a disturbing image. But when released, Fetchit was the first big black star (welcomed by the black community) and became rich from his controversial portrayal of a shuffling, lazy and inarticulate stammering idler. Audiences always found him funny and his unique performances showed him to be a master of timing. Off the screen he lived flamboyantly and loved flashing his wealth.

The laid-back Southern Judge William Priest (Will Rogers) has been on the bench for over 25 years in this Kentucky sleepy rural town, where most of the citizens are still reliving the Civil War by celebrating the Confederacy. Priest, while on the bench, reads the funnies while Confederate veterans heatedly argue about their battles as the prosecutor, ex-State Senator Horace Maydew (Berton Churchill), earnestly tries Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), a sleeping black man, accused of being a vagrant, for stealing chickens. The case is resolved when Jeff and the Judge go fishing, and Jeff is invited to become a part of the widower Judge’s household staff. The Judge’s nephew Jerome (Tom Brown), called by the nickname “Rome,” returns after getting a law degree in the north. The pretty school teacher girl next door from Judge Priest, Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise), plays hard to get, but the Judge finds ingenious ways to push them together. For his efforts, his stuffy sister-in-law Caroline (Brenda Fowler) is furious with him because she wants someone for her son Rome who is of good stock like the established Priest family. She objects because Ellie May’s penniless mother died in childbirth and the identity of her father is not known. The lonely Judge talks to his wife about daily events at her grave (Ford improved the talking to dead wife scenes in Young Mr. Lincoln and in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), and while there witnesses Bob Gillis (David Landau), a laconic blacksmith, bring flowers to the grave of Ellie May’s mother. Later it’s learned he’s Ellie May’s dad, who changed his name from Gillespie to avoid embarrassing his daughter.

Rome gets his first case when Gillis hires him. The barber Flem Talley (Frank Melton) speaks ill of Ellie May’s background and Gillis punches him out and two of Talley’s cronies attack him with pool cues. Gillis retaliates by slashing Talley with his knife, and Talley presses charges. The pompous buffoon ambitious prosecutor Maydew is running for circuit court judge against Priest and insists on an impartial judge. Priest is hurt but steps down, and Judge Fairleigh takes his place. The case is going badly for Gillis because he refuses to mention the fight was caused by Ellie May’s good name being slurred, as he wishes to keep her name out of it. But before the jury comes in with its probable guilty verdict, the Civil War hero for the Confederacy, who is now the town’s reverend, Ashby Brand (Henry B. Walthall), comes forward as a character witness for Gillis and testifies how he recruited Gillis, a chain-gang prisoner, who fought bravely for the Confederacy. He then reveals the truth about Gillis’s relation to Ellie May and how he secretly paid for her education. The Reverend’s stirring tale of Gillis brings goosebumps to the court and they march out of the court to the strains of Dixie to participate in the veteran’s day parade with Gillis given the honor of carrying the confederate flag (which was way too shameless and corny for me).

It’s a sentimental film with a big heart that is funny and chips away at the in-tolerances of the rural Southern community. Will Rogers has found a part that is best suited for his talents as a populist humorist.