SUN SHINES BRIGHT, THE (director: John Ford; screenwriters: Laurence Stallings/story by Irvin S. Cobb; cinematographer: Archie J. Stout; editor: Jack Murray; music: Victor Young; cast: Charles Winninger (Judge William Pittman Priest), Arleen Whelan (Lucy Lee Lake), John Russell (Ashby Corwin), Stepin Fetchit (Jeff Poindexter), Francis Ford (Feeney), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Amora Ratchitt), Grant Withers (Buck Ramsey), Russell Simpson (Dr. Lewt Lake), Ludwig Stossel (Herman Felsburg), Milburn Stone (Horace K. Maydew), Slim Pickens (Mink Sterling), Allene Roberts (Rufe’s daughter, the rape victim), Elzie Emanuel (U.S. Grant Woodford), Paul Hurst (Sgt. Jimmy Bagby), Mitchell Lewis (Sheriff Andy Redcliffe), Eve March (Mallie Cramp), Paul Hurst (Sgt. Jimmy Bagby), Mitchell Lewis (Sheriff Andy Redcliffe), Ernest Whitman (Uncle Pleasant Woodford), Clarence Muse (Uncle Zack), Henry O’Neill (Jody Habersham), Trevor Bardette (Rufe Ramseur), James Kirkwood (General Fairfield); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Merian C. Cooper/John Ford; Republic; 1953)
“A heavy mix of mushy sentimentality and low-brow comedy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Considered John Ford’s (“Wagon Master”/”The Fugitive”) favorite film among his own works, a continuation of his 1934 Judge Priest which starred Will Rogers. It’s a personal film based on humorist Irvin S. Cobb’s three short stories “The Sun Shines Bright,” “The Lord Provides,” and “The Mob From Massac.” It follows in an agreeable way the colorful elderly ex-Confederate bugler of Fairfield County, Kentucky, Judge William Pittman Priest (Charles Winninger), who is in the middle of a heated election with the son of a carpetbagger, Horace Maydew (Milburn Stone)–someone who cannot relate to people in the same easy way that Priest can, but stands behind a right-wing agenda to bring back “law and order.”
The Judge is a natural politician, a heavy drinker and a lover of the Confederacy, but also alienates many of the upper-class citizens with his homey approach to office. But he’s tight with the common people who keep re-electing him and his other Confederate cronies to office. He especially has a friendly but paternalistic relationship with the blacks (non-voters by law) such as his loyal servant Jeff (Stepin Fetchit), Uncle Zack, and Uncle Pleasant Woodford. The stereotyped characterization of the blacks, seemingly dancing for joy in their segregated community, would no longer be P.C. to a modern audience or acceptable to too many African-Americans. John Ford might have meant well, which I believe is so, but it’s difficult to give him a free pass except to say he’s a product of his times.
The storyline follows Judge Priest going out of his way to befriend the Union war veterans in order to bring harmony to the community, run a fair court, preserve the southern traditions without being a racist, treating the rejected grand- daughter (Arleen Whelan) of General Fairfield with dignity while others sneer at her behind her back because her mother was a prostitute, singlehandedly stopping the lynching by an angry white mob of an innocent slow-witted black youngster, named U.S. Grant Woodford, accused of raping a white girl (he does this despite the possibility of losing the election, since those was his constituents in the mob), and marching in a funeral procession for a prostitute who came home to be buried while the “better” people in town refuse to treat her as a Christian and would deny her the right of having a preacher at her funeral service.
The Judge acts as a healer and a benevolent paternalist figure, serving office only to make his community a friendlier and better place. He just happens to look the other way at the evil vestiges of the Old South, the religious stuffiness of the community, and the real scars leftover from the Civil War.
The result is a heavy mix of mushy sentimentality and low-brow comedy, and a melodrama that seems as if it were already outdated on its theater release date in 1953. Ford’s idealized view of America seems old-fashioned and incredulously naive but, it’s not all bad, as it ends on an upbeat note with members of both races singing together “My Old Kentucky Home.”
REVIEWED ON 12/26/2004 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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