Judge Priest (1934)

1 08 2008

So it turns out that John Ford was just as great at making “courtroom comedies” as he was at making Westerns. At least, that what I can gather from what I’ve seen. It might just be a coincidence that this and Young Mr. Lincoln are my favorite films of his, and are so by a considerable margin. Neither films are strictly confined to a trial, but both are built around one. The more charming and funny moments do come from the proceedings, but the best parts come from Ford’s unequaled comprehension of Midwestern American life. It has that amazing sense of poetry, the kind that Ford was proficient in producing during the 30s.

William Priest has been the local judge for quite some time. His unorthodox, laid-back style isn’t exactly professional, but his personality has become woven into the fabric of the town. His nephew has recently returned home and now has a job as an attorney. When the local barber and his pals are severely beaten up by the town’s “quiet” character, it is Priest’s nephew that takes his case. This, of course, creates a possible conflict of interest, which leads many to question Priest’s fairness as a judge. In the meantime, he also sets up his nephew with a girl who, according to his nephew’s mother, isn’t up to the family tradition.

This is also notable as being the first time I’ve personally “encounter” a more direct example of Ford’s alleged racism. Judge Priest’s African American sidekick is portrayed as a baboon and speaks incoherently. While on the surface, such a characterization can understandably make some uncomfortable, it is actually somewhat progressive in a way. Ford may very well have seen all African Americans as how he portrays him in this film, but he should be given credit for actually having such characters in his films.

That’s not to say Ford was actually a forward-thinking genius or anything, but many directors would have never made the Priest’s sidekick a remotely important character. It’s also worth mentioning that not really anyone in the film comes off as being particularly smart. Will Rodger’s whole persona is just “dumb…but charming” but he never comes off as being a superior character. In fact, I think Ford’s characterization of all the characters is one of the most curious elements in the film. While it is, like many things Fordian, quite simple on the surface, it does ask for deep pondering.

Of course, calling it is “curious” is not saying it is outrightly positive. As said before, Roger’s character is stupid, but done so in a cutesy way. That’s not entirely interesting, which is unfortunate considering that he is the principle character of the story. Stepin Fetchit’s character does seem to have some mental illness, but to say his character is an attempt at generalization is harsh, if not entirely false. This is Kentucky, after all, so in all likelihood there are going to be a bunch of off-beat (to say the least) personalities and Jeff Pointdexter is such. I am not out to defend racism, of course, and I understand how his performance here (and elsewhere) could be extremely offensive, but it does say something about Ford that he is willing to show such a performance. It is still racist, obviously, but that is most likely what Kentucky was like after the Civil War. Perhaps the circumstances are not that pleasant, but sometimes, real life isn’t, either.



One response

23 04 2016

Reblogged this on Blog do Rogerinho.

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