Judge Priest (1934) – full review!
Not one of John Ford’s better films in fact it’s quite dull for most of the first hour which might explain why the director felt the need to remake this comedy drama as The Sun Shines Bright (1953) with Charles Winninger. This one features Will Rogers in the title role and a screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti. The cast also includes Tom Brown Anita Louise Henry Walthall David Landau Rochelle Hudson very briefly Charley Grapewin as a spirited old Civil War veteran Berton Churchill Hattie McDaniel (as McDaniels) and Stepin Fetchit. The director’s brother Francis Ford plays a spitting champion who can always hit the spittoon.
William ‘Billy’ Priest (Rogers) settled down some 25 years ago after the Civil War in his old Kentucky hometown where he’s been serving as its plainspoken judge. A widower for some time he’s happy to welcome his nephew Jerome ‘Rome’ Priest (Brown) his high society sister Caroline’s (Brenda Fowler) son home fresh from law school with degree in hand looking for his first client. The judge has encouraged Rome’s interest in his comely young next door neighbor Ellie May Gillespie (Louise) for years and hits his croquet ball towards her yard so that his nephew will go get reacquainted. Unfortunately he learns that Ellie May has been dating the obnoxious local barber Flem Tally (Frank Melton). The judge keeps company with a slow (speaking and thinking; offensively stereotypical) Black man named Jeff Poindexter (Fetchit) and employs a gospel singing housekeeper dubbed Aunt Dilsey (McDaniel).
Rome’s mother thinks her son ought to be spending time with pretty young things from good families like Southern belle Virginia Maydew (Hudson) daughter of Senator Horace Maydew (Churchill) in lieu of Ellie May who moved to town from Virginia as a single mother with child. Caroline a widow herself tries to arrange this at an ice cream social and taffy pulling at the church but her brother outmaneuvers her such that Rome can be with Ellie May. While visiting his wife in the cemetery the judge notices Bob Gillis (Landau) putting flowers on the grave of Ellie May’s mother. Later in the barbershop when Flem is heard to say something untoward about Ellie May Gillis punches the barber in the nose. Later still when Flem and his friends try to ambush Gillis in a bar by hitting him with pool cues the older man gets the best of all three by pulling his knife. Since Gillis has always been a mysterious stranger an outsider from the North even if it was Virginia Senator Maydew who’s also the town’s chief prosecutor brings Gillis to court on assault charges; Rome has his first client!
At the beginning of the trial the Senator who has always wanted Judge Priest’s job requests that the judge recuse himself given his defense of Gillis in the barbershop. The judge speaks briefly about his integrity how it has never been in question before then reluctantly steps down. Unfortunately for Rome it’s the word of three against his one Gillis who appears resigned to his fate and refuses to answer most questions to defend himself. Both the prosecution and the defense rest. Court recesses until the next day Confederate Memorial Day when closing arguments will be heard. Reverend Ashby Brand (Walthall) visits Judge Priest with some new information; the judge has Jeff take a note to Senator Maydew anonymously. Since the note contained information about a prior murder conviction for Gillis the Senator reopens the case the next day. After damning testimony the judge who had joined his nephew’s defense team calls the Reverend to tell his story.
With Jeff and other Negroes playing patriotic (for the Confederacy!!!) music just outside the courthouse the Reverend originally from Virginia recounts a tale about how desperate the South was for soldiers that even prisoners serving life sentences were given a chance to earn their freedom by fighting (and surviving) against the Yanks that one such prisoner fought valiantly exhibiting bravery with several heroic acts including saving the company’s colors the stars and bars (the Confederate Flag) that the man was Roger Gillespie better known as Bob Gillis who has been secretly supporting his daughter Ellie May through the Reverend for years. The crowd roars their approval for Gillis-Gillespie and right after his daughter does the jury rushes him to embrace their comrade in an obvious not guilty celebration which continues out in the street and during the holiday’s parade.