John Ford (director)
101 min (length)
24 January 2022 (released)
23 January 2022
This movie deserves to be better known… truly, it is a rare and quirky little gem of a film that was actually blockbuster director John Ford's favourite. Based on the author Irvin S. Cobb’s ‘Judge Priest’ short stories, Ford had already adapted some of the material for his 1934 movie JUDGE PRIEST. This 1953 b/w version stars Charles Winniger as the eccentric Judge of a small Kentucky town at the turn of the 19th century.
The story is set only forty years after the Unionists defeated the Confederates in the Civil War and slavery was abolished. However, in this sleepy little Kentucky town we have black people singing and dancing to 'I wish I was in Dixie' and old rival factions (Yankees and Confederates) seem to be getting along quite harmoniously… or do they? Nevertheless the Southern sympathisers still have their celebratory meetings as do the Northern (this is America - the land of the Free – after all). Town Mayor and Judge William Pittman Priest (a most fantastical character played with much zeal by the old Vaudevillian and now practically forgotten Charles Winninger) presides over just about everything. This man is wise, kind, humorous and very humane as a true leader should be (in short, the opposite of our PM) yet curiously the Judge is an old Confederate. Perhaps this makes a little more sense to an American student of history. The Judge even has a canny black manservant in Jeff Poindexter (played by the somewhat unique Stepin Fetchit) who on- and off screen was a pretty sharp harmonica player with a bizarre delivery that made him a near household name back in the 30's. The wily old Judge has a pretty good relationship with Jeff who is not overly hard pressed and delivers his sentences in a manner which everyone in the film seems to understand but we, the audience, struggle to make any sense of his strange gobbledygook, often uttered in an intoxicated state (Judge Priest isn’t exactly opposed to what he calls his ‘heart tonic’ either).
Election day is nearing and Judge Priest hopes for the vote of his fellow Kentuckians, however, the more upper crust-citizens are in favour of arrogant Yankee newcomer Horace Maydew (Milburn Stone - best known as Doc in the TV Series 'Gunsmoke') and thus our Judge faces stiff competition.
While all this is going on a young man named Ashby Corwin (John Russell), a former black sheep of the town, returns ‘home’ on a steamboat and is immediately smitten by pretty Lucy Lee (Arleen Whelan), the warden of Dr. Lewt Lake (Russell Simpson). However, Lucy is in for a shock when her real mother (Dorothy Jordan), a former prostitute now seriously ill, also returns to town to see her daughter one more time before dying. Only Judge Priest has been aware of as to who Lucy’s real mother really is all along but has held back until now.
In another side plot, the young and white daughter of one Rufe Ramseur (Trevor Bardette) is assaulted and all fingers point to ‘You Ess’ Grant Woodford (Elzie Emanuel), the young, idle and black nephew of ‘Uncle Plez’ Woodford (Ernest Whitman) who was off doing some work after Judge Priest had ordered him to find a job. Of course, ‘You Ess’ Grant being black, the mob (all hardened Confederates) led by racist scumbag Buck Ramsay (Grant Withers, best known as the cop in the Boris Karloff ‘Mr Wong’ films) march to jail with the intent on lynching the poor bugger but low and behold, our hero (and fellow Confederate) Judge Priest prevents disaster in the nick of time by standing in front of the prison in threating pose and succeeding in turning the angry crowd away with his passionate, heartfelt and no-nonsense speech - still can't work out what such a Democrat was doing fighting for the Feds. You won't need to be a Sherlock Holmes to work out the real culprit of the outrage.
The Judge finds himself in a far more favourable situation as a result of his handling of the situation - but can he succeed in winning the redneck vote? In many respects you can see a parallel with what's happening today but in truth people like Judge Priest and shall we say Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher don't exist. Still though, the rednecks seem grateful that thanks to Judge Priest’s courageous intervention the lynching of an innocent man was avoided and they promptly vote for him on Election Day… but will it be enough for Judge Priest to come out as the winner?
The film is splendidly rounded as well as being nicely shot. Charles Winninger is absolutely first rate in the lead and ably supported by Stepin Fetchit. The usual stock characters are on hand to 'flesh things out'. If the snowflake generation is offended by this film they should bear in mind that a) writer Irvin S. Cobb, on whose short stories the film is based, was also known as a humourist (something snowflakes aren’t known for) and b) that the story is set at the turn of the 19th century… with attitudes to match.
This restored masterpiece is available on Blu-ray format for the first time and includes a new video essay by Tom Gallagher and a collector’s booklet. Definitely one for the collection!