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Judge Priest (1934)

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So. I got through Limite just fine – I didn’t understand a lick of it, but watched it all the way through.  Five different Soviet expressionist films – same thing, I was confused and bored but kept watching. Even Un Chien Andalou – I covered my eyes at the icky bit, but still watched.  Judge Priest therefore has earned a dubious honor: it is the first film in this project I seriously considered turning off halfway through.

Not because of the quality, mind. It’s shot well enough, and even enjoys a couple of cute “special effects” touches.  The talent assembled is also impressive – an Oscar winning actress appears here in her first role, a renowned director is also on board, a famed comedian stars, and a star reporter is trying his hand at the script. They all ply their craft well enough.

The problem is that they are all working to support one of the most ridiculous, pandering, illogical, hokey, and all-around insulting scripts I’ve ever seen in my life (and I used to run a playwriting contest, so I’ve seen plenty of insulting scripts).   Characters’ motivations are inconsistent, the rule of law is subverted by a judge, an entire class of people is belittled, and there is a running gag involving a spittoon that violates laws of physics.  And the whole thing ends with a yay-Confederacy Stars-and-Bars flag-wavy sequence at a parade (and pandering to Confederate sympathies is actually what drives the happy ending).

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The whole thing is set in a small Kentucky town in the 1890s.  Will Rogers plays Billy Priest – a beloved but irreverent judge, whom the film’s introduction states is renowned for his common sense and tolerance, and who in the first scene is presiding over the trial of a man accused of stealing a chicken. The prosecuting attorney is a former state senator; but during the trial, Priest is flat-out ignoring his opening arguments in favor of reading the funny papers. Our defendant “Jeff Poindexter” is played by the controversial comedian Stepin Fetchit.  Or more accurately – mumbled by Stephin Fetchit.  I swear I only understood five of the words that Poindexter babbles out in his own defense in this scene; and that’s only because Priest (who’s put down his paper long enough to pay attention) has engaged him in conversation – about the appropriate bait to use while catfishing. After hearing Poindexter’s secrets, Priest dismisses the case to fish with him.  We never hear anything about the trial again.

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The film mainly concerns Priest’s nephew Jerome, newly graduated from law school “up North”. He’s just been appointed to the bar and has returned home to begin a practice, and to win the hand of his longtime sweetheart Ellie Mae. But Jerome’s mother Caroline disapproves of the match since Ellie Mae has an unclear parentage; she is the daughter of an unmarried woman who died in childbirth, and Caroline is afraid Ellie Mae’s father might not be respectable enough.

Priest soon suspects that Ellie Mae’s father is the town blacksmith Bob Gillis, a loner he sees visiting the grave of Ellie Mae’s mother one evening.  Priest is also present when Gillis is at the barbershop and overhears some men leering over Ellie Mae, joking that since she’s fatherless, there’s no risk of a shotgun wedding.  So they can have their way with her scot-free! (The true horror of that notion, which I somehow missed during viewing, has just dawned on me now – yeccch.) A fight breaks out and Gillis is accused of assault. Jerome steps in as his defense attorney, and Priest is surprisingly ordered to recuse himself from the trial – but not because of Jerome.  No – he’s forced off the trial because he sided with Gillis in the barbershop.

But he finds a way to take part in the trial anyway – by declaring himself associate defense lawyer, by persuading the town priest to betray a confidence, by sending anonymous letters to the prosecution, and by paying off Poindexter to play “Dixie” outside the window at a pre-arranged signal to sway the jurors’ emotions.  Gillis was a war hero, you see. (He’d also been on a chain gang, but let’s not dwell on that!)

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Priest’s “tolerance” is manifested through hiring Poindexter for odd jobs like this, and by singing with his maid “Aunt Dilsey” – played by Hattie McDaniel, in an early role. Singing is pretty much all McDaniel is called upon to do, actually – she sings a spiritual at a church social, she sings Stephen Foster songs while cleaning Priest’s house, she even sings about doing Priest’s laundry while engaged in said act.  Her few non-musical scenes all involve cooking or food, like a moment where she defends a batch of donuts from Poindexter’s grasp (he retaliates by stealing some whiskey instead). But otherwise, she’s no more than a walking jukebox Priest harmonizes with occasionally.

Not that Fetchit fares much better. Aside from the trial, and playing “Dixie”, he’s reduced to being Priest’s errand boy.  Whenever he’s not fetching and carrying he’s hovering close by Priest – in some scenes literally sitting at Priest’s feet like a faithful dog.  At least they have occasional conversations – Rogers and Fetchit, both veterans of the vaudeville circuit, would sometimes ad-lib during their scenes, to the great frustration of director John Ford. But they were jokes (at least in theory) so they stayed in.

To paraphrase Roger Ebert:  I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated every simpering stupid biased illogical pandering moment of it. Hated the producer that thought there would be an audience for it. Hated the realization that there no doubt was an audience for it.

Most of all – I hated the realization that there most likely still would be an audience for this film today, that there would be those who overlook abuses of the law and write off character flaws on the basis of tribalism and sentiment, that there would be those who are blinkered to its caricaturizing, that there would be those who see this as a nostalgic look at “the good old days”.

I could not get this disc out of my DVD player fast enough.  If I had good enough aim I would have forgone the postal system and hurled this back to Netflix like a frisbee, just for the sheer satisfaction of throwing this movie as far as possible.

3 thoughts on “Judge Priest (1934)”

  1. I think I was more forgiving than you back when I reviewed it, but then I lacked (and still do) the cultural references to properly appreciate this movie. My biggest complain was that I did not understand a word anybody was saying.


    1. I did see your resorting to using headphones because of the bad sound mixing. However, I don’t think that the sound was the problem in Stepin Fetchit’s case – he was deliberately mumbling everything, it seemed, and that got really frustrating.


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