Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest Judge Priest Poster
Directed by John Ford
Fox Film Corporation

First viewing
#85 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die


Opening crawl: The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood. The War between the States was over, but its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man’s mind, and the stories that were swapped took deep root in my memory.

This is essentially a love letter to a simpler time – in this case 1890’s Kentucky, where folks still remember the glories of the antebellum South vividly.  Judge Priest (Will Rogers) presides over the court in his small town dispensing justice and folksy wisdom.  His nephew returns to town, having just graduated from law school, and is courting a local belle.  His mother objects due to the girl’s lack of breeding; her father’s identity is unknown.  The nephew’s first client is a mysterious loner who is charged with assault for defending the girl’s honor.  Judge Priest is forced to recuse himself from the case, which enables him to assist his nephew at the trial.  With Hattie McDaniel as Judge Priest’s cook/maid and Stepin Fetchit as his errand boy.

Judge Priest 2

Well, I have to admit that this was much better than Doctor Bull, the 1933 Will Rogers/John Ford movie I saw.  There is a sort of small town charm to the storytelling.  On the other hand, there is also much too much of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known in his Stepin Fetchit persona.  His shtick just makes my skin crawl.  I can’t help it. Many people would also be offended by Hattie McDaniel’s character but that does not rub me so much the wrong way.

Setting the racial stereotyping questions aside, I do not understand why this pleasant but unremarkable film should be rated a “must see.” It is an introduction to Will Rogers, who I suppose is a major personality of early 20th Century American pop culture but not more than some others we don’t meet in our journey through The List.  Will Rogers worked with Stepin Fetchit many times so it may be hard to pick a decent Rogers film that doesn’t include that character.

Clip – Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel

6 thoughts on “Judge Priest (1934)

  1. I really have trouble watching anything with Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland where they are doing the “yes, massa” routine. It had to be humiliating for blacks and as a white woman, I find it disgusting. I know they had to make a living but they could have gone over to the “race” films of someone like Oscar Micheaux where at least African Americans weren’t portrayed as idiots. The beautiful Nina May McKinney and Freddi Washington chose that route and it actually led to some decent parts for them in big budget films. Herb Jeffries was a huge star but few have heard of him. “Race films”, as they were called back in the day are something that is not written about enough and should be an essential part of film history.. But that is for another discussion.

    • I haven’t run into Mantan Moreland yet but I suppose I will as I get deeper into the Charlie Chan series. Stepin Fetchin probably couldn’t have been a millionaire by playing in “race” films but at least he would have had his dignity. I read that when he star faded he did go into race films, still with the same persona. I’m surprised that those audiences would have put up with him.

    • I thought of that as well. Some of those Kentuckians acted plenty dumb too with their spitoon shenanigans. Of course, the one Virginian came off well!

  2. There is a lot to enjoy in Judge Priest, not least the low key humour of Will Rogers. The dialogue is funny. Too bad it is wrapped up in stereotypes and quite offensive ones at that.
    Ford seemed to enjoy making nostalgic pictures out of pasts that were not exactly wonderful.

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