Judge Priest (1934)

Dir. John Ford. Starring Will Rogers, Stepin Fetchit, Henry B. Walthall

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During the Civil War, Kentucky declared itself a neutral state, though in practice what that meant was that it stayed with the Union, choosing native son Abraham Lincoln over native son Jefferson Davis. Tens of thousands of men from Kentucky, like John C. Breckinridge and Simon Bolivar Buckner, went to the Confederate Army; many tens of thousands more, like Thomas P. Wood and John Pope, went to the Union Army. One of the great what-ifs of the Civil War has to do with what might have changed if Braxton Bragg had been able to beat Don Carlos Buell at Perryville in October of 1862; as it stands, the Yankee victory basically assured them control of Kentucky for the remainder of the conflict. The war would have been won by the Union anyway, but, to really stick my history teacher hat on, much “blood and treasure” would doubtless have been spilled in keeping Kentucky. What I think is worth remembering is that while Kentucky may be a Southern state—as of the present pre-Texas and Oklahoma moment, it passes the test of having an SEC school—it did not prefer the Confederacy. To suggest that it was pro-traitor as a general rule is a suggestion without historical backing, and to set a story in a pro-Reb Kentucky is to make a distinct choice. It’s not that such hamlets didn’t exist or couldn’t have existed, but that they make up only some part of the state’s identity, and that the universality of such a place is immediately questionable.

In Judge Priest, it’s 1890 and the Civil War is twenty-five years distant from the Kentuckians in the film. Some things have remained the same. African-Americans are servants and in thrall to white overlords, even if they are getting paid some pittance which they were not paid a quarter-century back. Men go about with other men, and women go about with other women, and unless they’re courting, the twain seldom meet. The pace of life in town appears to not be so much faster than it was back then. Men still drive horses in drawn carriages and wagons to get from place to place; the implements and accoutrements of day-to-day life are not so much more advanced. According to the opening crawl (signed by the author of the story the film is based on, an Irvin S. Cobb), this is a story of a better and more civilized time than the one in which its audience would have seen it. There were enough moviegoers in 1934 with some memory of 1890 for that challenge to have resonated a little bit; more than a hundred years later, that challenge is almost comical. The film, at first glance, seems to believe that crawl, for there are an awful lot of people in this film who really do miss the Confederacy.

Take the scene towards the end of the picture where a Virginia-born minister and onetime artillery commander, Ashby Brand (Walthall) waxes rhapsodic about the Lost Cause. Priest (Rogers), a wise little politicker of the downhome school, tees Brand up. Did you serve in the War of the Rebellion? he asks his witness, sort of raising his eyes to the jury. His witness, in his pulpit voice, responds negatively. “No sir, the War for the Southern Confederacy,” Brand replies. This response gets a very positive response out of the (old!) men in the jury box, a lot of nodding to one another and saying “That’s right.” Priest has planned this. He’s got Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) outside with a harmonica, ready to play “Dixie” at the opportune moment. Brand recounts a story which will ultimately acquit Priest’s client in the eyes of the jury and the town at large. Meanwhile, Jeff is joined by a number of other Black people, some with instruments. They start playing “Dixie” too, while other people, including little kids, dance outside the courthouse where, we can safely assume, they have been barred entry. This testimony on behalf of Priest’s client—a mysterious and taciturn outsider named Gillis (David Landau) who stabbed the local barber, the unfortunately named Flem Talley (Frank Melton)—has to do with the valor and courage he showed fighting for the Confederacy. This testimony takes up literally ten percent of the movie, all of it under the watchful portrait eyes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and most of that testimony backed by the music from the Black citizenry of the town. (Earlier, Jeff suggested to Priest that he could play “Marching Through Georgia” instead of “Dixie,” which is incredibly funny and one of the rare times you can watch a Black man bust a white man’s balls in a movie from the 1930s.) At its close, one of the jurors leaps up and shouts hooray for the Southern Confederacy and for the service of Bob Gillis. At least I think he says that. It’s sort of impossible to know through the slurred speech. That juror has spent the vast majority of Gillis’s trial nailing a spittoon with whatever foul mixture he’s been chewing on. More than that, he’s played by the director’s brother. At this point, Francis Ford was already playing drunks and other morons of no account in his brother’s films.

Even though the film ends with a Confederate veterans parade, flying the Stars and Bars, you can’t help but raise your eyebrow a little bit. What a ridiculous showcase this is with even a moment’s thought given to it. Black men who were, to say the least, actively removed from society can sway the hearts of white men with a rendition of “Dixie”? The town drunk whose greatest talent has to do with his spit can start a great uproar in court to end a case? I’ve spent some time wondering about the unnecessary weirdness of John Ford’s Confederate sympathies in other films (as in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but here I don’t think you can watch the film and think it’s glorifying days gone by. We may lament that the hero of this story is a Confederate veteran now sitting on the bench, hearing cases in the country which he tried to destroy; this is American history, just as Nazis in postwar German government is German history. What is harder to ignore is that the film knows the calculations being made. Priest is going to win this case for his client by waving that flag which was put in the dust a quarter-century before, knowing that the jury will rise up to salute it all the same. Judge Priest is not the world’s most sensitive or forward-thinking movie, but I think it’s safe to say that it knows what it’s doing. It’s not supposed to be that we’re supposed to sit there and get misty-eyed about the Lost Cause, because if we did that we’d be suckers just as gullible as Priest’s jury. We’re supposed to sit there and find their rhapsodic allegiance to it funny, and funny it is. All doubts are set aside by a throwaway zinger made earlier in the picture. While having a conversation with a relative, Caroline (Brenda Fowler), who laments that the judge makes too little effort to hold up the family name, it comes up that she’s going to a Daughters of the Confederacy meeting. As she walks off his porch, Priest comments on how strange it is that it’s people besides the soldiers who have so many medals and awards regarding the war. It is commentary that would apply, with a similar snap, to a great many of my countrymen.

The slyness is in Ford, of course, and presumably in Dudley Nichols’ screenplay as well. But it’s wonderful because it’s from Will Rogers. Rogers gives a really lovely performance in Judge Priest, as funny as ever when he’s being set up for the laugh line, but it’s when it’s unexpected that I was really captivated by him. In one scene, he comes in from the porch in the evening as it’s gotten dark, returning to his bedroom. There’s a tintype on the wall of his wife and children, all of whom are dead now. He speaks to the picture fluidly, as if his wife is there in the room with him in the flesh rather than a memory on his wall. It’s not the equal of Henry Fonda’s young Lincoln, who has a heart-to-heart with Ann Rutherford at her grave—for the second draft, Ford has the wisdom to put together a more picturesque setting than a Kentucky judge’s bedroom—but it is surprisingly moving. In a movie where so many people miss the past, this is the way in which people miss people from that past rather than politics. Perhaps it is why Priest can rise above his fellow citizens so adroitly; he has something beyond the Confederacy to miss, something dearer and surely much better.

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