Will Rogers brings his folksy charm to fellow humorist Irvin S. Cobb's weel-known character Judge Priest to good effect. Judge Priest is a former confederate soldier now dispensing law in small town, post-Reconstruction Kentucky. He is noted for his compassion and his common sense. Rogers starred in five films from Fox Film Corporation in 1934 and Judge Priest was the one that went a long way to making him the most popular box office star of that year.
The main plot concerns a case of assault and stabbing in which the defendant acted in self-defense. Judge Priest recuses himself from the case because the defendant is represented by his nephew Jerome (played by Tom Brown), a newly-minted lawyer with his first case. A sub-plot involves Priest encouraging a romance between Jerome and pretty Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise). Jerome's mother feels that Ellie Mae is not worthy enough of the "Kentucky Priests" and has selected a more "fitting" girl for her son.
There is a lot of racial stereotyping due to the film's age and location, and Judge Priest can be Jingoistic. This is somewhat eased over by his friendship with Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), a chicken thief who goes fiching for catfish with Priest. The film does glorify the post-war South but it's warmth and humanity alleviate some of the racism. A scene in which Rogers joins in singing " My Old Kentucky Home" with Hattie McDaniel and (uncredited sisters) Melba, Thelma, and Vera Brown may be off-putting to some.
As indicated above, also featured was an early career Hattie MacDaniel in her first major role. Reportedly, Stepin Fetchit was not sure about working with an unproven actress but soon realized her talent. When director John Ford, impressed by macDaniel, cut some of Fetchit's scens and gave them to MacDaniel, a temporary rift occured between the two actors.
Also playing a pivotal role in the movie was Henry B. Walthall as the Reverend Ashby Brand. Walthall was a respected stage actor who turned to films and was regularly used by D. W. Griffith. He was called the "Edwin Booth of the screen," but his film career had started a downward slide, only to be revived with the tintroduction of the talkies. IMDb lists 325 credits from 1909 to his death in 1936.
Nineteen years later, Ford remade the film as The Sun Shines Bright, a somewhat less racially charged film starring Charles Winneger as Priest, with Stepin Fetchit reprising his role as Jeff Poindexter. The film was not as big as success as Judge Priest, although Ford stated that it was his favorite of all his films. Later critics have praised the movie.
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