Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Ford|
|Produced by||Sol M. Wurtzel|
|Written by||Irvin S. Cobb
|Editing by||Paul Weatherwax|
|Distributed by||Fox Film Corporation|
|Running time||80 minutes|
Judge Priest is a 1934 American comedy film. The film was based on humorist Irvin S. Cobb's character Judge Priest. The film was directed by John Ford and produced by Sol M. Wurtzel in association with Fox Film. The film satirizes life in post-reconstruction Kentucky.
- Will Rogers as Judge William 'Billy' Priest
- Tom Brown as Jerome Priest
- Anita Louise as Ellie May Gillespie
- Henry B. Walthall as Reverend Ashby Brand
- David Landau as Bob Gillis
- Rochelle Hudson as Virginia Maydew
- Roger Imhof as Billy Gaynor
- Frank Melton as Flem Talley
- Charley Grapewin as Sergeant Jimmy Bagby
- Berton Churchill as Senator Horace Maydew
- Brenda Fowler as Mrs. Caroline Priest
- Francis Ford as Juror No. 12
- Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Dilsey
- Stepin Fetchit as Jeff Poindexter
In the year 1890, the honorable Judge William Priest enforces justice in an old Kentucky town. The film begins with the comedic trial of Jeff Poindexter. Jeff Poindexter, a black man, has been accused of stealing chickens. Although Judge Priest is presiding, he is reading a newspaper while Senator Horace Maydew argues the plaintiff’s case. In fact, no one, but Senator Maydew, seems to care about the case. Jeff Poindexter sleeps through Senator Maydew’s testimony. After Senator Maydew is finished with his argument, Judge Priest asks the sheriff to wake up Jeff Poindexter. When Jeff reveals he got his name from Major Randolph Poindexter, Judge Priest and the other confederate veterans in attendance become very excited. They praise Major Poindexter’s ability to lick the Yankees. While the confederate veterans reminisce over the civil war, Senator Maydew complains that such history has nothing to do with the case. Judge Priest says it is relevant because Major Poindexter would often steal Yankee chickens. Next, Jeff reveals he was only trying to fish for catfish. Judge Priest, a fishing enthusiast himself, has a discussion with Jeff about his fishing. After the trial, Jeff lives with Judge Priest.
Judge Priest is sitting on his porch when his nephew, Rome, returns from a law school up north. Rome discovers his lover, Elli May, has found another man. Rome’s mom, Caroline, is happy that Rome will not be intermingling with Elli May, a girl Caroline believes is not fit for a Priest. Caroline does not like Elli May because her mother is penniless and her father absent. Judge Priest, who desperately wants to see Elli May and Rome together, counters Caroline by saying that the Priest family has never stood for intolerance. That evening Elli May has her new lover, the Barber Flem Talley, over for lemonade. Flem Talley had been drinking before he arrived at Elli May’s house. Elli May is not happy with Flem. Judge Priest, who had been observing Elli May and Flem from his porch next door, devises a plan to scare Flem away. After Elli May goes inside to prepare some lemonade, leaving Flem on the porch alone, Judge Priest hides behind a hedge and plays out a monologue. He pretends to be gossiping with another person about a gang of men with shotguns coming to get Flem Talley. In his monologue, the Judge confesses that he can do nothing until after the gang has committed murder, but then he will make sure the gang gets the justice they deserve. Of course, there was no gang, but the Judge successfully succeeds in scaring Flem. Flem gets in his buggy and leaves in a hurry. Judge Priest sends Rome, who was unaware of the Judge’s actions to scare Flem, over to Elli May’s house. Rome arrives on Elly May’s porch just as Elly May comes out with the lemonade she had prepared.
That night Judge Priest goes out to sit next to his deceased wife’s tombstone. She died in 1871, nineteen years before the film takes place. Nonetheless, Judge Priest shows no interest in remarrying. While Judge Priest sits next to his wife’s tombstone he reveals that Senator Maydew has his eye on taking Judge Priest’s spot on the bench. Judge Priest watches, unobserved, as Bob Gillus places flowers next to Elli May’s mother’s tombstone. Judge Priest is confused, but he does not contemplate it further.
The next morning Judge Priest goes into town. Confederate veteran Jimmy tells Judge Priest he is cleaning his gun because one never knows what the Yankees are going to do. When Judge Priest talks to Bob Gillus about getting new horseshoes, Judge Priest notices Bob has a bullet scar on his arm. When Judge Priest brings up the bullet scar, Bob refuses to elaborate beyond receiving it up north after the civil war.
Judge Priest leaves town to go catfish fishing with Jeff. Judge Priest asks Jeff to prepare the beef liver bait. Upon finding no more beef liver bait, Jeff explains, “Looks like that liver done walk off by itself.”
Judge Priest, just slightly irritated, sends Jeff to get more bait. Jeff throws his shoes over his shoulder and walks toward town. Judge Priest asks him why he does not put on his shoes. Jeff replies, “I’m saving them for when my feet wear out.” “As much sitting around as you do it won’t be your feet that wear out,” responds Judge Priest.
Jeff and Judge Priest return home to prepare for the Church Ice Cream Festival and Candy Pull. Judge Priest tells Jeff he is not allowed to wear his nice raccoon coat. Jeff says it is rabbit fur. Judge Priest explains to Jeff that it is raccoon fur because he took it from a rich Yankee. At the Church the Black women are busy preparing the taffy. The Black women happily sing songs about Jesus as they work. Judge Priest runs into Reverend Brand upon entering the churchyard. Reverend Brand scolds Judge Priest for not coming to church enough. Although Senator Maydew attends church every Sunday, Reverend Brand clearly favors Judge Priest for the judge’s bench. Judge Priest confesses to Reverend Brand he does not have the grammar or rhetoric that Senator Maydew possesses. Meanwhile, Senator Maydew tells church members that he will not make the race about personalities. Of course, by stating this, Senator Maydew is making it clear he believes Judge Priest’s personality is not fit for the job of judge.
When the candy pull begins, Rome’s mom, Caroline, pairs Rome with Virginia Maydew. Virginia is the Senator’s daughter. Caroline feels that Virginia is well suited for Rome because she is from an affluent family. Rome, on the other hand, would rather be paired with Elli May. Judge Priest rescues Rome. Judge Priest tells Rome and Virginia he will take Rome’s place while he gets more butter. Rome, realizing his Uncle has come to relieve him, leaves the Candy Pull with Elli May.
Later in the week, Judge Priest goes to get a haircut from barber Flem Talley. While the Judge is receiving his haircut, Elli May strolls by. Flem whistles loudly at her. Bob Gillus, who had been waiting for his haircut, stands up and punches Flem in the face. Judge Priest applauds Bob Gillus for his behavior.
Flem and his friends plan their revenge. They hide in the billiard room of the local bar. They plan on ambushing Bob Gillus with their pool cues. When Bob Gillus gets ambushed he pulls a knife on Flem, who flees the scene. Gillus is arrested on assault charges and hires Rome to defend him in court. Rome is ecstatic because Bob is his first client. Caroline, on the other hand, is not happy that her son is defending an outcast northerner over a fight with a girl. Elli May, the girl who Bob stood up for, tells Caroline that she knows Caroline does not believe she is good enough for her son. “However,” Elli May says, “If Rome were half as mean as you, Rome would not be good enough for me.”
In court, Senator Maydew, who represents Flem, asks Judge Priest to step down from the bench because of his nephew’s participation in the case as well as the Judge’s direct involvement at the barbershop. Judge Priest obliges and appoints the honorable Floyd Bailey to serve as Judge. On the first day of testimony Rome is unable to convince the jury that Bob is innocent. The jury consists of Confederate veterans who show no sympathy for someone from up north. After one day of deliberation all that remains is closing arguments.
That evening, Reverend Brand tells Judge Priest that Bob Gillus is Elli May’s father. Judge Priest realizes that this changes the whole nature of the case. In order to reopen the case, Judge Priest offers his raccoon coat to Jeff for delivering a letter of evidence to Senator Maydew. Judge Priest asks Jeff to play his drums outside the courtroom to dramatize Reverend Brand’s testimony. Jeff says he can play the popular Union song Marching Through Georgia. Judge Priest tells Jeff, “I got you outta one lynching, if I catch you playing Marching Through Georgia I’ll join the lynchers.”
The next morning Judge Priest and Rome represent Bob Gillus together. They bring Reverend Brand up to the witness stand. Reverend Brand tells the jury that he served as a captain of artillery for the Southern Confederacy. Reverend Brand recounts how, in desperation for more soldiers, he took men off the chain gang. One of these men was Bob Gillus. Reverend Brand explains, to the pleasure of the jury of Confederate veterans, how brave Bob was as he fought for the confederates. While Reverend Brand recounts stories of Bob running through Union lines, Jeff and his black friends play celebratory music outside an open courthouse window. Finally, Reverend Brand reveals that he knew Bob Gillus 25 years ago as Roger Gillespiere. Bob Gillus, Reverend Brand tells the jury, is Elli May Gillespiere’s father. Elli Mae, who was in attendance, is shocked to hear this. The jury began celebrating their war hero, Bob Gillus. Later that day, the town held its annual veteran’s parade. Bob Gillus had the honor of leading the parade.
Stepin Fetchit 
Stepin Fetchit’s character in Judge Priest, Jeff Poindexter, is the early twentieth-century stereotypical black man. Jeff Poindexter is extremely dull, slow and lazy. Stepin Fetchit (actually born Lincoln Perry) built his reputation by stereotyping blacks in this manner. It was this portrayal of blacks that enraged many black activists who were fighting the very stereotypes he was portraying. Many blacks labeled him a traitor and purposely avoided events that he was scheduled to attend.
Stepin Fetchit was born in 1902, in Key West, Florida. Although he was uneducated, he was a very shrewd and calculating man. Despite the on screen appearance of being dim-witted, Stephin Fetchit was aggressive with the moguls and producers who controlled Hollywood. Fetchit had pride in being a “militant Negro”. Fetchit was able to work with both black and whites, allowing him to reach high levels of success. In this way Fetchit was the first Black actor to fight for equal treatment from Hollywood executives.
In his role as Jeff Poindexter, Director John Ford gave Fetchit some room to expand his comic performance. When Judge Priest asked Jeff why he was not wearing his shoes, Jeff comically replied, “I’m saving them for when my feet wear out.”
Stepin Fetchit was known for attending lavish parties and causing mischief while off the studio lot. In fact, Fox Studios would hire a white bodyguard to ensure that he did not get into trouble while he was off set. Right before the shooting of Judge Priest, Fetchit caused a commotion at a benefit show at the Apollo Theater in New York City. When he arrived back in Hollywood for the filming of Judge Priest, Fetchit’s behavior was much better. In fact, only once was Fetchit late for a shoot (he forgot his make-up kit).
Hattie McDaniel 
Hattie McDaniel played Aunt Dilsey in Judge Priest. Hattie McDaniel was just beginning her trek to stardom when she shot Judge Priest. Before starring in Judge Priest she was a relatively unknown actress. Stepin Fetchit apparently doubted her acting abilities at the beginning of shooting Judge Priest, but soon realized he was working with a very talented performer. Director John Ford noted McDaniel’s acting talents. Ford cut some of Fetchit’s scenes and gave McDaniel additional scenes. This created an initial rift between these two pioneering black actors. Hattie McDaniel would eventually surpass Stephen Fetchit in fame.
Like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel plays into Black stereotypes characteristic of the early twentieth century. However, she loves to smile and sing while she works. She sings the song “Massa Jesus Wrote Me a Note” while making taffy at the church candy pull.
Will Rogers 
Will Rogers played Judge Priest. The film played a major role in earning Will Rogers the number one box office star of 1934. Rogers earned lots of critical praise for his role in Judge Priest. Many critics attend that Rogers simply fell right into the role with his heart-warming personality. Rogers managed a balance of comedic one-liners with serious dramatics. The Tulsa Daily World summed up Rogers’ performance: “The star’s portrayal of Judge Priest has the mark of authenticity upon it…the unique blending of unique talent with a rich and splendid role.”
Judge Priest is an eccentric judge. Although his wife dies 19 years before the film takes place, he shows no interest in remarrying. He sometimes stumbles his words, but he shows his wit throughout the film. The Judge, despite all his talk of being a confederate veteran, finds his best friend to be the black Jeff Poindexter. Judge Priest has pride in his tolerance for others.
Rogers was killed in a plane crash on August 15, 1935, just a year after the release of Judge Priest.
Connection to Birth of a Nation 
Henry B. Walthall plays the role of Reverend Ashby Brand in Judge Priest. Twenty years before Judge Priest was released, Walthall starred as the Little Colonel in the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915).
In Judge Priest, Rev. Brand recounts fighting in the Civil War with Bob Gillus, with both Brand and Gillus fighting for the Confederate Army. As Brand explains to the jury. the courage displayed by Gillus, scenes from the Civil War play in the film. Brand’s face is faintly crossed with battle scenes. The battle scenes displayed in the background resemble similar battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation. In both cases, the war was being presented from a Confederate perspective. The reason director John Ford paid tribute to Birth of a Nation is not known.
Portraying Post-Reconstruction South 
In Judge Priest John Ford pokes fun at the Southern United States, post the reconstruction era. By setting the film in Kentucky, 1890, the film is able to critique the south. Judge Priest portrays the town as being unable to let go of the past. Many of the male citizens of the town, including Judge Priest himself, were Civil War veterans. All the veterans fought for the Confederates. The town’s citizens refer to Yankees several times. Every time Yankee is mentioned, an aura of disgust and hatred comes over the character. One town citizen cleans his gun because, as he explains it, “You never know what them Yankees are going to do.”
At the end of the film the town happily participates in their annual Confederate Veteran’s Parade; complete with Confederate flags, which were, of course, as American as State flags, strewn throughout the parade. When Bob Gillus was on trial the jury was ready to convict him when they believed he was an outsider from the north. When the jury discovers that he was a Confederate War hero they release him on all charges. During Jeff Poindexter’s trial, Judge Priest shows he would rather reminisce with his fellow Confederate War Veterans about the Civil War than proceed with the arguments in the trial. Even the town Reverend, a man of God, fought for the Confederates in the civil war.
Judge Priest shows a South that does not have a lot going on besides talk of the Confederate past. The entire town, it seems, is in attendance at the trial concerning a small brawl between a barber and handyman. The entire town attends the Church Ice Cream Social and Candy Pull. It may be argued, that the statement that Judge Priest and Director John Ford make is that the main reason the South is unable to move past the Confederacy is they are too insulated and self-referential.
A stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans 
Judge Priest portrays its Black roles controversially. Time Magazine deemed Judge Priest one of the twenty-five “Most Important Films on Race.” Most of this controversy stems from Stepin Fetchit’s stereotypical black portrayal of Jeff Poindexter. In addition, Hattie McDaniel portrays Aunt Dilsey as a stereotypical, happy, black house-servant. In Judge Priest, Blacks are portrayed as happily submissive to the whites. For example, when Rome comes running home, Jeff Poindexter throws open the gate for him. While the whites are all having a good time celebrating at the church social, all the black townspeople are busily working preparing the candy. The blacks happily prepare the taffy. This does not play into the stereotypical “lazy” black worker. Rather, this is how many southern slave owners viewed their slaves: happy to labor for the white man. John Ford satirizes the slave owner’s moral justification for slavery.
The film, despite taking place in the South, shows Blacks and whites getting along very well. In fact, Judge Priest and Jeff Poindexter (a black man) are almost best friends in the film. It is an awkward friendship. They go fishing together. However, when Jeff forgets the bait he is forced to go back to town. Jeff Poindexter, on the other hand, does not join the Judge when he plays the elitist sport, Croquet, with his white friends. Stepin Fetchit said this about his on screen relationship with superstar Will Rogers: “When people saw me and Will Rogers like brothers, that said something to them.”
The only character that shows any animosity to black people is Judge Priest’s antagonist, Senator Maydew. Senator Maydew, when arguing for the conviction of Jeff Poindexter, says Jeff is a “confirmed Chicken thief” who has “no place in this God-fearing community.”
There are several racial contradictions that play out in Judge Priest. For instance, although Judge Priest symbolizes the tolerant southerner he has one of the most racially horrific lines in film. When Jeff asks the Judge if he can play the popular Union song Marching Through Georgia, Judge Priest tells Jeff, “I got you outta one lynching, if I catch you playing Marching Through Georgia I’ll join the lynchers.” This line makes light of a very serious subject. Lynching was very much alive in the 1930s when Judge Priest was produced.
The blacks in Judge Priest celebrated the Confederacy with the whites. The blacks happily joined with the whites during the Confederate Veterans parade. Additionally, when Reverend Brand recounts his glory days with the Confederate Army, it was the black male populace outside creating the epic music to emotionalize Reverend Brand’s story. The blacks celebrate the proslavery Confederates right alongside the whites.
- Hattie McDaniel, Melba Brown, Thelma Brown, Vera Brown, Will Rogers and others - "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night" (Music and lyrics by Stephen Foster)
- Hattie McDaniel - "Aunt Dilsey's Improvisation" (Written by Hattie McDaniel)
- "Love's Old Sweet Song (Just a Song at Twilight)" (Music by J.L. Molloy, lyrics by J. Clifton Bingham)
- Hattie McDaniel and others at the festival - "Massa Jesus Wrote Me a Note" (Music by Cyril J. Mockridge, lyrics by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti)
- "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)" (Written by Stephen Foster)
- "Old Black Joe" (Written by Stephen Foster)
- "(I Wish I Was in) Dixie's Land" (Written by Daniel Decatur Emmett)
- Hattie McDaniel - "The Little Brown Jug" (Music and lyrics by Joseph Winner)
- Hattie McDaniel - "Aunt Dilsey's Song" (Music by Cyril J. Mockridge, lyrics by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti)
See also 
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Judge Priest|
- Watkins, Mel. Stepin Fetchit. New York: Random House, Inc., 2005. Print.
- Maturi, Richard J. and Mary Buckingham Maturi. Will Rogers, Performer. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999. Print.
- Winchell, Mark Royden, God, Man and Hollywood (Willmington: ISI Books, 2008)
- Corliss, Richard. "The 25 Most Important Films on Race." Time Magazine 07 Feb. 2008: n. pag. Web. 9 Feb 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,288 04,1709148_1709143,00.h tml>.
- Judge Priest at the Internet Movie Database
- Judge Priest is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]