Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Ford|
|Produced by||Sol M. Wurtzel|
|Written by||Irvin S. Cobb
Henry B. Walthall
|Edited by||Paul Weatherwax|
|Distributed by||Fox Film Corporation|
Judge Priest is a 1934 American comedy film starring Will Rogers. The film was directed by John Ford, produced by Sol M. Wurtzel in association with Fox Film, and based on humorist Irvin S. Cobb's character Judge Priest. The picture is set in post-reconstruction Kentucky and the supporting cast features Henry B. Walthall, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit.
- 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
Will Rogers portrays Judge Priest. The film played a major role in earning Will Rogers' recognition as the number one box office star of 1934. Rogers received critical praise for his role, some noting 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 in a small Kentucky town. Although his wife died 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, portrayed by Stepin Fetchit. 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.
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 (born Lincoln Perry, 1902) 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 labeled him a traitor and purposely avoided events that he was scheduled to attend.
Although Fetchit was uneducated, he was a very shrewd and calculating man. Despite the on-screen appearance of being dim-witted, he was aggressive with the moguls and producers who controlled Hollywood and took pride in being a “militant Negro”. Fetchit was able to work with both black and white actors, allowing him to reach high levels of success. In doing so, 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 asks 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 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.
Connection to The 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).
The film was a success at the box office.
- 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)
- The Sun Shines Bright — John Ford's 1953 film based on the same original material by Irvin S. Cobb
- List of American films of 1934
- List of films in the public domain
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Judge Priest.|
- Maturi, Richard J. and Mary Buckingham Maturi. Will Rogers, Performer. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999. Print.
- Watkins, Mel. Stepin Fetchit. New York: Random House, Inc., 2005. Print.
- Winchell, Mark Royden, God, Man and Hollywood (Willmington: ISI Books, 2008)
- Churchill, Douglas W. The Year in Hollywood: 1934 May Be Remembered as the Beginning of the Sweetness-and-Light Era (gate locked); New York Times [New York, N.Y] 30 Dec 1934: X5. Retrieved December, 16, 2013.
- Judge Priest at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Judge Priest at the Internet Movie Database
- Judge Priest is available for free download at the Internet Archive