Judge William "Billy" Priest lives in a very patriotic (Confederate) southern town. Priest plays a laid-back, widowed judge who helps uphold the law in his toughest court case yet. In the meantime, he plays matchmaker for his young nephew. Written by
This film is pure Ford, so, if you're a fan, definitely seek it out. Will Rogers plays the title character, a relaxed judge in a small, Southern town at the end of the 19th Century. He's a kind man with a homespun sense of justice. Others in the legal profession around him disdain him for his casualness, and Judge Priest dislikes their rigid sense of formality. The film opens with the dour Berton Churchill (best known for playing the wicked banker in Stagecoach) prosecuting an ignorant black man, Jeff, for stealing chickens. Jeff claims that he was out fishing for catfish at the time he is supposed to have nabbed the poultry. This activity excites Judge Priest so much that he lets Jeff go and they both go off fishing for catfish. Jeff afterwards becomes his servant. The plot of this film, which was the kernel for the plot of Ford's later (and lesser) Young Mr. Lincoln, involves a stabbing in self-defense. Judge Priest's young nephew, Jerome, back from law school, takes it up as his first case. The courtroom scenes are good for courtroom scenes, but that was never what interested me. The sense of Southern nostalgia, which I love so much from William Faulkner, is enveloping in this film. Will Rogers' kind judge is such a good character. He apparently improvised most of his dialogue, which was his style. He speaks slowly, but with conviction. It's a very good performance. People will certainly object to the treatment and characterization of black characters in the film. This is more just a product of the times, and it doesn't worry me much. Besides, I really found Judge Priest's interactions with Jeff and his maid, Dilsey (played by Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel), touching. Aunt Dilsey, as she is called, is also the name of one of Faulkner's more memorable characters, the black maid in The Sound and the Fury. She and Will Rogers actually have quite a fantastic duet at one point. Rogers also sings with McDaniel and a few other black women, as well. 9/10.
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