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
John Ford's often whimsical view of 19th century mid-west America is on full display here in this comic reflection about, as the authors prologue puts it, "the familiar ghosts of my own boyhood".
The immensely likable Will Rogers is the eponymous hero of the title. A small town judge who has sat on the local bench since the civil war ended without necessarily having all the right credentials to do so. Indeed, as Priest himself puts it, during his tenure he has tended to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it! Never-the-less, his Confederate war-stories and his folksy approach to justice (and life in general) make him a much loved figure amongst the community... Much to the chagrin of an over-orating state senator (Berton Churchill) who is eyeing his position enviously!
Things are further complicated by the fact that Priests young lawyer nephew (Tom Brown) is caught in something of an innocent love triangle with the senators daughter (Rochelle Hudson) and his own childhood sweetheart(Anita Louise). When the latter unknowingly becomes the catalyst for what soon becomes the towns latest trial it is up for the Judge to get to the bottom of the matter before an innocent man - well, half-innocent anyway - is sent to gaol!
Of course, the courtroom drama isn't really what matters here. It is Fords heavily mythologised evocation of 1890's Kansas life that really takes centre stage. A laconic, gentry led backwater full of Southern ideals where the struggle of the Confederacy is idealised and celebrated and a town where a love of fishing, a tale of gallantry or the playing "Dixie" outside of a courtroom can swing a jury in a man's favour. A place where white men and singing Negroes happily co-exist as if the civil war never really changed anything anyway!
Yet, despite this somewhat outmoded (and superficially un-PC) rose-tinted view of mid-west life, Judge Priest succeeds in presenting itself with such charm and good-natured humour that it is almost lovable. Indeed, whilst Ford presents this as a heavily romanticised reminiscence he also plays it as a delightfully knowing satire too. To this end, the director makes particularly good use of the legendary (and hugely controversial) black comic Stepin Fetchit manically lampooning every "coon" stereotype in the book.
Ford would go on to hone the kind of bawdy, knockabout humour and lively stock of characters found here almost constantly throughout his career. As such, Judge Priest may not quite be amongst the great directors very best work but, with the help of the talented Rogers and Fetchit, it is still an extremely enjoyable entry upon his illustrious CV.
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