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John Ford weaves three "Judge Priest" stories together to form a good- natured exploration of honour and small-town politics in the South around the turn of the century. Judge William Priest is involved variously in revealing the real identity of Lucy Lake, reliving his Civil War memories, preventing the lynching of a youth and contesting the elections with Yankee Horace K. Maydew. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
John Ford had a fondness for The Sun Shines Bright. It's a beautiful tale of an honorable old man who even while facing a tough re-election for town judge refuses to be a hypocrite or play up to a lot of his town's hypocrites.
The film was done before as Judge Priest with Will Rogers in the title role. As good as The Sun Shines Bright is, it would have been even better had John Ford not chosen to use Stepin Fetchit in the same part he had in the original film. Stepin Fetchit is, well Stepin Fetchit. Funny thing is that a whole lot of black players are used in this film and their roles are not as stereotypical as his is.
Charles Winninger is every bit as good as Will Rogers in the lead. If you can imagine Captain Andy from Show Boat had he taken up the law instead of show business, you get some idea of what Judge William Pittman Priest is all about. Justice is blind in his courtroom, but it isn't deaf and dumb also. In Winninger's life as well as his courtroom.
He's up for re-election in his small Kentucky county and he's got a hard fighting opponent in prosecutor Milburn Stone. Priest is a proud Confederate veteran, but he's not above saving an innocent black kid from a lynch mob.
Nor is he above a little Christian charity when it comes to seeing a fallen woman who just came to town to see her daughter before she died given a proper funeral service. When no accredited minister will do the service, Winninger fills in at the pulpit and has some choice words taken from the parable about the woman caught in sin.
My favorite scene in The Sun Shines Bright is the funeral procession for the same woman. Winninger is the head of the local United Confederate Veterans and Henry O'Neill is the head of the local Grand Army of the Republic chapter. They are friends and friendly rivals. Yet on that day Republican O'Neill and Democrat Winninger both lead the funeral procession. Too bad our Republicans and Democrats of today can't agree on some common values.
How does this impact on Winninger's election? You'll have to watch the beautiful and poetic The Sun Shines Bright to find out.
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