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John Ford (director)

Eureka (studio)

PG (certificate)

101 minutes (length)

January 24, 2022 (published)

48 minutes

This movie deserves to be better known…really, it’s a rare, quirky little gem of a movie that was actually hit director John Ford’s favorite. Based on the short stories from author Irvin S. Cobb’s “Judge Priest”, Ford had previously adapted some of the material for his 1934 film JUDGE PRIEST. This 1953 b/w version stars Charles Winniger as the eccentric judge in small-town Kentucky at the turn of the 19th century.

The story is set just forty years after the Unionists defeated the Confederates in the Civil War and slavery was abolished. However, in this sleepy little town in Kentucky, we have black people singing and dancing to “I wish I was in Dixie” and the old rival factions (Yankees and Confederates) seem to get along pretty well…or do they? Nevertheless, Southern sympathizers still have their holiday gatherings, as do Northerners (this is America – the land of the Free – after all). Town mayor and judge William Pittman Priest (a most fantastic character played with great zeal by old vaudevillian and now all but forgotten Charles Winninger) presides over just about everything. This man is wise, kind, humorous and very human as a true leader should be (in short, the opposite of our PM) yet oddly enough the judge is an old Confederate. That might make a little more sense to an American history student. The Judge even has a cunning black servant in Jeff Poindexter (played by the somewhat unique Stepin Fetchit) who on and off screen was a pretty sharp harmonica player with a bizarre delivery that made him an almost household name. in the 1930s. The crafty old judge has a pretty good relationship with Jeff who isn’t too rushed and speaks his sentences in a way that everyone in the movie seems to understand but we the audience have a hard time make sense of his odd gibberish, often uttered while drunk (Judge Priest isn’t exactly averse to what he calls his “heart tonic” either).
Election day is approaching and Judge Priest is hoping for the vote of his fellow Kentucky people, however, the wealthier citizens are in favor of the arrogant Yankee newcomer Horace Maydew (Milburn Stone – better known as Doc in the TV series ‘Gunsmoke’) and so our judge faces tough competition.

While all of this is going on, a young man named Ashby Corwin (John Russell), a former black sheep of the city, returns “home” on a steamer and is immediately seduced by the pretty Lucy Lee (Arleen Whelan), the director of Dr. Lac Lewt (Russell Simpson). However, Lucy is in shock when her real mother (Dorothy Jordan), a now seriously ill former prostitute, also returns to town to see her daughter again before she dies. Only Judge Priest has always known who Lucy’s real mother is, but he has held back until now.
In another subplot, the young, white daughter of a certain Rufe Ramseur (Trevor Bardette) is assaulted and all fingers point to ‘You Ess’ Grant Woodford (Elzie Emanuel), the young, idle black nephew of ‘Uncle Plez. ‘ Woodford (Ernest Whitman) who was working after Judge Priest ordered him to get a job. Of course, ‘You Ess’ Grant being black, the mob (all hardened Confederates) led by racist bastard Buck Ramsay (Grant Withers, best known as the cop in Boris Karloff’s ‘Mr Wong’ films) marches to jail with intent on lynching the poor bugger but low and behold, our hero (and fellow Confederate) Judge Priest averts disaster in no time by standing outside the jail in a menacing pose and managing to distract the angry mob with his impassioned, heartfelt, nonsense speech still fails to understand what such a Democrat was doing fighting for the Feds. You won’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to determine the real culprit of the outrage.

Judge finds himself in a much better position due to his handling of the situation – but can he manage to win the redneck vote? In many ways, you can see a parallel to what’s happening today, but in truth, people like Judge Priest and, shall we say, Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote don’t exist. Still, the rednecks seem grateful that thanks to Judge Priest’s brave intervention, the lynching of an innocent man was averted and they vote quickly for him on Election Day… but will that be enough for Judge Priest sort of winner?

The film is beautifully rounded while being well shot. Charles Winninger is absolutely top notch in the lead and expertly backed up by Stepin Fetchit. The usual base characters are on hand to “flesh things out”. If the Snowflake Generation is offended by this film, they should keep in mind that a) writer Irvin S. Cobb, whose short stories are based on the film, was also known as a comedian (something for which the snowflakes are unknown) and b) that the story is set at the turn of the 19th century…with attitudes to match.

This restored masterpiece is available for the first time on Blu-ray and includes a new video essay by Tom Gallagher and a collector’s booklet. Definitely one for the collection!

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