Judge Priest (John Ford / U.S., 1934):

Rural Kentucky out of the Civil War but not quite into the new century, Irvin S. Cobb's "familiar ghosts of my own boyhood" resurrected by John Ford in a tangy vaudeville-séance. Magistrate and minister are two sides of the same name yet the title character (Will Rogers) shoulders them lightly, windy orators and old soldiers fill the courtroom as the judge ponders the newspaper funnies. (Stepin Fetchit as the accused has a tip about catfish bait, one dissolve later and the two men are headed to the river, fishing rods slung over their shoulders.) The nephew fresh off Yankee law school (Tom Brown) and the orphaned belle next door (Anita Louise) and the grump with a past (David Landau), plot pulled like taffy at the church social, no hurry. "That exertion calls for a julep." The warmth of nostalgia along with its blurry edges, the "good stock and family pride" of the Daughters of the Confederacy can't possibly compete with fond duets between Rogers and Hattie McDaniel. Ford understands the rustic philosopher's pivotal role in the community is inseparable from his loneliness, and composes a lovely movement from front porch to darkened bedroom (reflections on a faded portrait, a key Fordian image) to graveyard. (Altman had to just glance at it for both Cookie's Fortune and A Prairie Home Companion.) Fresh rhythms abound: The yearning romance interrupted by the goat in the mint patch, the politician's (Berton Churchill) speeches punctuated by the scruffy juror (Francis Ford) perpetually searching for a spittoon. Above all, the case of the barbershop scrape that balloons into a full production stage-managed by the judge, complete with haloed monologue from the Little Colonel himself (Henry B. Walthall) and "Dixie" on the ragtag soundtrack. "First thing I learned in politics was when to say 'ain't'." A gentle vision to be vehemently remembered—Aldrich runs with "the battalion from hell" and Public Enemy skewers Fetchit in his raccoon coat and top hat. With Rochelle Hudson, Roger Imhof, Frank Melton, Charley Grapewin, and Brenda Fowler. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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