In observation/preparation for Will Rogers birthday today (see our tribute article here) last night we watched his 1934 feature Judge Priest. Time has given an unfortunate new spin to the resonance of that title…sounds like a mix of “Judge Dredd” and “Judas Priest”, like he ought to be some sort of diabolical hanging judge. But he is Will Rogers, thus Judge Priest is the sweetest, wisest, plainest, honestest small town judge a person can imagine. He spends the movie in a Christ-like bid to remove a cloud of public prejudice against a man with a criminal past (David Landau, whom you know well from Horse Feathers without ever catching his name), and to clear the name of the man’s daughter whom is thought to be illegitimate (Anita Louise). Though directed by John Ford (one of several he did with Rogers), the film is Capraesque in theme and tone, very much in the spirit of the times.
The film is probably less well known today because of its rather unfortunate rose-colored affection for the Confederacy. Set in rural Kentucky, all the male characters are Civil War vets (the most loudly hilarious of them is Charley Grapewin, “Uncle Henry” from The Wizard of Oz), and there are several stereotyped slave-like black servants (notably Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit). Judge Priests’s interactions with them are kindly and affectionate, but a couple of his jokes are a mite too politically incorrect for the modern sensibility.
Still, we see where his heart is. A delightful surprise is this bit where he joins in with Hattie McDaniel in one of her spiritual improvisations (the movie is full of her wonderful singing). Rogers’ singing probably couldn’t be described as “wonderful” but it’s funny and charming:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.