Friday, July 07, 2006

Will Rogers is a Nice Guy

It was hot in Minneapolis. So there was walking and sweating. I entered a video store where a guy told me to check my bag. He was a nice sort, with a mohawk budding on his head, and was on his way out for a smoke. So I obliged him. I peeked at the sale rack, bulging with cheap actioners, when by chance I espied a rare title. Judge Priest sat there humbly, waiting for my stout embrace. A 1934 Will Rogers film directed by John Ford, I've heard it praised by smart folks like Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum. So at the right price of $5.99 I parted with my cash.

A public domain copy, I was hoping it would be viewable, and after a brief audio scare, it was. And what pleasures it contained! Will Rogers is the aforementioned Judge, a folksy type more attuned to the spirit of the law than the letter, as he says. The main action surrounds his nephew's pursuit of a local girl with a questionable heritage, the pompous state senator's bid to unseat Judge Priest in the next election, and the nephew's first case as a lawyer. One can't describe the warmth generated by Ford and these nice people. Peaks include Rogers harmonizing with Hattie McDaniel as he writes a letter that will free the defendant, Rogers interrupting his nephew's date with a stuck up rich girl - and well, there's one more. Watching his nephew walking with his love, Judge Priest looks away, only to see himself and his deceased wife walking along that same path, in a ghostly superimposition. Then he walks over to the mantle, lights a candle which coats the room in a mournful glow. Above the mantle, a photo of his wife and children. He chats with them, not as in prayer, but as if they were there with him. It's overwhelmingly emotional because of how casual it is. This is how he has dealt with his grief over many years - this is no big reveal, only a generous peek.

In a related story, I also watched Steamboat 'Round The Bend (1935) from the new Fox DVD set. Less community feeling than the Judge, but it makes up for it with a limber narrative that has jokes constantly floating on the edges. Rogers here plays a roadside huckster, selling a Pocahontas potion to a welcoming public. His nephew arrives home with his lady, whom he spirited away from her violent swampland family. He also killed a guy. The nephew turns himself in - and in order to prove the murder was in self defense, Rogers has to win a Steamboat race on the way to finding the sole witness - the one who calls himself "New Moses", a bellowing, bearded false prophet, and by far the funniest character in the film (the actor, Benton Churchill, spewed more hot air as the Senator in Judge Priest). Rogers picks up Stepin Fetchit (a severely underrated comic performer) along the way - and the pace never lags. There's also room for one extraodinary shot, where the nephew and his lady are married in prison, with a crowd of inmates and guards surrounding them. They slowly dissipate as the camera moves in to the the clutching couple - holding on for dear life.


Blogger Akiva said...

Judge Priest also has a fantastic ending, in which Stepin Fetchit and a band of peers play "Dixie" outside the courtroom to foster a sense of justice after Priest's verdict, a memorable testament to the power (and, often, necessity) of audience manipulation.

Ford also remade his own film as "The Sun Shines Bright" -- it's easier to find on video than the original, but it lacks Will Rogers and most of the first film's considerable magic.

5:17 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

Yes, a fabulous ending indeed. The most kind-hearted scene of manipulation I've seen.

Where did you see "Sun Shines Bright"? Rosenbaum says it's his favorite Ford film of all. It's next on my list.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Akiva said...

Saw it in a Sarah Lawrence class called "Rhetoric of Film" taught by eminent Ford enthusiast Gilberto Perez.

I've never really understood Rosenbaum's justification for his claim, but he has a lengthy essay about both films that quotes Perez at length. Actually, from what I remember, his love of "Sun Shines Bright" was based on seeing it long before "Judge Priest", and at an impressionable age. The one you see first is probably the one you love more.

12:32 AM  
Blogger Akiva said...

Also, "The Sun Shines Bright" is definitely on video, and should be available at a local library or Kim's.

12:33 AM  

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