Friday, December 08, 2006

The Sun Shines Bright (1953)

After the commercial and critical success of The Quiet Man in 1952, John Ford made what he repeatedly named as the favorite of his films, The Sun Shines Bright. Made for a small budget for Republic Pictures, a studio known for their cheap Westerns, it's a remake of his 1934 gem Judge Priest, which starred Will Rogers. This update has no stars in the cast, as character actor Charles Winninger nabs the lead this time around. Subsequently, it was cut by ten minutes, dumped as the B side of a double bill, and was barely seen in the US upon its release.

Adapting a few of Irvin S. Cobb's short stories about the Judge, the film is packed with incident, but contains a couple main threads. The first is that Judge Priest is up for re-election, along with the rest of the local government. A slick glad-hander is running in opposition, who has lined up major support throughout the town. The other main thread is the adopted daughter of the town doctor, Lucy Lee, who is searching for the identity of her parents, whom the town assumes to be a prostitute and a Confederate General. Other events crowd in, including Lucy Lee's romance with a local prodigal son, and the attempted lynching of a black man accused of rape.

The amount of plot information is vast, but the pace is leisurely.

It is the most personal of Ford films. His brother Frances, a mentor to him as he was breaking into Hollywood during the silent era, plays, winkingly, a silent character: a backwoods hick who slugs moonshine with his son (Slim Pickens in one of his first screen roles). Other roles are filled by silent standbys, including Mae Marsh as the local gossip and James Kirkwood as the General.

Ford had long been fascinated by American rituals: the town dance, parades, funerals, marches, and the like. The Sun Shines Bright is made up of a string of these. As Howard Hawks stripped down the Western to its essentials in his masterpiece Rio Bravo, so Ford strips down the small town melodrama. The sets are few - Judge Priest's porch, the jailhouse, the town hall, and the courthouse. Most of the action takes place there or on the streets outside.

It is bursting with love. Every major character's eyes water. They water because Judge Priest tries to retain what is noble in a town soon to be overtaken by dissembling modern politicians who bellow threats instead of solving problems or listening to their constituents. His nobility is encapsulated in a funeral march. Lucy Lee's shamed mother stumbles back into town to see her daughter before she dies. The local madam promises to have a mass for her at church upon her passing. The day of the election, Priest walks alone behind the hearse, with the local whores sitting in the buggy in the funeral procession, as the local gossips chatter about what a scandal it all is. An ex Union army member steps into lockstep behind him, and in an astonishing sequence, much of the town follows in behind him, honoring a woman they badmouthed the rest of the film, their petty selfishness falling away to honor one of their own who had come to a bad end.

This procession is followed later on by another, as the entire town parades in front of Judge Priest's porch to celebrate his surprise victory. It is absurd and beautiful, the Union and the Confederate army marching past, followed by the Temperance organization - right after Priest takes a swig from his jug. It ends with the poor black community walking past, singing a gospel tune - and herein lies reservations many have with the film - its racial attitude. Early scenes include a young kid playing Dixie on his banjo grinning and jigging in a brutal stereotype of the shuckin' and jivin' minstrel. The presence of Stepin Fetchit as Judge Priest's assistant also contains condescending elements, although he often plays off of Priest's laziness as much as his own. Fetchit has often been underraed as a comic performer because of the racist connotations of his character - but his timing is impeccable.

These elements cannot be explained away. The society depicted in The Sun Shines Bright is an unequal one. It does not evade or gloss over this fact. A child is almost lynched, and the black townspeople are shown in rundown wooden shacks, while the whites live in palatial estates. It is not a revisionist film, not an empowering film, it is quite possibly a racist film, but it is absolutely a great one.


Blogger P.L. Kerpius said...

Aaahhh! You saw it you saw it you saw it! I am SO living vacariously through you right now--I can't stand to read anything until I see it myself, and as it turns out, the Ford queue is almost up to the year 1953 and I had plans to rent it this weekend, from the one and only place in Chicago that has it, the Facets rental library.

Rob! I am SO JEALOUS! Can't wait to watch...

6:28 PM  

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