Synopsis: Will Rogers is Judge William “Billy” Priest. The Judge’s easygoing manner bothers many of the people of his small 19th -century hometown, hurting his chances for re-election.
Director: John Ford
Writers: Irvin S. Cobb (character “Judge Priest”), Dudley Nichols (screenplay), and Lamar Trotti (screenplay)
Stars: Will Rogers, Tom Brown and Anita Louise
Serious Jest: (Rental) First and foremost: this is a 1934 film about the late 1800s, set in Kentucky…be prepared to see racism, both intentional and unintentional…be prepared to see glorification of the Confederate flag and the Southern cause in the Civil War…be prepared to see Black people in subservient roles. If you can’t handle that, don’t watch this film. Personally, I had to come to terms with those issues when watching and rating this movie. Part of me wanted to immediately dismiss this film, shut it off, rate it 1 mug, or refuse to include it in our ratings altogether. In the end, however, I decided that Black entertainers like Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel were great performers, who played derogatory roles (although sometimes in subliminally defiant ways), but opened doors for other Blacks and non-Whites to eventually secure lead roles in Hollywood…you should watch them perform at least once in your life. In this film, you get to see both of these actors alongside each other…and once you decide to just accept this film for what it is and try to enjoy it, even laughing at how ignorant its makers and intended audiences were, you might actually find yourself cracking up. Seeing McDaniel invisibly smack Fetchit with a sharp look is awesome. Watching Fetchit beat a drum while wearing a fur coat, white vest, and top hat would be more widely accepted as hilarious if Flavor Flav or Dave Chappelle were to do it, but once you stop worrying about whether White people still believe that’s how all Black people act, you can start laughing at how ridiculous Fetchit looks, or at how ridiculous it was that many White people actually did believe Fetchit’s coon persona was representative of most Black people.
Notably, this film is also offensive to Southerners. With the exception of Rogers, most of the characters who play “serious” roles in this picture do not even try to fake a Southern accent. However, there is a handful of stereotypical Southern roles in this film, who talk in caricature-drawl and engage in buffoonery, like Frank Melton‘s donkey laugh, which had me laughing out loud.
In the end, I decided to give this movie 4 mugs because, while I have not seen many Fetchit or McDaniel films, this was the most entertaining one I have seen so far. I am glad I watched it because it broadened my perspective on Black people in film in the early 1900s. Also, if you are able to put aside the concerns about the movie’s offensive aspects, it’s actually a pretty interesting story, with good actors. Rogers is very talented, charismatic, and funny. His imitation of Fetchit was spot-on, and I couldn’t resist smiling when he jumped in without hesitating and sang the hell out of some Negro spirituals. So, in short, you should make time to watch this film at some point in your life, but I DO NOT recommend it as a Friday-night rental, nor do I think you should pay any money to watch it.