I won't make any bones about it: The Searchers (1956) is my favorite film directed by John Ford, provided I haven't seen Stagecoach (1939) recently. I'd even go so far as to proclaim it his masterpiece; an opinion shared by some but not all who are familiar with his work. When discussing The Searchers with my fellow classic film cineastes, the common complaint is that some of the lighter comic moments don't mesh with the more serious elements of the movie.
Many John Ford movies contain comedic divertissements, and while whether or not these movies succeed or fail due to their inclusion would make for a lively discussion, the fact is the man who famously said 'My name is John Ford and I make westerns' liked to indulge his funny side as a filmmaker. For instance, Ford directed three movies featuring comedian-humorist Will Rogers, including Doctor Bull (1933) and Will's next-to-last silver screen vehicle, Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). And then there's Judge Priest (1934), a sentimental comedy many Rogers aficionados consider one of his finest. Ford must have thought so as well, for he remade Priest in 1953 as The Sun Shines Bright.
In postbellum Fairfield, Kentucky, William Pittman Priest (Charles Winninger) is the local circuit court judge...and though he's a flawed human being (he's got a fairly heavy pull on the jug, for instance) he's well respected in the community as a man with an unshakable sense of fairness and a devotion to justice. A Confederate Army veteran, he even counts among his friends those who formerly fought for the Union cause; he's also devoted to furthering the course of young love by encouraging Ashby Corwin (John Russell), recently returned to Fairfield, to compete for the hand of lovely Lucy Lee Lake (Arleen Whelan).
Much of the film's plot involves Priest's fierce re-election campaign with an ambitious but unlikable attorney named Horace K. Maydew (Milburn Stone). The judge's attempts to retain his office are threatened by an incident where a young black man (Elzie Emanuel), accused of raping a white girl from a neighboring district, is at the mercy of a lynch mob until Priest confronts the horde outside the jail and saves the teenager from vigilante justice. Bright's other subplot involves Lucy Lee; she's the daughter of a prostitute disowned by her father (James Kirkwood), and learns her true identity shortly after the passing of her mother (Dorothy Jordan). The madam (Eve March) of the local bordello asks only that Lucy's mother be given a decent burial...which the kind-hearted Priest arranges despite it falling on the same date as Election Day.
Like its predecessor Judge Priest, Bright was based on a character created by humorist Irvin S. Cobb (who was no stranger to movies himself, having sparred with Rogers in Steamboat and appearing in several two-reel comedies produced by Hal Roach); the stories are not identified in Priest (Cobb asked that he only be credited with creating the character, since he had planned to write more tales of the judge) but three of them are cited in the credits for Bright: 'The Sun Shines Bright,' 'The Lord Provides,' and 'The Mob from Massac.
It's the last tale that interested Ford, and the story goes that he drew heavily on that material in the original Priest movie by featuring a sequence where the Judge's manservant, Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), is to be lynched but the proceedings are halted by Priest's condemnation of the act. Fox Film, the studio where Priest was produced, reportedly excised this sequence over Ford's protests. (There remains a reference to it in the movie, however; Rogers' Priest remarks to Jeff in one scene: 'I got you out of one lynchin'...if you play 'Marching Through Georgia' I'll join the lynchin'...')
Fetchit-born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry-reprises his role of Jeff in Bright...and his presence in both movies is one reason why neither film might play well with the audiences of today. Fetchit's onscreen persona, described by many as 'The Laziest Man in the World,' has been a lightning rod for controversy over the years, with some finding his portrayals offensive and the worst sort of African-American stereotype and others remarking that the character was slyly subversive in some respects. (Stepin not only became a millionaire but was one of the first black actors to receive recognition in the opening credits of a film.) Fetchit was close friends with Rogers, and not only appeared in Priest and Steamboat with the humorist but David Harum (1934) and The County Chairman (1935) as well.
If you find yourself put off by the depiction in movies of a post-Civil War South where blacks are treated graciously by their white patrons as long as they while away the hours happily playing banjos and harmonicas, you're going to want to avoid The Sun Shines Bright. But for fans of director John Ford, the film is a must; critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr consider it the director's masterpiece. Ford identified it as his personal favorite of all his films, and many of the themes in his previous works are on full display here.
Chiefly among these is the ritual of courtship - reflected in the romance between Ashby and Lucy Lee - and coupled with rivalry (Ashby competes with a no-account named Buck Ramsey, played by Grant Withers, for Lucy's affections). The loss of a loved one and mourning for same is also part of Bright; it was present in Priest (Rogers visits the gravesite of his late wife, where part of the film's plot in set in motion by the arrival of an important character) and in well-known Ford films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). The presence of a close-knit community and its ceremonies/rituals is another important theme woven throughout the film, with a sequence set at a local dance that echoes the formality of a similar scene in Fort Apache (1948).
Two vignettes in Bright are cited as some of the finest in Ford's incredible oeuvre. First, the director got a mulligan and included a scene where the inhabitants of a neighboring district suspect a young black man of raping a white girl, with Judge Priest is called in to head off the lynch mob on the steps of the jail. It's not quite as effective as a similar sequence in Stars in My Crown (1950), however, because Ford chose to leaven the conflict with some comic relief involving Fetchit's character.
But the second sequence, in which Priest leads a somber funeral procession down the town's streets - thus fulfilling the promise he made to bordello madam Mallie Cramp on behalf of Lucy Lee's mother - is one of the most moving ever committed to film. One by one, as the procession makes its way through town, the Judge's friends and other citizens join up with the convoy until all are gathered at a black church (presumably the only establishment who would consent to holding the funeral). It is there that Priest delivers a stirring eulogy, which is capped by the arrival of General Fairfield...who takes Priest's last words (the story of when Jesus Christ asks a crowd ready to stone a fallen woman to 'cast the first stone') to heart and wipes away years of hurt and animosity by helping to lay his daughter to rest.
Priest is rewarded for his kindness by both winning the election (by one vote) and being paid tribute by the town in the form of a victory parade, the sequence that closes the film. Teary-eyed, he then asks Jeff to fetch him his jug ('I gotta take my medicine - I gotta get my heart started'; a running gag in the movie) and as he enters his house he closes a door behind him in an image that is startlingly close to the finale of The Searchers.
The Sun Shines Bright, filmed on a low budget and featuring very few stars, is a startlingly mature film that gets around its Production Code handicaps (both the prostitution angle and the rape) with a great deal of subtlety and inventiveness, thanks to scribe Laurence Stallings. Winninger, a character great best known for playing Captain Andy in the 1936 version of Show Boat (he was so well identified in this role that he played it on a radio show based on the movie/musical as well) as well as showcases in Nothing Sacred (1937) and Destry Rides Again (1939), is first-rate as Judge Priest; he's able to put his own stamp on the character and not emulate the earlier work of Will Rogers (I like the Rogers movie, but it's a bit more broad in its comedic content than Bright) by portraying Priest as a lonely, melancholy man who nevertheless possesses a strong moral center.
Couch potatoes will enjoy seeing future Lawman star John Russell as the 'wild' Ashby Corwin and Gunsmoke doc Milburn Stone as Priest's worthy opponent, as well as Slim Pickens when he really was slim. Many members of John Ford's venerable 'stock company' are in the film; Russell Simpson and Jane Darwell from The Grapes of Wrath (1940) are reunited (he's the town doctor and Lucy Lee's adoptive father; Jane's the town gossip), and Arlene Whelan, Grant Withers, Trevor Bardette, Mae Marsh and Francis Ford are also on hand. (This was Francis' last film with his younger brother; he had also played a comic relief part in Judge Priest as a juror looking for a place to spit the juice from his chaw.)
While I believe The Sun Shines Bright is an underrated classic in the catalog of director John Ford, I'd stop short of calling it a masterpiece (my apologies to Messrs. Kehr and Rosenblum). We are fortunate, however, that the film has been resurrected on DVD and Blu-Ray (thanks to Olive Films)...and even more so because that version is the full 100-minute print. In its initial release in 1953, Republic Studios edited the film to an hour-and-a-half (something that earned them the ire of Ford, since it violated stipulations in his contract) but when they released it to videotape in 1990 they wound up using the full master negative. For fans and students of the filmmaker many consider to be one of the American cinema's masters (even wunderkind Orson Welles was an admirer), Bright is a film that shouldn't be missed.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr, former associate editor at ClassicFlix.com, blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.