The flaws in John Ford's later work can all be forgiven with just one viewing of Judge Priest, a thoroughly lovely period piece set in 1890s Kentucky. The William Pitman Priest of Irvin S. Cobb's short stories was a perhaps idealised post-Civil War figure whose greatest desire was to avoid all conflict. As played by Will Rogers in the movie, he's a laidback, romantic lawman with a Colonel Sanders necktie who'd rather read the funnies than listen to pompous prosecutors, goes fishing with the accused, and could so easily have registered as a symbol of corruptible complacency were it not for the essential decency Rogers projects in the part: after urging his nephew on to woo the girl next door rather than the unsuitable society belle the boy's mother has her sights on, he resigns his post when an outsider is unfairly accused of injuring a local in a bar brawl.
Though the light, jovial tone might seem atypical in retrospect, it's possible to see key Ford concerns emerging here beneath the bonhomie: an interest in community, its strengths and flaws, and a firm belief in the capacity of the law to weigh one against the other, and come up with the right verdict. (In the light of the director's later films, that bar brawl looks prescient, too.) Even the contentious presence of Stepin Fetchit (autistic, babbling, subservient) and Hattie McDaniel (whose name gets misspelt in the opening credits) is mitigated by Ford's treatment of them as equals in an ensemble cast; the bantering relationship between Fetchit and Rogers happens to be very funny, and the latter's impromptu singalong with McDaniel proves an undeniable highlight.
The frequent striking up of "Dixieland" might suggest to some an apologia for the ways of the South, yet the Griffith film Judge Priest most closely resembles isn't the inflammatory, divisive Birth of a Nation, rather the leisurely, idyllic Way Down East: the last-reel courtroom revelations, if anything, sound the call for unity, and the final shot is of the townsfolk marching together to lay wreaths with which to commemorate the dead - a reminder of just how raw the scars left by the Civil War might have been for 1930s America. A neglected gem of the early sound cinema, this urgently needs rediscovering, and repositioning towards the forefront of the Ford canon.
Judge Priest is available on DVD through Cornerstone Media.