Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Judge Priest, 1934

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Will Rogers.

If you’re of my generation or thereabout, or younger, it’s a name you’ve heard. You can probably say that he was a famous personality in the 1930s. Possibly that he was known for folksy wisdom. You might even be able to quote him (“I never met a man I didn’t like.”). But what was he famous for?

Stepin Fetchit.

Lincoln Perry’s stage name is inextricably tied to racist stereotypes. People who’ve never seen a Stepin Fetchit movie know that he’s the Jar Jar Binks of the 1930s. ((George Lucas was indeed accused of basing Jar Jar’s more annoying traits on Stepin Fetchit’s performing style. )) So what happens when a contemporary American with no especial interest in prolonging racial victimhood watches him?

John Ford.

One of the great American directors, if not the great American director. I know of his pre-1939 career, but haven’t actually seen any work of his prior to Stagecoach.

This movie gives you all three. And damn is it interesting.

I had a copy of Judge Priest in my Western Classics 50 Movie Megapack from Mill Creek Entertainment, but did not realize that it was a John Ford movie until I came across a reference to it in Joseph McBride’s biography Searching for John Ford. ((I will probably, at some point, review this biography. It’s a treasure trove of facts horribly marred by the author’s agenda and prejudices, to say nothing of his psychologizing and pure invention disguised as speculation. )) The sleeve gives a slight plot description, and notes that it stars Will Rogers. Rogers’s presence put it in the upper half of my viewing queue, but Ford’s direction jumped it to near the top of the list.

There’s a pre-credit bit, rare for the time. Will Rogers sits reading the newspaper. The shot lasts long enough without much happening that you realizes he’s sitting on the bench, with a gavel next to him. He looks up, bangs the gavel, declares the court to be in session, and goes right back to reading the paper. Then the credits begin.

What follows is a mostly-plotless affair that, by design, has to get by on charm and character. It largely succeeds, despite stacking the deck against itself to modern eyes.

The movie’s main asset (and it knows it) is Will Rogers. Rogers is as folksy as you’d imagine him, even if you’ve never seen him before. Laid back, relaxed, observant, good-humored, and not above a bit of mischief.

After the first trial scene, his right hand man is Stepin Fetchit. Fetchit… let me say upfront that Fetchit was an amazingly talented performer. He’s natural and knowing, behind the performance. But the Fetchit character is one of the most murderously irritating in the history of cinema. He’s playing slow and stupid and whiny and lazy and… yeah, it’s easy to see why his memory is so reviled.

But if you read around a bit, you might find that he was also greatly admired, at the time of his popularity. Admired by Trinidad blacks, as related by V.S. Naipaul. Because here is a black man among whites, who is not a threat, who is not evil, who even gets the best of them sometimes. Such a thing was, outside of Fetchit, totally unheard of in Hollywood films of the 1930s.

And, as I said, even though this performance is irritating and annoying beyond belief, you can absolutely tell that the man was good.

John Ford’s direction is, as it ever was, restrained and quiet. No flashy camera moves, no showy editing. He tells the story, and he manages to do it in the best way possible — precisely placed camera angles, carefully selected and emphasized details, and above all, a wise and knowing observation of human behavior.

There is a big trial at the end, which isn’t decided by facts at all, but by patriotic (confederate) fervor, spurred by a black band playing “Dixie” just out the window.

But the very best moment involves Will Rogers and Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind). He’s sitting at his desk, she’s doing something in the background and improvising a bit of gospel song, and he joins in. It’s a moment of pure joy and beauty.

The movie as a whole is hard to take, though not nearly so hard as it could have been. The worst is Stepin Fetchit’s character, as noted. I can’t say I disliked it, but I can’t say I liked it either. It’s not great, despite moments of greatness, and it’s not bad. It’s just a weird beast, probably more interesting as a document of its time than as a film.

But it is interesting, at every moment.

(Oh, and as far as I can put together from reading various sources, Will Rogers became known for roles in silent movies, then became a political commentator, known for a weekly radio show and a daily(!) newspaper column carried nationally. He did three films with John Ford before his untimely death in a plane crash ((According to Searching for John Ford, Rogers told Ford about his planned plane trip round the world. Ford tried to convince him to go sailing on Ford’s yacht instead, but failed to convince him, and was haunted by that circumstance for some time after. )), and this was the second.)

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