AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Judge Priest
Alternate Title: Old Judge Priest
Director: John Ford (Dir)
Release Date:   28 Sep 1934
Production Date:   early Jun--18 Jul 1934
Duration (in mins):   79-80
Duration (in feet):   7,220
Duration (in reels):   8
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Cast:   Will Rogers (Judge [William Pitman] Priest)  
    Tom Brown (Jerome Priest)  
    Anita Louise (Ellie May Gillespie)  
    Henry B. Walthall (Rev. Ashby Brand)  
    David Landau (Bob Gillis)  
    Rochelle Hudson (Virginia Maydew)  
    Roger Imhof (Billy Gaynor)  
    Frank Melton (Flem Talley)  
    Charley Grapewin (Sergeant Jimmy Bagby)  
    Berton Churchill (Senator Horace Maydew)  
    Brenda Fowler (Mrs. Caroline Priest)  
    Francis Ford (Juror No. 12)  
    Hattie McDaniels (Aunt Dilsey)  
    Stepin Fetchit (Jeff Poindexter)  
    Paul McAllister (Doc Lake)  
    Matt McHugh (Gabby Rives)  
    Louis Mason (Sheriff Birdsong)  
    Hy Meyer (Herman Felsberg)  
    Grace Goodall (Mrs. Maydew)  
    Ernest Shield (Milan)  
    Vester Pegg (Joe Herringer)  
    Paul McVey (Trimble)  
    Winter Hall (Judge Fairleigh)  
    Duke Lee (Deputy)  
    Gladys Wells (Black singer)  
    Beulah Hall Jones (Black singer)  
    Melba Brown (Black singer)  
    Thelma Brown (Black singer)  
    Vera Brown (Black singer)  
    May Rousseau (Guitar player)  
    Harry Tenbrook (Townsman in saloon)  
    Pat Hartigan (Townsman in saloon)  
    Harry Wilson (Townsman in saloon)  
    Frank Moran (Townsman in saloon)  
    Constantine Romanoff (Townsman in saloon)  
    Margaret Mann (Governess)  
    George H. Reed (Black servant)  

Summary: In an old Kentucky town in 1890, Judge William Pitman Priest reads the comics, and confederate veterans argue about their battles as ex-State Senator Horace Maydew tries to prosecute Jeff Poindexter, a sleeping black man, for stealing chickens. After the judge questions Jeff about his favorite fishing spot, he and Jeff go fishing, and Jeff subsequently becomes a part of the judge's household. When the judge's nephew Jerome, "Rome" for short, returns after getting a law degree, he is disappointed that the girl next door, Ellie May Gillespie, whom he loves, wants to end their courtship because Rome's mother Caroline objects that Ellie May's mother died in childbirth and no one knows the identity of her father. When Flemming Talley, an uncouth barber, visits Ellie May, the judge scares him away and encourages Rome to court her. Feeling lonely, the judge visits his wife's grave and sees Bob Gillis, an uncommunicative blacksmith, place flowers on the grave of Ellie May's mother. After Gillis punches Talley for making jokes about Ellie May's background and character, Talley and two others attack him with pool cues. Gillis cuts Talley with his knife, and Talley takes Gillis to court for starting the fight. Rome represents Gillis, and Maydew, who is running for circuit court judge against Judge Priest, demands an impartial judge. The judge, hurt and upset, steps down, and during the trial, Gillis' refusal to mention Ellie May hurts his chances to win. After Reverend Ashby Brand, who knows Gillis' past, confides in Judge Priest, the judge joins the defense and has the reverend testify that during the "war for the Southern confederacy," he recruited Gillis, a chain-gang prisoner, who fought nobly. The reverend's recitation of Gillis' heroic deeds builds to an emotional peak and climaxes when he reveals that Gillis, Ellie May's father, has secretly paid him to provide for her education. The courtroom explodes with adulation, Caroline wants to be Ellie May's mother, and during the veteran's parade that day, Gillis is asked to carry the confederate flag. 

Production Company: Fox Film Corp.  
Distribution Company: Fox Film Corp.  
Director: John Ford (Dir)
  Ed O'Fearna (Asst dir)
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel (Prod)
Writer: Dudley Nichols (Scr)
  Lamar Trotti (Scr)
Photography: George Schneiderman (Photog)
Art Direction: William Darling (Settings)
Film Editor: Paul Weatherwax (Film ed)
Costumes: Royer (Gowns)
Music: Samuel Kaylin (Mus dir)
Sound: Albert Protzman (Sd)
Production Misc: William Thomas (Still photog)
Country: United States

Songs: "Massa Jesus Wrote Me a Note" and "Aunt Dilsey's Song," music by Cyril J. Mockridge, lyrics by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti.
Composer: Cyril J. Mockridge
  Dudley Nichols
  Lamar Trotti
Source Text: Based on the character created by Irvin S. Cobb.
Authors: Irvin S. Cobb

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Fox Film Corp. 28/9/1934 dd/mm/yyyy LP4979

PCA NO: 111
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: Western Electric Noiseless Recording

 
Genre: Comedy-drama
Sub-Genre: Rural
 
Subjects (Major): Civil War veterans
  Courtship
  False accusations
  Fathers and daughters
  Judges
  Kentucky
  Parentage
  Small town life
  Trials
  War heroes
 
Subjects (Minor): African Americans
  Barbers and barbershops
  Blacksmiths
  Candy
  Croquet (Game)
  Knife wounds
  Lawyers
  Nephews
  Parades
  Reverends
  Senators
  United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
  Widowers

Note: The working title of this film was Old Judge Priest . According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Department, Fox purchased the motion picture rights to three "Judge Priest" stories for this film from Irvin S. Cobb: "A Treeful of Hoot Owls," which was first published in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan , Aug 1930; "Br'er Fox and the Brian Patch," which was first published under the title "Br'er Rabbit, He Lay Low," in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan , May 1931; and "Words and Music," which was first published in The Saturday Evening Post , 28 Oct 1911. The first two stories were included in the collection Down Yonder with Judge Priest and Irwin S. Cobb (New York, 1932), while the third story was included in the collection Back Home (New York, 1912). The publishers of the first collection, Ray Long and the R. R. Smith Corp., sued Twentieth Century-Fox and Cobb in 1938 because they received no compensation for the use of the stories, and in 1939, the studio settled with them for $2,000.
       When Cobb learned that Fox planned to use in their screen credits for the film the statement, "Based on the Judge Priest stories by Irvin S. Cobb," he objected that the statement would not be accurate, as at the time he had written over seventy "Judge Priest" stories and planned to write still more, and that the statement might mitigate against future sales of his stories. He suggested a number of alternative statements, including the one used in the final credits, "Based on Irvin S. Cobb's character of 'Judge Priest'." Included in the legal records is a statement by Cobb in which he notes that the writers of the screenplay "practically created a new and different story from the material [i.e. the three "Judge Priest" stories] turned over to them" and that many of the characters in the film, including "Ellie May Gillespie," "Jerome Priest" and "Virginia Maydew" were not his creations. At a later date, Twentieth Century-Fox officials determined that a fourth "Judge Priest" story, entitled "The Mob from Massac," which was also included in the collection Back Home , provided the basis for one of the sequences in the film, but that the studio never purchased the rights to that story.
       The character played by Frank Melton, although called "Flem Talley" during most of the film, is called "Flem Jones" in the courtroom scene. In the screen credits, Stepin Fetchit's name, although listed last, is in larger letters than the other cast members' except for Rogers'.
       According to modern sources, a lynching scene was originally shot for the film, but was excised by the studio. The first draft screenplay, dated 12 Apr 1934, in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at UCLA, contains a scene in which a mob of townsfolk are fixing to lynch "Jeff," the character who in the film was played by Stepin Fetchit. Having blood on his hands from some beef liver that had been eaten by dogs, Jeff is mistaken for another black man suspected of assault. The mob storms tries to storm the jail, but Judge Priest is summoned, and he sends them home. No information has been located to confirm that this scene was actually shot. Modern sources also list Robert Parrish as a cast member and note that the film was one of 1934's top grossing films. In a 1972 interview, John Ford noted that Judge Priest was his favorite picture of all time. In 1953, Ford directed another film, entitled The Sun Shines Bright , based on three of Irvin S. Cobb's "Judge Priest" stories, one of which was the above mentioned "The Mob from Massac." That film was produced by Argosy Productions, released by Republic, and starred Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan and Stepin Fetchit (see below). 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   20 Oct 1934.   
Daily Variety   18 Jul 34   p. 4.
Film Daily   18 Aug 34   p. 4.
Harrison's Reports   25 Aug 34   p. 134.
HF   9 Jun 34   p. 8.
HF   30 Jun 34   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   4 May 34   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Aug 34   p. 3.
International Photographer   Jul 34   p. 16.
Motion Picture Daily   6 Aug 34   p. 8.
Motion Picture Herald   11 Aug 34   p. 31.
New York Times   12 Oct 34   p. 33.
Variety   16 Oct 34   p. 12.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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