“Come here, Boy,” Judge Billy Priest calls out from the bench of a small-town Kentucky courtroom. The camera faces the judge; into the frame from opposite sides come two “boys”: one, the youth who is the defendant, the other a mature man, the defendant’s uncle. Casual shot, full of social analysis as applicable to the film’s own time as to the time fifty years earlier in which the action is set. Again we are reminded why we Americans so love John Ford, why he is the filmmaker most essential to us.
Based on stories by Irvin S. Cobb, The Sun Shines Bright, a remake of his Judge Priest (1934), was (despite being mutilated prior to release) Ford’s favorite among his films, the one, he said in 1968, “I like to see over and over again.”
Billy (Charles Winninger—not iconic like Will Rogers, the original Judge Priest, but wonderful) is up for re-election; will this be his last hurrah? Don’t count out Billy! The campaign banner adorning a steamboat catches his proud sight, making Billy late for court (again); and, in a brilliant piece of foreshadowing, this political ad-in-solemn-motion for Billy prefigures the funeral procession for a prostitute, in which Billy prominently participates on Election Day, that could cost him the election. Oh, that boy whose “idling” by the river brought him to court: Billy finds a way to make him gainfully employed doing precisely what he most loves to do. Billy Priest is always one to think with his heart.
The elegant funeral procession is, of course, the film’s great set-piece: a tribute to an example of suffering humanity. Its reflection in gleaming store windows constitutes a ghostly, haunting passage—but one broken up, Brechtian: a procession for all mortals, including us.
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