Welcome back to the John Ford Blogathon, which is about halfway through its run. I hope you’ve taken the time to read at least some of the contributions; it’s fantastic seeing how many participants Krell Labs and I have so far. Thank you to all the writers who have joined us! Read on for my thoughts on three more of Ford’s films, this time featuring Will Rogers, and more links from around the web…
In today’s post, I’m taking a look at the three comedy films John Ford made with Will Rogers: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), and Steamboat Round The Bend (1935). There is a definite folksy charm to these films, as they hearken back to a simpler time of life. At the same time, they hold a reverence for life in rural, post-reconstruction South, which was still deeply segregated and where Black folks were often still working as house servants and in other menial jobs. There are moments in these films that will cause modern audiences to cringe, products of a time when so many harmful stereotypes were perpetuated in popular culture. That said, there’s no favor in pretending these films don’t exist, particularly given that harmful racial stereotypes are still seen in our culture decades later.
The first Ford / Rogers collaboration is Doctor Bull, the story of a small-town country doctor who is struggling to stay relevant in a world that’s advancing ever forward. Rogers plays the title role, a man who is less book smart than he is full of the kind of down-home wisdom that comes with years of human interaction and practice. However, when a nearby construction camp negligently contaminates the local water supply with a bacteria that causes a typhoid outbreak, Doctor Bull has to figure out how to inoculate the town’s youngsters and save his hide from a growing group of dissenting adults looking to ride him out of town on a rail.
There are some great funny moments in Doctor Bull, particularly in scenes where he confronts the gossipy old townswomen, telling them he knows far more about them then they about he. His relationship with a local widow is the basis for much of the chatter in the town, and the scenes between Will Rogers and Vera Allen are quite sweet. Overall, Doctor Bull is charming, despite the fact that a lot of the film seems built of vignettes rather than a cohesive story.
In Judge Priest, Rogers once again plays the title character, a Kentucky judge with plenty of old country wisdom to share. He befriends Jeff Poindexter, played by Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry), a man prosecuted for stealing chickens whom Judge Priest decides not to send to jail when he discovers they share a love for fishing. When Priest’s nephew Rome returns home from law school to discover that his mother wants to end his courtship of neighbor Ellie May (her mother died in childbirth and no one knows the identity of her father), the old judge decides to intervene to bring the couple back together. The story culminates in a delightful courtroom scene that boasts several surprises along the way.
I’m most torn about Judge Priest, because of the three collaborations between Ford and Rogers, this was my favorite. There are so many genuinely humorous and touching moments, particularly a scene where Priest sits at his wife’s grave in the moonlight and has a heartfelt talk to her. It should be a maudlin scene, but Rogers is so genuine that it plays out beautifully. However, this is a film that mostly features Black folk as happy singing mammies and slow-minded layabouts. These are unforgivable stereotypes. Fetchit does get many of the film’s best comebacks, and he does steal most of his scenes, so perhaps there’s some subversion to be found there. Ultimately, it’s the best of the three in terms of story, with several scenes that are pure delight.
Released a few weeks after Rogers’ death in a plane crash, Steamboat Round The Bend is the third Rogers / Ford collaboration, again featuring Fetchit in a supporting role (Ford would employ him in a handful of other films including the remake of Judge Priest, The Sun Shines Bright , and the earlier The World Moves On ). This time around, Rogers plays snake oil salesman Doctor John Pearly, who makes a bet that his dilapidated old steamer can beat haughty Captain Eli’s (Irvin S. Cobb) boat in a winner-take-all steamboat race. When Pearly’s nephew Duke and his “swamp trash” girlfriend Fleety Belle show up after Duke killed a man, the big boat race becomes a race to save his life.
Along the way, Pearly takes on ownership of a wax museum to raise lawyer funds for Duke, searches for the man known as “The New Moses” who may be the key to saving Duke from hanging, and discovers a far more efficient fuel than wood for his steamboat. This discovery provides some of the film’s funniest moments, in addition to the scene where a mob of bumpkins attempt to burn down the wax museum before Pearly tricks them into thinking it’s an educational tool. The real revelation of Steamboat Round The Bend, however, is Anne Shirley as Fleety Belle — at turns fiery and sweet, she adds a significant amount of dimension to the role. Fetchit is also amusing as Jonah, first caught sleeping in an enormous wax whale, and later becoming Pearly’s right hand man on the boat.
The Will Rogers films were yet another unexpected surprise in the Ford at Fox boxset; all three amusing proof that Ford was just as proficient with comedy as he was with any other genre. Of the three, Judge Priest is probably the best, with Steamboat Round The Bend coming in close behind.
John Ford Blog Roll: collecting the current posts from the John Ford Blogathon participants –
Wade Sheeler at The Black Maria may not have been a willing participant in the ‘thon, but ask and ye shall receive. Here he writes about one of Ford’s favorites, Two Rode Together (1961), which isn’t even close to one of Ford’s best, yet holds a particular thrall.
Caftan Woman sends us a John Ford biography by way of The Informer (1935), the first Ford film to win him an Oscar for Best Director
We go way back to Ford’s early film, Bucking Broadway (1917), with Movies Silently, who features a lot of lovely stills in their post
Christy Putnam looks back at Ford’s working relationship with Maureen O’Hara, and puts a spotlight on several other women in his films
Micro-Brewed Reviews takes a decidedly macro look at The Searchers (1956), in a post that features some AMAZING stills from the film in addition to a wonderful post on what is ostensibly Ford’s best-loved film
The Public Transportation Snob delves into She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and discovers one of John Wayne’s most soulful performances