I don’t know if The
Sun Shines Bright (1953) is John Ford’s most neglected film—there are numerous
candidates on the Old Master’s résumé—but it is the one he cited as his
personal favorite. Now it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD in a sparkling
transfer from Olive Films. Unlike its forerunner Judge Priest (1934), the Will Rogers vehicle that fell into the
public domain, this film is seldom revived. What’s more, Olive is offering the
complete 100-minute version as Ford intended it, not the one that Republic
Pictures’ Herbert J. Yates cut by ten minutes back in 1953. (Some twenty years
ago Republic stumbled onto the uncut negative, which was meant for overseas
distribution, and used it for its VHS release. Lucky us!)
One glimpse at the film will reveal why it is infrequently screened today: it takes place in Kentucky around the turn of the 20th century and its black characters are a remnant of the Old South, Hollywood-style. Reprising his role from the Will Rogers movie, Stepin Fetchit himself costars as Judge Priest’s harmonica-playing servant, whom the Judge refers to as “that good-for-nothing boy.” But like everything in this highly personal film, there is more to the treatment of blacks than first meets the eye.
It would be easy to describe Ford’s attitude as patronizing, which it is in some ways, but like his stubbornly iconoclastic hero, he treats each character with respect and an understanding of the social fabric of a Southern community. Ultimately, the Judge puts his life on the line for a black youngster who’s been unfairly accused of rape. What greater regard can a white character from 1900 (or 1953, for that matter) show another human being?
What’s more, veteran performers Clarence Muse and Ernest Whitman add weight to their supporting roles and imbue each scene with their innate humanity. (There’s also a fantastic banjo band featured in a cotillion scene; I wish I knew who they were, and how to hear more of them.)
The Sun Shines Bright might not impress someone who’s unfamiliar with Ford’s other work. For a devotee, it has an unmistakably elegiac tone, as if the Old Man knew he might not have another opportunity to express his feelings about tradition, loyalty, and individualism. Those qualities are conveyed not only through Laurence Stallings’ eloquent screenplay (adapted from the short stories of humorist Irvin S. Cobb) but in the array of character actors from Ford’s long-standing stock company. One expects to see the familiar faces of Russell Simpson and Grant Withers in major parts, but wait—isn’t that Mae Marsh sitting next to Jane Darwell at the fancy-dress ball? And is that an adolescent Patrick Wayne as one of the cadets leading the formal procession with a young lady on his arm? One of the film’s showiest roles, a scarlet woman whose illegitimate daughter has been raised by the town doctor, is movingly played by Dorothy Jordan—the wife of Ford’s producing partner Merian C. Cooper.
The romantic leads are filled by Republic’s young contract player John Russell, a strapping fellow who would go on to star as television’s Lawman, and Arleen Whelan, whom Ford remembered from her starlet days at Fox when he cast her in Young Mr. Lincoln. Every actor in the picture has a story all his or her own, with interesting ties to Hollywood history.
To fill the shoes of the late Will Rogers, the director turned to veteran character man Charles Winninger, a newcomer to the Ford camp who did not let him down. Winninger captures every nuance of this multifaceted character: his cunning and contrariness, his huge capacity for friendship and his innate sense of fairness. Judge William Pittman Priest can be a scoundrel, but he also commands respect and attention from the broad spectrum of citizenry depicted here. He’s willing to forfeit his exalted position in Fairfield, Kentucky for the sake of a principle (and a promise), even if it means standing alone against his community. How many actors could effortlessly embrace so many facets of a character? Winninger is up to the task. The scene in which he leads an impromptu Bible service is extraordinary.
As you may have already inferred, The Sun Shines Bright is not a tidy or predictable film, even though it draws on many time-worn Ford traditions. How many movies can you name in which the hero and villain square off for a vicious fight with buggy whips as their weapons?
As if to honor the past and foretell the future, two incidental backwoods characters pop up throughout the film, as a kind of comedy relief, played by the director’s brother Francis and a screen newcomer named Slim Pickens. They barely utter a word of dialogue, but they’re wonderfully funny. Another future star, of television’s long-running Gunsmoke, Milburn Stone, appears as the silver-tongued lawyer who hopes to capture Judge Priest’s seat on the bench.
There are many old hands behind the camera as well, including cameraman Archie Stout, who shared an Oscar that same year for shooting Ford’s The Quiet Man with Winton C. Hoch, and composer Victor Young. But when Judge Priest leads a lonely funeral procession, the soundtrack goes quiet and stays that way for an incredible length of time: it’s one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
As much as I love Judge Priest, I have to admit that The Sun Shines Bright is a deeper, richer movie. See it for yourself; you can purchase a copy HERE. And once you’ve seen it, I encourage you to read a brilliant essay about it by Jonathan Rosenbaum, HERE.