Judge Priest is a 1934 American comedy film starring Will Rogers. The film was directed by John Ford, produced by Sol M. Wurtzel in association with Fox Film, and based on humorist Irvin S. Cobb's character Judge Priest. The picture is set in post-reconstruction Kentucky and the supporting cast features Henry B. Walthall, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit.
Judge Priest is an eccentric judge. Although his wife dies 19 years before the film takes place, he shows no interest in remarrying. He sometimes stumbles his words, but he shows his wit throughout the film. The Judge, despite all his talk of being a confederate veteran, finds his best friend to be the black Jeff Poindexter, portrayed by Stepin Fetchit. Judge Priest has pride in his tolerance for others.
Rogers was killed in a plane crash on August 15, 1935, just a year after the release of Judge Priest.
Stepin Fetchit’s character in Judge Priest, Jeff Poindexter, is the early twentieth-century stereotypical black man. Jeff Poindexter is extremely dull, slow and lazy. Stepin Fetchit (actually born Lincoln Perry) built his reputation by stereotyping blacks in this manner.
It was this portrayal of blacks that enraged many black activists who were fighting the very stereotypes he was portraying. Many labeled him a traitor and purposely avoided events that he was scheduled to attend.
Although Fetchit (born in 1902) was uneducated, he was a very shrewd and calculating man. Despite the on-screen appearance of being dim-witted, he was aggressive with the moguls and producers who controlled Hollywood and took pride in being a “militant Negro”.
Fetchit was able to work with both black and white actors, allowing him to reach high levels of success. In doing so, Fetchit was the first black actor to fight for equal treatment from Hollywood executives.
In his role as Jeff Poindexter, director John Ford gave Fetchit some room to expand his comic performance. When Judge Priest asks Jeff why he was not wearing his shoes, Jeff comically replied, “I’m saving them for when my feet wear out.”
Stepin Fetchit was known for attending lavish parties and causing mischief while off the studio lot. In fact, Fox Studios would hire a white bodyguard to ensure that he did not get into trouble while he was off set. Right before the shooting of Judge Priest, Fetchit caused a commotion at a benefit show at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
When he arrived back in Hollywood for the filming of Judge Priest, Fetchit’s behavior was much better. In fact, only once was Fetchit late for a shoot (he forgot his make-up kit).
Hattie McDaniel played Aunt Dilsey in Judge Priest. Hattie McDaniel was just beginning her trek to stardom when she shot Judge Priest. Before starring in Judge Priest she was a relatively unknown actress. Stepin Fetchit apparently doubted her acting abilities at the beginning of shooting Judge Priest, but soon realized he was working with a very talented performer.
Director John Ford noted McDaniel’s acting talents. Ford cut some of Fetchit’s scenes and gave McDaniel additional scenes. This created an initial rift between these two pioneering black actors. Hattie McDaniel would eventually surpass Stephen Fetchit in fame.
Like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel plays into Black stereotypes characteristic of the early twentieth century. However, she loves to smile and sing while she works. She sings the song “Massa Jesus Wrote Me a Note” while making taffy at the church candy pull.