THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953)
A small-town judge in the southern USA remembers his Civil War days fondly, but has many newer problems – including a lynch mob – to deal with
Three years before The Searchers (1956), John Ford made another picture about a Civil War veteran that’s far less known but was one of his own favourites. The Sun Shines Bright is a rather old-fashioned film for the time, giving the impression of the 1930s rather than the 1950s, and indeed Ford had based Judge Priest (1934) almost two decades earlier on the same character and source material, although the two movies have numerous differences.
Still, in many ways The Sun Shines Bright is classic Ford, with its mix of comedy and high-stakes drama in a historical setting, its emphasis on the importance of community and the essential virtues of Americans, and its central man without a woman.
Despite its rather dated feel, it’s a highly accomplished film, too, with Ford’s mastery shining through in so many ways—starting with the pacing and editing of the first scene. The Sun Shines Bright might be casual and folksy in atmosphere, but there’s nothing offhand about the consistently interesting, often complex compositions, Ford’s handling of the large and motley cast numbering some 20 characters, or the many themes and subplots (some brief, longer-running) all skilfully interwoven.
First, though, the racism—because in the 21st-century this is inevitably going to be an aspect of the film that attracts comment. It’s undeniable that The Sun Shines Bright, which is set in Kentucky a few decades after the Civil War (in which that state was, of course, on the slave-owning Confederacy side) and frequently harks back to the conflict, puts forwarda picture of black Americans that must have seemed a thing of the past to many viewers even in 1953. Most of the black characters are of the perpetually grinning, grateful-to-serve kind who seem almost starstruck by the wealthy whites (“Glory be! Mr Ashby’s come home again!”)
They are often an excuse for laughs—there’s outrage in court when the young black man You Ess (Elzie Emanuel) plays “Marching through Georgia”(a Union song) on his banjo, turning to satisfaction when he switches to “Dixie”(a Southern one). And even the “good” white people implicitly believe in their own superiority, even if not in the kind of active persecution that a lynch mob attempts in one of the movie’s best sequences.
Defenders of the film, in this respect, would probably suggest that pretty much everybody in it is a stereotype to some extent (which is true, though hardly a get-out-of-jail-free card), that there are worse examples of racism in the movies (ditto), and that it’s typical of its period (which isn’t as true, although it’s an old-fashioned film for the early-’50s). What’s really interesting, however, isn’t so much the unsurprisingly patronising attitude toward black people in general, but one of them in particular: Stepin Fetchit, who plays Jeff, the titular judge’s manservant.
Though largely forgotten today, Fetchit himself was a fascinating character. He was the first really successful black screen actor—receiving a prominent on-screen credit in 1934’s Judge Priest—and even in this his last significant role, his great comic talent is constantly in evidence. Fetchit is a scene-stealer par excellence, and his cringing, fawning manner—far more pronounced than in the film’s other black actors—combined with his peculiar wavering delivery is surely a parody of the black man faking subservience.
And while he goes through the motions of servility and even claims nostalgia for the old days, in reality Jeff seems to consider himself the judge’s equal (and the absence of a wife for the judge gives their relationship a particular closeness); especially notable is the moment where Fetchit/Jeff wonders aloud, relating to the judge’s election campaign, whether “we” will be re-elected. Fetchit was a friend of Ford and it has to be presumed that the director was in on the joke.
The Sun Shines Bright is based on short stories by Irvin S. Cobb, who’d become a hugely successful journalist in New York early in the 20th-century, but Cobb had died nearly a decade before production and the screenwriting assignment fell to Laurence Stallings, who had also co-written Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
It’s set in the late-19th-century (the exact year isn’t mentioned, but the 1934 version does give an explicit date of 1890), in the small town of Fairfield, Kentucky. This was Cobb’s home state, and there’s a real Fairfield, though that seems to be a coincidence; the title, however, comes from the lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home” and the film is deeply rooted in its Southern setting.
A skimpy framework for the plot is provided by Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) campaigning in the lead-up to a climactic election, but along the way it incorporates a series of other story threads. There’s the return to town of a scarlet woman (The Searchers’ Dorothy Jordan); and there’s the mystery of another woman’s parentage (Arleen Whelan; no prizes, having read this far in the sentence, for guessing the solution to that mystery). Most dramatic of all these subplots is the attempt to lynch You Ess for an assault on a white girl. (Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, in which racism is more frankly addressed as a central issue, deals with a similar situation.)
The mechanics of the narrative, however, are just about the least important aspect of The Sun Shines Bright—and fortunately so, for they don’t quite satisfy.
It was produced by Ford’s own company, Argosy Pictures (as was 1950’s Wagon Master, another of the director’s favourites), and then distributed by Republic—a small, low-rent studio which occasionally took on more prestige projects like this one. Unhappily for the movie, Republic’s Herbert J. Yates ordered ten minutes of cuts which rendered its already bitty storyline confusing.
Even in the 101-minute version without those cuts rereleased by Eureka Entertainment on this Blu-ray, some elements of the narrative are unsatisfyingly obscure—the emphasis placed on the young man Ashby Corwin (John Russell), for example, frequently seems like it’s about to lead somewhere interesting but never really does, making it all the weirder that the movie ends with him rather than the far more well-developed judge. The Hays Code didn’t help, for instance, by forcing Stallings to skirt round the fact that the establishment run by Mallie Cramp (Eve March) is a bordello, and perhaps because of its narrative issues the movie made little impact at the box office.
A few scenes do stand out, such as the moment of high tension when the girl allegedly assaulted by You Ess instead identifies the white Buck Ramsey (Grant Withers)—the leader of the lynch mob—as her attacker. And there’s a magnificent long sequence toward the end where a funeral procession through the town is at first scorned by upright citizens until, one by one, men start to join it; here it’s the utter silence of the passage that gives it so much power.
More memorable than any incident, though, are the characters. As Tag Gallagher points out in one of the special features on Eureka’s disc, all the members of the large cast are effectively distinguished by clothes and manner, and many of the performances are very well crafted too.
Along with Fetchit’s Jeff, Winninger’s judge is the outstanding one. In 1934 Ford had cast a much bigger star, Will Rogers, in the part; here the use of Winninger, who never usually took lead roles, pays dividends in underlining that the judge is an ordinary man. He’s a typical Fordian hero, slightly but not too much the outsider, heroic in his way but representing the everyday heroism of average Americans rather than a special case.
He’s irascible, he cuts a ridiculous figure blowing a bugle at the podium of a Confederate veterans’ meeting, he’s verging on alcoholic (while of course claiming a medicinal purpose for his drinking), but he’s also wise, and a persuasive orator when the moment demands it. Winninger’s expressive face does much to define the judge, and the actor manages the difficult balancing act of giving us a character we can both laugh at and respect.
Also notable, in much smaller roles, are Milburn Stone (looking uncannily like Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray) as the judge’s political rival; Ludwig Stössel as a comedy-German department store owner; and the great Jane Darwell, noted for her role in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as the elderly lady Aurora Ratchitt, flatteringly hailed by the judge as the “goddess of the town.” Ford’s brother Francis, as so often playing an eccentric figure in one of his last appearances, and the young Slim Pickens, in one of his first roles, are a pair of coonskin-cap-clad backwoodsmen.
Over all these characters loom memories of the Civil War—as Cobb wrote “its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man’s mind”—and Ford pokes much fun at their nostalgia without mocking it. Mayhew, the judge’s political rival, may sneer at the Confederate veterans as “doddering relics of a lost cause” but for Ford the fundamental thing is that when a crisis does come, the community as a whole rises to it, past divisions healed.
They start out separated from one another by squabbles and differences, they end up united. The judge may be foremost among them—and indeed the lynch mob eventually votes for him, with a banner proclaiming “he saved us from ourselves”—but they’re all in it together. In that sense, while The Sun Shines Bright is uneven compared with his greatest works and certainly never as gripping as them, it’s a Fordian film through and through, and the director’s own fondness for it is understandable.
It’s not a movie that stirs (even if it tries to), and it’s a movie that some will dislike for its presentation of black people, but many others will find it likeable or even lovable in its evident affection for characters of every colour and class. This Eureka reissue, with special features from two noted Ford scholars, makes an attractive way to acquire it.
USA | 1953 | 101 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
director: John Ford.
writer: Laurence Stallings (based on the short stories by Irvin S. Cobb).
starring: Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell & Stepin Fetchit.