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  Sun Shines Bright, The Progressive for 1953
Year: 1953
Director: John Ford
Stars: Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell, Stepin Fetchit, Russell Simpson, Ludwig Stossel, Francis Ford, Paul Hurst, Mitchell Lewis, Grant Withers, Milburn Stone, Dorothy Jordan, Elzie Emanuel, Henry O'Neil, Slim Pickens, James Kirkwood
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) wakes up to the sound of the riverboat steamer arriving, and calls on his manservant Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) to assist him in getting up for the day, which involves a fortifying glass of the whisky he keeps under his bed. He has to be ready for action, because there is a lot of campaigning he has to do over the next few days as the elections for his post are impending, and the word is that the results will be extremely close. But while he is happy to say all the right things, he must also be prepared to say things that are right but unpopular, and persuade his citizens that they must follow him...

Famously The Sun Shines Bright was the movie oft cited by director John Ford as his favourite among a career that is still lauded as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. But looking back on this, many would be given pause: this was the movie he thought was his best? This schmaltzy, ultra-patriotic and frequently problematic comedy drama that isn't particularly funny? It is intriguing to hear its supporters agree with Ford as to its quality, because that involves a lot of either glossing over or explaining away the issues of racism and bigotry which feature here. Then again, merely depicting those matters is not an endorsement.

Not necessarily, that is, though arguably the subject has grown so sensitive that even to bring it up in anything but decrying it as the most despicable of attitudes short of committing sexual abuse and thinking that's excusable, is asking for trouble. There is no room for ambiguity where race is concerned in the twenty-first century: even the racists are incredibly sensitive about it, and you would like to think they were on the wrong side of history. Yet the fact remains, there are many in the West who just do not like seeing non-white faces on their television and movie screens, even now, so does that mean they would prefer Stepin Fetchit?

Step, or Lincoln Perry to give him his real name, is all over this film, as he was in Ford's first try at adapting these Irvin S. Cobb stories, and he was criticised for pandering to stereotypes by African American groups even then, in the nineteen-thirties. His muttering, servile persona concealed an intelligent man who became the richest black person in America for a while until his success went to his head and he lost his fortune, and by the sixties he was destitute and well out of favour. Curiously, superstar boxer Muhammad Ali took him under his wing and contributed to his cultural rehabilitation, finally accepted in his lifetime as a pioneer, even a trickster figure. However, the pendulum swung back after his death in 1985, and now seeing him in his films is regarded as an embarrassment.

Not helping is that Winninger, while the voice of reason here, comes across as very patriarchal in a way that excuses the horrors of the Civil War which both the Unionists and Confederates celebrate in the town: he is a Confederate, and is sentimental about the antebellum times from what we can tell. This paternalism extends to looking out for Arleen Whelan's daughter of a fallen woman who returns to town (a lot going on here) who he intervenes to give a decent burial and Whelan the respect she deserves. Does the Judge believe the town's black population deserve respect too? He certainly steps in to prevent a young man being lynched in what seems to be a fantasy of white liberalism doing the best for the country, but how do we reconcile that with the hero's ardent support of the racist system that would prevail for decades until the sixties, and arguably has never been entirely purged? The impression is Ford intended us to consider all the flaws of America and concede the people were essentially benevolent, but too much has happened, both before and after the release of this, for us to watch this with the warm glow he wished for. Music by Victor Young.

[Eureka release this title on Blu-ray with these features:

1080p presentation on Blu-ray | Optional English SDH Subtitles | Brand new audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride (author of Searching for John Ford) | New video essay by Tag Gallagher (author of John Ford: Himself and His Movies) | PLUS: A collector's booklet featuring a reprint of Judge Priest short story The Lord Provides; a new essay by James Oliver; and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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