Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Sun Shines Bright

Republic Pictures
Director: John Ford
Length: 93 min.
Format: VHS
Date Viewed: 7 February

Of all 146 films John Ford directed, The Sun Shines Bright is his personal favorite and the favorite of many of his fans. Admittedly, I've never cared much for John Ford's films, aside from The Grapes of Wrath and, to a lesser degree, The Searchers and Judge Priest. After having watched The Sun Shines Bright, Judge Priest's half-remake, half-sequel, I see no reason to change my stance on the man's work.

A film much weaker than it's predecessor, The Sun Shines Bright changes the character of Judge Priest from a wise, calm, good-natured and good-humored older man as played by the terrific Will Rogers into an angry, preachy, eccentric with occasional patches of kindness, this time played by Charles Winninger (Rogers died in 1935, thus ruling out his desperately needed return to the role). Perhaps Winninger's performance is closer to the books the films were based on, perhaps not. Either way, Rogers was perfect in the role, and it was a disappointment to see Winninger's changes.

His introduction comes when he wakes up and begins screaming in anger and then bugling for his servant (this being around 1900 is not slavery, but not that different from it, either), Jeff, to come and get the jug of whiskey out from under the Judge's bed (taking approximately seventeen times the effort needed to pull the jug out himself). Immediately, we know we are in for disappointment in this film's choice of lead.

The first third of the movie is shockingly poor. Its inept attempts at balancing multiple story-lines ends up being confusing (the weak editing has been attributed to studio interference, so perhaps this can be excused) and the situations the characters find themselves in are apparently supposed to be funny, but are really just awkward and absurd. The film eventually gets better, and indeed, some of the scenes towards the end are very well done. The funeral procession is a stirring piece of cinema, marred only by the fact that as it goes on, it does becomes a little preposterous. The final shot of the Judge entering his house is incredibly well-shot and lit. Though the last two-thirds are better than the first, it still is not free from poor scenes, like the ridiculously lame chase scene through town, and over-the-top cheesiness that just doesn't work as decent melodrama, like the mystery around Lucy Lee's lineage, which was handled much better in the original.

Then we get to the question of racial stereotypes. Not much has changed since the first film, and in fact, it's may be worse than the 1934 version. Stepin Fetchit reprises not only his role as Jeff, the Judge's servant, but also his awful embodiment of grotesque stereotypes. Most of the African-American woman in this film are presented as "Mammy" types, and the men are presented as slow, childlike adults. For a film that makes quite a bit of lip service about the equality of men regardless of their skin color, the actual portrayal of African-Americans is incredibly offensive.

Save your 93 minutes and skip this shabby film.


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