Ford At Fox Part Two (c)

Note: here is the fourth instalment of what has already turned out to be a long review. It is late and longer than ever. In this section the last of the second group of films which I think sort of “belong together” are discussed. That second group begins with Born Reckless (1930) and ends with The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). There are eight Ford At Fox films in the group, although almost from the start of this period Ford was making quite a few movies at other studios, including the films that influential critics of the day thought were the work of a great director – like Arrowsmith (1931), The Lost Patrol (1934), and The Informer (1935).[1] The Fox films, by and large, were not at first accorded the same serious recognition as these others, although critical opinion today rates several of them very highly indeed. It was as late as 1963 that Andrew Sarris wrote, “Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat ‘Round the Bend [1935] and Judge Priest [1934] in the mid-Thirties to the extraordinary American trilogy in 1939 – Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk”[2] , inviting the critical revision of Ford’s work that has resulted in a current more or less common understanding of the four films I will be considering here as candidates at least for canonisation as “classics” or “masterworks”.

In the beginning of this review I wrote that there were four Ford Fox “films that more than a few writers find interesting and worthwhile but that somehow rarely make it into the A-list”. Three of them appear below as the contents of for this part of the review, and the other will be taken up in the next part. Because now I believe that most writers these days do think that The Prisoner of Shark Island is an extremely complex and rewarding work (that is, an “A-list” movie) – and because the idea of writing adequately about it scares the shit out of me – I am going to curtail my discussion of that movie. So this part should be pretty short, huh?

Doctor Bull (1933)

– Addendum: Symbolism and subtexts in Doctor Bull


Judge Priest (1934)

– Addendum: Missing the man: Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit
[Steamboat ‘Round The Bend (1935)]


[The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)]


Did you improvise a lot with Will Rogers on Dr Bull?

Well, no writer could write for Will Rogers, so I’d say to him, ‘This is the script but this is not you – the words will be false coming from you. Just learn the sense of it, and say it in your own words.’ Some of the lines he’d speak from the script, but most of the time he’d make up his own; he’d stop and let people pick up their cues and then go on; he wouldn’t write the lines down, but he’d work it out beforehand and then just get in front of the camera and get the sense of the scene in his own inimitable way. Dr Bull was a downbeat story, but Bill managed to get a lot of humour into it – and it became a hell of a good picture. It was one of Bill’s favourites. We did three pictures together and it was always a lot of fun working for Bill. Judge Priest turned out very well too, it was very funny. Steamboat ‘Round the Bend should have been a great picture but at that time they had a change of studio and a new manager came in who wanted to show off, so he recut the picture, and took all the comedy out.[3]

 the comedy, Jack? … Seriously folks, this is how you react when you’ve got the Claremore Queen on your arse.

Doctor Bull (1933)

[See Addendum: Symbolism and subtexts in Doctor Bull]

Now I do know that Doctor Bull is usually not considered the equal of either of its quasi-sequels, Judge Priest and Steamboat ‘Round The Bend; and I think I get it that the other two are better because they are both more “Fordian” in the very terms I have been stressing here – that is, they are very strong examples of Ford’s vision – and they both deal with “bigger” subjects, specifically history and the American South, which this one does not. Still, I can’t help it: I like this movie much more than the other two. I like it as much as I like 3 Bad Men, which is saying a lot.

It is a great pleasure to see all the Ford-Rogers movies looking so good on the two DVDs that contain them in this set, but it is not so surprising that they all would have survived the years since 1933 in pretty good shape, whether anyone thought of them as major John Ford films or not. Their star, Will Rogers, had a brief but exceptional career in sound films from 1929 to 1935. (He died in a plane crash in 1935). From his first Fox starring vehicle (They Had To See Paris, contained in the recently released Murnau, Borzage And Fox box set) Rogers was both a bankable and a critical success. Actors like that tended to get most of their movies treated with great reverence by their contracting studios because there was often a continuing demand for their films, which were reissued with some profit at intervals.

In addition, Rogers was commonly considered a popular culture genius even by the sort of people who ran movie studios, a figure of great stature, something like a latter day Mark Twain. Rogers had originally become a superstar in vaudeville, twirling a rope and delivering ironic low-key lines in a folksy drawl. So famous was he that I doubt very much that many in the audience for Doctor Bull would have missed the tongue-in-cheek reference to his vaudeville persona when he tells Aunt Myra (Effie Ellsler), “It’s a good thing you read the papers. I never would know what’s goin’ on in society if you didn’t”. This line is likely to have been added by Rogers himself, who may be considered the writer of most of the words he speaks in his Ford films (and whose signature line was. “I only know what I read in the papers”). That is, movie goers in the thirties experienced Rogers as he himself and John Ford experienced him: both the “Will Rogers” performer and whatever character he was playing. They were never not conscious of watching a Rogers performance any more than they would have been not conscious of watching a Fred Astaire performance in a Fred Astaire movie.

I do find it surprising that Doctor Bull and Judge Priest have been given a no frills treatment in the set: no commentary, no extras. Steamboat ‘Round The Bend only has a commentary here because it was released earlier as part of a Will Rogers box in which all the films had commentaries. And then there is the question of the sound. In this version of Doctor Bull I am afraid the soundtrack is not what it ought to be. The problem is one that is common in early sound film reissues: the high end of the sound spectrum almost disappears. When the phone rings in Doctor Bull it can only be heard faintly. The problem is compounded when there is a line of dialogue about the popping sound that ice makes as it crackles in the winter while you and I are hearing what seems to be static on the soundtrack. In both instances the film goes out of its way to call attention to sound that this restoration does not adequately reproduce, and moreover does not reproduce as it must surely have been experienced in screenings when the film was released. This kind of thing does happen in very many iterations of early sound movies in other media – 16mm sound, for example, was notoriously poor – but these days we have the technology to ameliorate, if not solve, the problem, just as we routinely employ other technology to eliminate scratches and other visual problems. But don’t get me wrong, overall I’m not complaining about these DVDs, because I do appreciate seeing these particular films in such good nick.

My liking the movie so much presents a rather different problem from the one I thought I was going to be having all the time I was writing about the “secondary works” in the Ford At Fox box set. Instead of picking over a movie that even I can see is more or less full of flaws, I have to find a way of dealing with what seems to me to be glaringly apparent virtue. I mean, what’s not to like about Doctor Bull? Perhaps it is a predictable function of the new critical attitude I have had to adopt that at least some of what I think I have found out about how this film works here actively calls into question certain aspects of Ford’s vision asserted in the parts which have gone before.

Where should I start? The best place would be with critical reception of the film at the time of its release; then I would have some sort of benchmark against which to measure its later neglect. Unfortunately, I can find out very little about it. If its online presence is to be believed, for example, Time magazine did not review the film at all. The New York Times did, and favourably, but not in ways that are obviously useful. The review, by Mordaunt Hall, has a subheading, “Will Rogers as a Country Doctor in a Film Version of James Gould Cozzens’s Novel, ‘The Last Adam’.” Six words are devoted to the star and his role and no less than twelve to the film’s literary source, published only a few months previously. The review concentrates on, and simplifies, the character of George Bull and does little beyond retelling the story with emphasis on key plot elements.[4] Some of what is interesting here is that The Times considers the literary source worthy of a headline, and that it simply registers that Rogers has appeared as “a Country Doctor”, which I take as tacit recognition that “doctor movies’, possibly kickstarted by Ford’s 1931 Arrowsmith, were a recognised category by this time. Indeed only a few months before Doctor Bull‘s release, RKO had released One Man’s Journey, a Lionel Barrymore vehicle that might be productively misread as taking up George Bull’s story some years after Doctor Bull has ended.[5] Its plot can be summarised just as accurately as Tag Gallagher summarises the plot of Doctor Bull, “A folksy doctor tries to help an intolerant community” (557).

The New York Times‘ promotion of Cozzens’s unusually titled book suggests that there may be layers of meaning in this film that do not correspond with any I have discerned in any of the previous films reviewed (see the Addendum: Symbolism and subtexts in Doctor Bull). But, read in conjunction with Ford’s offhand remark about the “downbeat” nature of the story, there is a suggestion not only of the novel’s importance but of the importance of its treatment for the film. Indeed, as I hope I will be able to demonstrate shortly, the screenplay for Doctor Bull, no matter how much Rogers may have improvised his dialogue, seems exceptionally tight and well-wrought.

Two names are associated in the credits with the translation of the novel to the screen: Jane Storm is listed for “screenplay” and Paul Green for “adaptation”. Everyone seems agreed about Green’s having done the “adaptation”, but Gallagher says that Storm is responsible for “Script and dialogue”, whereas the IMDb says she did “continuity”, which sounds rather less grand. All of this is interesting because neither Storm nor Green had terribly long careers in Hollywood, but both of them did interesting things during the time they were getting screen credit. According to the IMDb, Storm worked pretty often between 1931 (Daughter of the Dragon, Corrigan) and 1935 (Millions in the Air, Ray McCarey), and her credits include Adorable (Dieterle 1933), Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (Taurog 1934) and The Virginia Judge (Sedgwick 1935), a film intended for Rogers which was completed after his death. By my assessment, Doctor Bull would have to have been the best script she ever got credit for.[6]

Paul Green is a horse of a different colour. He has only two years of concentrated credits, beginning in 1932 with the screenplay for The Cabin in the Cotton (Curtiz 1932) and including State Fair (King 1933), a tremendous hit for Will Rogers, which apparently lead to the Walter Lang (1945) and José Ferrer (1962) remakes for which he also receives screen credit, Voltaire (Adolfi 1933), Carolina (King 1934, from a play by Green), which introduced Shirley Temple, and We Live Again (Mamoulian 1934, uncredited). Later and uncredited he apparently worked on Green Light (Borzage 1937) and Black Like Me (Lerner 1964). There may be some clunkers in there, but not from a studio head’s point of view.[7]

However, Green gets really interesting when you read the entry for him in the Wikipedia. It is headed “Paul Green (playwright)” and in seven paragraphs the only reference to those two years of intensive Hollywood activity reads, “He penned the screenplay for the 1932 film The Cabin in the Cotton“. He won a Pulitzer Prize. He was active in the Group Theatre and was something of a specialist in plays derived from folk traditions, including several based in the African-American tradition. He worked with Kurt Weill and wrote a well-regarded stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.[8] That is, if I need to find someone majorly responsible for what I think is a pretty good screenplay, Green fits better than Storm.

Nobody else I have read says anything much about the screenplay, as distinct from the movie as a whole. Probably most writers assume that a combination of the novel and the conventions of country doctor stories in general account for the foundations of the film’s narrative. In support of their position, here is a somewhat expanded retelling of the story: Doctor George Bull has so much to do just taking care of his patients in New Winton that he is hard to get hold of. The girl at the telephone exchange, May Tupping (Marian Nixon) is always trying to locate him for one resident or another; her husband, Joe (Howard Lally), who is partially paralysed, is one of Bull’s patients. George lives with his Aunt Myra, but he spends a lot time with Janet Cardmaker (Vera Allen), which scandalises the town gossips and Janet’s family, the Bannings. Herbert Banning (Berton Churchill) is the richest and most powerful man in town, and Bull’s enemy. George Bull’s life is made just that much more difficult by Larry Ward (Andy Devine), a hypochondriac who is popular with the girls. Yet in spite of Larry, the crippling case load, the hostility of the Bannings and others, Doctor Bull manages to help a great many people, including another Banning daughter, Virginia (Rochelle Hudson), who has been made pregnant by exactly the sort of person the Bannings hate, a varsity football player with a German name. However, Doctor Bull is too busy to inspect a mining site which has polluted the town’s water supply, and this lapse leads to a typhoid epidemic which Bull identifies and stops only because of Aunt Myra’s intuition. Panicked by the epidemic, by the doctor’s method of combating it (vaccination), by his brusque attitude, and urged on by the Bannings, the town fires him. Bull meanwhile has devised a hitherto unknown cure for Joe’s paralysis which brings him the people’s ovation and fame forever. He and Janet as well as Larry and Minnie (actor uncredited), his new bride by a forced marriage, leave New Winton for a better life.

Sounds like pretty standard Hollywood fare – and if it is more than that, surely the cause is most likely to be John Ford’s direction paired with Will Rogers’ performance.

There are good reasons for thinking just that, but my reasons for calling your attention to the screenplay – or rather, whatever is acting like a screenplay in this film – can be condensed into two simple observations. First, the film opens and closes with a train arriving/departing from New Winton, which suggests that some attention is being paid to formal matters. Second, one’s immediate sense of the film’s narrative is almost the opposite: rambling, garrulous, full of incident – very “Fordian” in that way.

Tag Gallagher says. “Doctor Bull begins and ends with a linking vehicle,” (107) but I was struck by a proliferation of linkages within the film: in the very first sequence the train deposits a mail bag which is dragged to a telephone/post office, a location which pops up over and over for about two thirds of the picture. I recognised in George Bull a protagonist parallel to Bim in Just Pals, that is, someone on the periphery of a small community, somewhat disconnected, moving constantly about on its margins – and thus at risk of being driven out. Movement and connection seemed to structure the action, and I wondered if anything could be learned by comparing the film’s trajectory with Bull’s and the connections, or lack of them, between scenes without Bull and scenes with him. Eventually my wondering produced the following table.

Not surprisingly, the film weaves Bull into and out of its principal diegesis, New Winton. The town is presented first, and Bull later. Indeed, Bull spends most of his time in the film entering scenes which begin without him, making almost every scene a miniature reproduction of the film’s overall structure. Initially this is done ostensibly to make the plot points that he is generally overworked and specifically not attending a very sick patient, Mamie Talbot. But when he does get to Mamie, we are made aware that he is there only after we have seen everyone else in the scene for some considerable time. And that episode (numbered 16) is by no means the end of Bull’s entrances. In a later important scene (37 above), we see the telephone/post office for the first and only time from the customer’s side before Bull enters and tells those there that he will be vaccinating townspeople against typhoid (thus precipitating a hostile reaction); and he is the last person to appear at the town meeting called to get him fired, where he declares he will not voluntarily quit and then exits the meeting.

In the earlier part of the film there are several episodes where the Bannings precede Bull – all of which correspond to scenes where, in the terms of the table above, the film’s trajectory begins a scene and Bull’s trajectory is later woven into it when he enters (6, 8, 16, 22/23). This formal device of narration very effectively aligns New Winton, the signed setting that opens the film, with the Bannings. It is also the case that only near the end of the film, and only in two episodes (36 and 41) does Bull enter and then exit a scene which then continues for some time without him.

Two episodes are structured in a more complex way than a simple dichotomy of “film” and “Bull” suggests; and my attempt in the table to separate the first such episode into “film” and “Bull” strands is clearly inadequate. The complete episode brings Virginia Banning and George Bull together. It begins in her bedroom in the Banning house (21) and continues as she leaves the house and drives to the beer parlour where she enters and isolates herself at a table. Then Bull enters the beer parlour, joins his friends, and eventually interacts with her before she departs (22), going outside and driving away, followed by Bull on foot, down a side street where she crashes the car and Bull rushes up to help her limp towards his office offscreen (23). The elaborate interweaving of characters and the sheer number of shots (and locations) in this episode is in marked contrast to any of the other stories of treatment told in the film, even May and Joe’s – and this must be at least partly because it is one of the few places in the movie where Bull’s marginal world clearly writes itself over Banning-dominated world of New Winton.[9]

The second is altogether simpler, but even more important narratively. It is the climactic town meeting which begins with 39-40, is slightly interrupted with 41 (where Larry tells Bull what is going on), and then finishes with the prolonged tripartite structure of 42 (“film”, “Bull”, “film”). This instance is something like the obverse of the Virginia Banning episode, because in the end Bull leaves the meeting, which then is shown formally dismissing him from the position of health officer: here it is New Winton and the Bannings who clearly write over, even erase, George Bull.

After a reprise, or gathering up or sifting through, of previous locations (May and Joe’s, the town square, Janet’s sitting room), we are treated to the film’s obviously formal coda (46), which begins with the empty station in what is surely part of the same shot used at the beginning of the film. We witness first the arrival of the train, the debarking of the conductor and the transfer of the mail bag, then the entrance of George and Janet, then the discovery of George’s three drinking buddies, and May and Joe all initially via an insert shot vaguely from the point of view of the train, then the exit of George and Janet into the train, then the entrance of Larry, Minnie and her two brothers and the exit of Larry and his bride into the train – and finally, the last shot of the film, a reverse angle – New Winton’s POV – of the train leaving.

The film’s trajectory had begun with a sign saying New Winton. Bull’s trajectory had begun somewhat later in his office where Aunt Myra, not George Bull, was the only occupant and he had to enter. Later when we saw him in his bedroom, even that traditionally very private space was invaded by Larry. Janet’s house, very clearly designed to reflect Janet, was where he declared himself most comfortable, but it was also where his dishevelled appearance and ungainly bearing looked most out of place. “Bull’s space”, the only space that the film makes his alone, is a virtual one, more or less invisible to us, signed by book covers and book pages – the space of his mind.

In this context of entrances and connections, it is interesting to observe that the film makes a distinction between what might be thought of as “false” communal space, like the church and the town hall, and “real” communal space, like the telephone office, the drugstore and the beer parlour. These places are so irregular as to be almost unacknowledged as community nodes, informal, governed by flexible, intuitively apprehended codes of conduct, and dominated by “real people”.[10]

If an opposition between Bull and Banning/New Winton is predicated in the structure of the film as I have chosen to show it, such an opposition is not only demonstrated by the sheer number of scenes into which George Bull must enter, but played out in detail in the type of scene in which the Bannings appear and the type of scene identified with Doctor Bull. The Bannings appear, generally in a family group (I believe that Herbert appears as the sole Banning in only one scene, where Bull warns him about the mine’s water supply). They make more or less imperial or ceremonial appearances (at church, at Mamie Talbot’s, in their dining room, at the town hall) and their actions invariably include something negative, often to do with George Bull. Banning gets dividends and manages companies: he has no job. Doctor Bull, on the other hand, mostly appears doing his job, which he does in quite humble surroundings, usually without help – and his actions invariably include something positive. Only occasionally does he acknowledge the Bannings and their followers (he implies that the Bannings worked Mamie to death, he reminds Banning that he is responsible for the water supply at the mine, he engineers a positive future for Virginia, he vaccinates the boy whose father would have forbidden it). Much of his work, like helping with the birth of a baby or staying up all night with a sick boy, is done in places beneath the Bannings’ ken.

Doctor Bull is shown with younger people and children mostly, whereas Herbert Banning is flanked and fawned on by women past the age of childbearing. That is, there is a consistent metaphorical association between Doctor Bull, life and movement, and between the Bannings, death and stillness. This is one of the reasons it is important that we believe for a short time that the Bannings have reached Mamie Talbot before the doctor. George Bull’s late entrance in this case is paradoxical proof that he actually arrived earlier; for all that he has been so difficult to track down and for all that he would never have been able to save her life, Bull has moved faster and even to greater purpose than the Bannings. Indeed, Doctor Bull’s association with life is so strong that it is a bit of a shock when May finds him asleep in her parlour and says, “You must be almost dead”, a shock that echoes when Bull later exclaims, “He’s cured! I’m going to get paralysed now” shortly after he has told Janet that he does not intend to stay in New Winton to fight his dismissal. Those moments of inertia quietly suggest he has been conquered by the sterility imposed by the Bannings on the town they rule.

Ford himself raised the question of the tone of the film by calling the original material “downbeat”. I presume this remark is meant to suggest that Doctor Bull’s existence in New Winton is hard and unrewarding, the town is insular and as Gallagher says, “intolerant”. Bull, with or without Janet and Larry, might once have been driven from New Winton as dramatically and hopelessly as the first Adam was driven from Eden. To complicate matters, Gallagher treats the film as though its downbeat nature has not been transmuted into comedy, as Ford apparently believed it had (107-11).

Yet for me the film is no more depressing than Just Pals or, for that matter, the other two Ford-Rogers movies. This is more than just a matter of some improvised gag lines and a happy-end. It has to do with George Bull’s bedrock decency and the positive way in which most of his relations with others are treated, not to mention his staggering success rate. Because he is the focus of the film and because his only bad relations are with a handful of cowards, hypocrites and villains, the film as a whole seems “upbeat” to me, its universe, as distinct from the town of New Winton portrayed in the film, a benign one. Doctor Bull is not about a doctor whose sacrifice goes unnoticed until almost the last moment, but about someone who is very good at what he does and who is finally moved out of a bad situation to what promises to be a much better one. Yes, one might even say that in the end he rides off into the sunset along with the rancher’s daughter and a comic sidekick.

I’m afraid that all of this elegant structuring is too good, especially if you take into account the stuff about religious symbolism in the addendum. It makes me a bit uncomfortable. What I am getting at is that in spite of superficial appearances, this movie seems so tightly crafted as to write over or erase the messy directionless qualities that are central in what I value about Ford’s vision. That is, the Bannings triumph in the form. Without the unexplained and the unrecuperated it seems to me that Ford’s work tends to become the kitsch his detractors have always said it was, a kind of lumpy Capra-cotechino. And what I seem to have learned in examining Doctor Bull is that the opportunity of criticism is not simply an opportunity to do criticism, but to have criticism do you as well. That is, criticism in this case has directed an enquiry that has lead me to conclusions about the quasi-organic classical structure of Doctor Bull I do not want to reach.

So let me look again.

When Virginia is spotted in the beer parlour spiking her drink with a silver flask one of Bull’s friends says, “I haven’t seen one of those in months!”, the kind of remark that most people viewing the movie today might well find inexplicable. And then, although no one working on the film may have intended it deliberately, the flask trope returns when Larry is smacked in the hip pocket as he boards the train, which breaks a bottle he is carrying there. The historical circumstance of this gag is that shortly after prohibition ended flat glass bottles replaced metal flasks for ordinary people who liked to keep a drink handy. Gallagher points out that this “frequent Ford gag” functions as “cadential slapstick [that] concludes and brightens a typically depressed but varied series of vignettes” (111). That is, the gag acts as narratively pointless punctuation, the sole intent of which is to give the scene a kind of upbeat musical climax before the train pulls out. But that is how the remark about Virginia’s flask works too, a little bit of light hearted, pointless contextualising, a grace note, a drum fill.

Here then are two instances of things that happen in the movie which are not recuperated – or not fully recuperated – by the hegemony of its classically organic narration. As Gallagher and Ford himself suggest, the fact that both instances are gags can be put down to efforts to lighten up the source material, but the fact that both are gags about flasks cannot, nor can the coincidence of there being (just) two of them, one a variation on the other.

Pairs, yes. One of the strongest impressions that the movie makes comes from the sound of two of the voices in it. Rogers’ voice is something special, and when he is singing you can tell how much he enjoys exploiting its peculiar qualities. The Doctor Bull in Doctor Bull without Rogers’ voice is unimaginable: the roughness of it, the twang, the mellow ground – and all the hesitations, flutters, stops. These are what make George Bull into a character and more than a character. And most of these qualities are intensified, parodied, and moved into a higher register by Andy Devine. Devine’s voice is surely the most instantly recognisable and grating voice of its genre (the comic western sidekick). In this case, perhaps even more clearly for viewers today than in Rogers’ case, the character in the film is the character of the voice. What Larry does and the lines he says pale by comparison with the way he shrieks and rasps. That voice makes everything about him worse. And yet, of course, Rogers and Devine are two of a kind, marked apart by the kinship in their voices. Neither has much to do with New England – something Ford, who never lost his Maine accent, surely knew all too well – and surely the very qualities of voice that isolate them from their aural surrounding also contribute to the creation of a sense that they are performing, not living, their characters and their relation. Together they seem to step onto a vaudeville stage or in front of a radio microphone where the most off-putting qualities of their voices give an irritating substance to the pettiness, even meanness of their relation, and to a humour based on pathological anxiety and frustration beyond bearing.[11]

Honi soit? Or has a sick furry animal just invaded some guy’s bedroom?

These voices are like the gags about flasks in that they tend to move the diegesis of Doctor Bull beyond what is needed to tell its story and into its own realm of fiction which I think of as John Ford’s vision. Moreover, the conventions of the two voices, conventions of region and of performance, enter into messy interactions with the conventions generated by the story, whether these too are conventions of place or of genre or of one or another subtext. Dichotomies are articulated only to fail, and theatricality based in realism challenges realism derived from theatricality, leaving nothing but the vision to believe in.

Although there are few enough pure “incidents” (as distinct from narrative “events”) in Doctor Bull there are many incidental elements of this sort – and the sense we get from these elements goes far beyond whatever may contribute to the construction of character, “symbolic meanings” or story-dictated atmosphere – that is, what is easily recuperable. Consider Mrs Ely (Louise Carter), Aunt Myra’s antithesis and perhaps something of a Murnau hommage. She is a hypocritical, nasty, gossipy old woman, motivated apparently by malice and envy, whose glasses flash blindness at us. When she first talks about Bull’s “scandalous” behaviour with Janet she addresses the camera/viewer directly. Significantly, I think, the unnerving quality of such a point of view is effectively buried by the casual, “realistic” obliqueness of all the shots around it, in much the same way that the real-time take in Pilgrimage can disappear into the film around it.

Hommage to Der letzte Mann and a bit of direct address.

Tag Gallagher points out that the twice-appearing train conductor is the only African-American character in the film, a fairly gratuitous circumstance of itself, but he does not make enough of this character’s gratuitously proper, natty middle class demeanour. This may be the most unusual black male character in any Hollywood movie until Sidney Poitier in the early fifties.[12]  There are more than a few gratuitously neat characters like this in Doctor Bull (one of my favourites is the old man at Mamie Talbot’s); and in the same vein there is the unimportant detail that George calls Janet “Jean” all the way through the picture.[13]

I have suggested before that downright errors in classical construction can contribute to my sense of Ford’s vision in a film directed by John Ford. I guess for that reason it is not surprising that Doctor Bull appears to me to contain at least one such error. There is a touchy moment in continuity during the period just after we have seen Bull researching the typhoid outbreak. During his one and only visit to the city lab of Dr Verney to leave a blood sample for typhoid testing Doctor Bull mentions he is treating Joe “with a little serum that I cooked up myself” to provide a shock to Joe’s system, a serum which surely must be based on the same book in which we saw him looking up just such a treatment for Janet’s paralysed cow. However, it is only in the next scene that he revisits Janet’s cow barn and is very surprised to hear that his cow treatment, the formula for which he cannot remember, actually worked; and this in turn sparks him to look again into the cow book in the following scene. Narrative logic would suggest that the return to the cowbarn ought to have preceded the visit to the lab, because what he learns in the cowbarn is what inspires his “little serum” and the idea of shocking Joe back on his feet. As it is, the second cowbarn scene has no narrative payoff for which we haven’t been prepared already, and the film would be just as tight narratively without it. There is, however, some nice interaction between Rogers and Si Jenks as Gaylord, Janet’s stablehand.

I always love it when Hollywood movies, supposedly obsessed with getting the classical narration right, produce little hiccups like these, but it is especially gratifying when it happens in a film as classical and tightly constructed as Doctor Bull – and doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Except, of course, to those of us intent on loving Ford’s cavalier indifference to the rules about how you make good films. Ford must have thought, and with good reason too, that he knew more about making good movies than anyone in continuity did, but the reason that he thought so, I am sure, is that he knew that what he imagined, what he envisioned, was going to be right even when it was wrong.


Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest (1934). One of 1934’s top grossing movies, Judge Priest is also one of Ford’s finest and most convivial works. Its 1890 Kentucky town is treated with a leisurely pacing and relaxed entrancement with the subtleties of diction, bearing, and facial expression that place it in another age entirely from the chic sophistication of other good movies of 1932-34. Judge Priest today has not aged; a storyland of myth and symbol, it looks just as fresh and old-fashioned as it did half a century ago (though, alas, extant prints are poor!). Based, like The Sun Shines Bright (1953), on Irvin S. Cobb stories. Judge Priest, in Cobb’s words heading the picture, seeks to evoke “familiar ghosts of my own boyhood” and “the tolerance of the day and the wisdom of that almost vanished generation,” as typified by “one man down yonder” in a “reasonably fair likeness” called Judge Priest. (Gallagher 114)

Tag Gallagher’s introductory paragraph so well reflects the effect of the film, and is so typical of how he has written about all of Ford’s films, that it occurred to me that you and I might spend the section on Judge Priest more or less in his company.

First we can note, as no doubt he has done since those words were published, that the print encoded on the Ford At Fox DVD is much better than poor – and probably the best DVD version we will ever get.

Judge Priest is the film that Andrew Sarris cited as the start of Ford’s “rising parabola” which culminated in Drums Along the Mohawk in 1939. Yet Jean Mitry, writing nearly ten years before Sarris, had treated the Ford-Rogers trilogy as minor bucolic comedies; and I think it is fair to say that popular, as distinct from critical, opinion still regards them as something less than sublime simply because they are funny. This is not surprising; there are really very few funny works in the highest reaches of the Pantheon of Western Literature. Tristram Shandy which, like the Alice books, has a claim to being one of the best things ever written, is usually treated like an eccentricity. If current opinion considers Chaplin an icon of Western Culture it is probably more because of the sentimentality evident in his work than its hilarity.

The unnamed quality of those thirties films which so impressed Sarris and had been understandably lost on Mitry is, I think, what Sarris recognised as their ambition to delineate a certain fairly common thirties’ “American-ness” in which comedy and tragedy, farce and melodrama, cynicism and idealism take leading parts in a kind of variety show or montage of attractions intentionally reflecting the ethnic kaleidoscope of the United States. It is easy, perhaps a little too easy, to understand Ford primarily in such terms and then to pay particular and careful attention to his echt-American films, in the way that writers pay particular and careful attention to Hitchcock’s Psycho because they think of Hitchcock as primarily a “psychological” or even “Freudian” director.

Gallagher, although he values (I would say at times overvalues) the nostalgic Americanism in many Ford movies, understands the director in broader, global, terms and makes a practice of pointing out the dystopic aspects of the fictional communities those films display. However, I get a sense even in Gallagher’s writing that most critics these days place Ford’s “America” as a sort of Platonic ideal, an ur-vision, which the particularly “American” films attempt to express in all its fullness. Personally, I think he was more canny than that, that he mistrusted what was, after all, a common, if beguiling, understanding of the United States for that time. I think that Ford saw the “America” that his films displayed as another set of conventions, riddled with the conflicts and downright contradictions common to all conventions, and that his work was here, as elsewhere, to show us those fibrillating conventions as articulated visions and clearly no kin to the absolutism inherent in Platonic reality – that is, Ford’s vision is always finite even when it is yearning, all too aware of its impossible relation to what really is or what really happened. And this, of course, is where the comedy comes in.

The comedy in the Ford-Rogers movies is what keeps them edging away from Big Statements About America. Unlike, let us say, the rural community in the Henry King-Will Rogers’ vehicle, State Fair, the towns in these films tend to draw into themselves; their steps into history or national identity are taken at a distance, with a wink or a shrug. It is not that Rogers, like young Mr. Lincoln, is a rube, but that he is a comic rube in all the ways that count. (He’ll never be President). The specificity of the little communities of these films is, then, a “comic effect”, part of Ford’s caution, even in this way related to the villainy eternally resident in all of them. These towns (and the micro-microcosmos of the steamboat) exist as separate, complete, entities within a larger, more amorphous, diegetic universe whose interactions with them are almost always represented as problematic. They don’t seem all that far removed from the communities made by military units like those in Born Reckless and Seas Beneath or Danamora prison in Up the River.

Without making the connection I have just stretched out between comedy and specificity Gallagher nonetheless notes that

The patrician Priest, cannier and less irascible than Dr. Bull, embodies the Southerner’s political craftiness; but his ambitions are community centered. Ford often punctuates the tickling flow of Priest’s high humor by cutting back from a close-up before a punchline’s last word. A gag’s effect is thus dispersed amid the community rather than employed to illuminate Priest’s “star” quality. (115. My emphasis)

“Patrician” does not seem quite the right word to describe Bill Priest. It does point to Priest’s social class (and to the the section later where Gallagher will relate some of the thinking in the film to classical models), but Priest surely is intended as representative of the Common Man, precisely in the sense of the community as a whole, rather than as a class figure. The real patricians in this community are Priest’s sister-in-law, Caroline (Brenda Fowler), Senator Maydew and his daughter (Berton Churchill and Rochelle Hudson), Reverend Ashby Brand (Henry B. Walthall), and the juvenile leads, ‘Rome Priest (Tom Brown) and Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise) – and you can tell this by their accents, their associates and their manners. Priest seems somewhat out of place as the scion of an old family.

Priest’s friends, who seem to gather in his courtroom and at his house (for croquet), are all veterans: Sergeant Jimmy Bagby (Charlie Grapewin), Doc Lake (Paul McAllister) and Herman Feldsburg (Hyman Meyer). Their service in the war marks them as the town’s “natural” aristocracy, the true patricians of a New South. Moreover, the town as a whole seems to recognise this status, as evinced in the reactions to any mention of a character’s war experiences. The veterans are prone to high jinks and lax behaviour, but their shared experience marks them also as something special. Priest’s manipulative humility might be seen as the extreme end of one aspect of the veterans’ culture, but it may also suggest a way forward for a defeated people – and it clearly forms the springboard for an alliance between the veterans of the War for the Southern Confederacy and the New South’s underclass.

However, if Doctor Bull circulates around New Winton, at its margins as it were, Judge Priest represents a nexus for his community; thus it is very fitting that his gags would ripple out in the way Gallagher describes. Characters tend to come to him bringing elements of the plot (to his court or to his house) – all except Bob Gillis (David Landau), a man on the margin, whom Priest has to seek out at his workplace some time before he is brought to court.

Priest also finds Gillis in the barbershop. A parallel can be drawn between Priest’s nodal courtroom, where his friends hang out, and the barbershop, which is a den of villains and, of course, a cliché for a place where men gather informally. The barbershop’s “regulars” are members of a generation that has not seen military service, and they are clearly parvenus and opportunists who prey upon those who are deemed their social inferiors. Gillis does not belong there, and he proves it by assaulting Flem Talley (Frank Melton) when the latter insults Ellie May. But then Priest, who has his own reasons for disliking Talley, takes his shaving mug from the barbershop, resigning from that club and, he strongly implies, signalling the withdrawal of others from the barbershop’s clientele. Thereby he also signals the end of whatever social truce has been operating between these younger, cruder men and those who only gather in the courtroom. Later he has to withdraw temporarily from the courtroom as well, and this move also signals a conflict – this time with entrenched political interests. (Perhaps he will run for President one day after all).

In a significant phrase, Gallagher observes that “most of the movie is a series of ‘duets'” between Bill Priest and the other major characters (115). Of course, like many vaudevillians and radio performers, Will Rogers was very comfortable with such “duets”, one-on-one exchanges; and Judge Priest, even more than Doctor Bull, works as a series of dialogues between two characters where the setting recedes, as it were, making a kind of performance-defined no-place like the apron before the curtain where vaudeville single and double acts often worked.

I think that one of the indirect effects of the soundtrack on movies was to alter the imaginary position of the cinema audience, displacing it more definitely onto the screen itself. The great silent comedians tended to play directly to their imagined audience, interacting with its virtual laughter and surprise. They built what they did on a foundation of solo vaudeville performance, relying on the cinema audience’s opening its eyes to see what they were doing. It is still the case today that the more closely one watches Keaton or Lloyd or Chaplin, the funnier and more amazing they are. This is one kind of traditional vaudeville and – what is most important – it is essentially a dialogue between performer and audience. That particular dialogic relation was also a feature of radio programming, but with a significant difference. Just as movie theatres were darkened so that the audience might devote its attention to the performer onscreen, so at home families were hushed as though they inhabited library reading rooms so that the listening audience might devote its attention to the performer on the radio, but in the latter case the listeners were very often aurally represented by the sound of a “live” audience’s laughter. The results in each medium were “solo dialogues” between (represented/imagined) performer and (imagined/represented) audience.

Laurel and Hardy alone of all the silent comedians made a completely successful transition to sound. The addition of (radio) sounds to (film) images seems to have almost immediately devalued the solo dialogue in film and put in its place (in most cases) a duo-dialogue that overwrote singular performance with spoken interactions between performer-characters – and surely this must be related as much to the connection of speaking with the image of the human figure as it is to any abstract connection of sound and image. Perhaps anthropomorphic images no longer appeared complete unless they spoke; for whatever reason, the illusion of speaking directly to an audience, which could be maintained in silent cinema and audio-only media (telephone, radio, sound recording), for some reason could not, or at least did not, survive the combination of sight and sound that came to characterise the cinematic screen after the transition to sound.

Judge Priest rings a significant change on the tendency to duets between characters because of the way in which it makes of use of solo speech-making. Maydew is satirised because of the way in which he makes every utterance into a (campaign) speech; but Priest also soliloquises in front of an enlarged tintype of his dead wife and children (and continues by her grave); and one of Rogers’ most obvious virtuoso turns is the speech Priest makes as he leaves the bench, acknowledging Maydew’s quite justifiable charge of prejudice. Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniel) sings about Priest while she is hanging up the washing. The most “cinematic” sequence of the film occurs when Reverend Brand makes the long speech that results in Gillis’s (presumed) acquittal. Most of these solos depend upon the figured presence of listeners (including Priest’s wife’s picture and headstone), and Priest’s, McDaniel’s and Brand’s efforts are directly addressed in part to “the camera”, that is, to the film’s viewers.

It seems to me that the dialogues and solo turns which feature in Will Rogers’ movies function as a means of creating a greater intimacy between performers and audience. That is, they work against the scene as a voyeuristic experience, for a voyeur is always already excluded from the scene, whereas the audience to these films is shifting within the scenes (accounting for the practice of “cutting back from a close-up before a punchline’s last word” that Gallagher describes). One experiences these dialogues as deliberate performances, not as inadvertent revelations. In the Ford-Rogers films they function not only as formal structuring devices, but also as pointers to what might be called the “layered conventionality” of Ford’s work, as each line of dialogue offers itself for appraisal in the manner of its delivery as well as the matter of its commentary on the story being told. Performing maintains the characters’ distance from the story at the same time that it enhances the closeness of the performers’ relation to the audience – that is, to us. In a crucial sense, the performer replaces the story rather than acting as a medium for it.

This is why Rogers’ “rich vocal characterization of each of his lines”, which Gallagher notes and praises (115), is so important to these films, and to Ford’s subsequent work. For the grain of Rogers’ voice and delivery produced precisely the stylized naturalism that had been missing from, say, George O’Brien’s characterization in Seas Beneath, and of course had been a regular quality of the performances of secondary characters in Ford’s films. Yet Ford’s idea of a conventional lead performance before Will Rogers seems to have been more firmly tied to the conventions of the fictional characters being played than to the idiosyncrasies of the performers playing those characters. From the Rogers period on, however, Ford seems to have begun to seek out and/or to elicit lead performances of stylized naturalism based on his lead actors’ individual peculiarities. In this way generalised conventions are crossed, questioned and filtered by specific idiosyncrasies, and attention is directed to how things are being staged in his films rather than to the truth or falsehood of what is being represented.

Gallagher extends this point at the beginning in one of the most impressive and sustained passages in his analysis of the film.

The richness in Priest’s characterization is complemented in Ford’s cameo portraits of the other townspeople. During the trial, there is a sequence that ought to astound us in its virtuosity: Francis Ford, a juror, does one of his famous spittoon-ringing spits. /Maydew (Berton Churchill) orates. /The first witness against Gillis testifies. /The second bad witness. /The judge speaks. /Ellie May (Anita Louise) reacts, concerned. These six shots of six characters are not edited in a fragmentary way. As with a similar sequence in Flesh (see page 84), each shot — each with formally articulated beginning, middle, and end — constitutes an autonomous scene in itself. Each character, in doing his “turn” (to borrow a vaudeville term apt here), expands on a basic archetype by a half-dozen inventive variations. Ford’s ingeniously simple cutting places the six shots in line – like blocks, and the movie’s real subject becomes not just our concern at diabolic developments in the trial, but rather the contrasts and interreactions of character.[14]  (116. My emphases)

“The first witness against Gillis testifies”.

What Gallagher does not say about these shot-vignettes is that each of the characters in them is presented frontally, full-face to “the camera”. This presentation mirrors the film’s pre-credit shot of Judge Priest lowering his newspaper to announce to us, “Hear, hear, hear! Court’s called to order!” – something we see before we read Irving S. Cobb’s description of Priest, which Gallagher quotes above.

Rogers opens proceedings.

Priest also steps down from the bench after a short speech delivered frontally to us (the camera). Frontal presentation in all these cases emphasises the formal and performative aspect of what goes on in court as it makes each such shot a short solo performance that acknowledges an audience. Gillis and Brand are framed and positioned in the same way, and Gallagher goes on to explore the idea of “contrasts and interreactions of character” through Reverend Brand’s solo turn during the trial. This is a passage that merits reproducing in full.

For charisma, Rogers has his equal in Henry B. Walthall; “a personality that just leaped from the screen,” said Ford, “one of the greatest actors of all time.”[15] Walthall’s Ashby Brand seems alone to appreciate the effort and intelligence behind Priest’s personality. We can catch a gleam of playful recognition in his eye at Priest’s trial ploy — giving Brand [a] chance to correct [his] reference to the “war of rebellion” to “The War for the Southern Confederacy” and thus attach the jury’s sympathies, which the preacher in a long monologue immediately warms by recalling the shared deprivations of the war’s last months. Grizzled veterans nod tearfully in empathetic recollection.

“As many of you know, I am a Virginian,” he begins, and relates how he recruited life-prisoners from a chain gang to fight “for what we thought was right.” Ford superimposes scenes during Brand’s chronicle, but keeps Brand’s face in a corner of the screen. As the camera tracks along prisoners’ chains, Brand tells how they became known as “The Battalion from Hell” and Priest (who has directed this whole affair) signals out the window. Jeff, sitting on the cur[b] in Priest’s raccoon coat[16] , starts “Dixie” on his banjo; other blacks join in. Meanwhile Brand, spiritualized by a halo, holds the courtroom entranced. He tells how one of those ex-convicts rescued a wounded Union officer, how he rode out ahead to recapture a flag, how lie [he] stood alone with a ramrod to face a cavalry charge (we see it all), and how this man lives now in this town “watching over his daughter, providing for her education, through me, all unknown to Ellie May.” Cut to Ellie May for her reaction at discovering her father; then back to Brand, who stands: “Gentlemen, you know him today as Robert Gillis.”

The pandemonium of communal conviviality mustered by Brand is comically set off by Francis Ford shouting, “Hooray for Jeff Davis, the Southern Confederacy, and Bob Gillis!!!” And congeniality is orchestrated to “Dixie” in the parade coda: the blacks strut happily into the camera, Gillis is embraced into the veterans’ ranks, Francis Ford spits into Maydew’s tophat, and Quiet-Man-like curtain calls for the principals conclude, rather as in The Black Watch, with passing memorial wreaths and the sound of voices — one of Ford’s finest finales. (118-119)

What has happened here, at least as I read it, is that in the twinkling of Walthall’s eye[17] Gallagher has moved from the performance of character to the complex staging of events overseen by both Ford and Priest – that is, by both the director and his fictional counterpart. Thus he has deflected our natural disappointment at not ever getting any further analysis based on the “contrasts and interreactions of character” which he has told us actually make up the film, onto a satisfyingly sophisticated understanding of how Ford treats – or performs – certain of those elements in the film’s climactic sequence.

But then Gallagher’s analysis is extended further, becoming one grounded in ideas of the letter and spirit of the law and of the presence of the (changing) past. In this understanding the logical, literal, impossibility of Priest’s (the South’s) position is resolved “by the spirit”, by unreason or feeling – and Priest’s role as director becomes only another instance of a visionary’s ability to reveal truth through lies.

Of course, the Reverend Brand’s testimony is irrelevant: it is never brought out that Gillis was defending Ellie May. A comparable irrelevance occurred in the film’s opening trial: the question of Jeff’s guilt for stealing chickens got lost midst heated debate over whatkind of chickens Priest’s cronies stole during the war, and the next scene showed Jeff going fishing with Priest. These two anomalies explain a third: Priest’s lachrymose lament at having to step down as judge for Gillis’s trial, which, so clearly is he prejudiced in Gillis’s behalf, seems absurd to modern sensibilities. But in all three instances the point is “higher knowledge” — the irrelevance of “facts” in face of the relevance of character. Priest knows Gillis, knows the man’s craftsmanship, just as he knows barber Flem Tally (Gillis’s accuser), and knows Tally’s lousy shaves. Such knowledge would not be prejudice, even in a judge, but would serve justice — justice that would indeed have miscarried without Brand’s last-minute revelations. Facts without character are almost always delusory. And Judge Priest’s town concurs: Gillis, having shown his character during the war, would certainly have acted properly in his dealings with Flem Tally; further justification would be superfluous.

Judge Priest, like young Mr. Lincoln and like Lieutenant Cantrell (Sergeant Rutledge), recognizes that theatrics will reveal intuited truth better than mere facts or logic: he stages Brand’s testimony, accompanies it with Jeff playing “Dixie,” and has in Brand (as we have in Henry B. Walthall) one of the age’s greatest orators. In real life, we seek, when we can, to know someone thoroughly before crediting the feelings his character projects.

Still, all human knowledge is ultimately built upon feeling, and it is art’s task in the scheme of things not only to heighten our sensibilities but also to educate them, so that our consciousness is no longer easily corruptible. Movies like Judge Priest do not simply move and manipulate us; they compel a subtle and critical analysis of the interplay of feeling, character, and the real world. (119-121)

What Gallagher is touting here is not the value of Ford’s vision but the value of what that vision may be purporting to reveal. My sense of the work is not that. I have come to believe that Ford’s vision does not have anything to reveal beyond itself in its immediacy – and thus, that the viewers’ sense that everything they see is being performed is integral to that vision. Ford’s vision is like those presented in the earliest cinema “of attractions”: performances revealing only themselves, their trajectory, their articulation. In this it is also like the performances of vaudeville or, indeed, of bardic poets and Herodotean historians. And the excuse, the rationale, for the deliberate emphasis on performance in Ford’s films, is that its determining intent is to make us live in the present, in the moment.

Now, this does not mean that Ford’s films do not mean anything or that they do not engage with significant questions. But I believe that these films think about such matters rather than seek to resolve them, even through feeling. Resolution is left to viewers. The films expose articulations – they show us things and they show us processes – but they do not judge, they do not compel. Judge Priest does not even tell us directly that Gillis is innocent (we do not see what he does in the fight). Rather, I should say, it shows us that his innocence or guilt cannot be dealt with adequately in this court of law, perhaps in any court of law.

Surely what makes a vision a vision – rather than a mode of storytelling – is our sense of its immediacy or presentness. Such a sense robs stories of their role in understanding and instead absorbs us in thinking. Inevitably, and quite properly, the vision’s thinking leads to our thinking: we veer away from the vision itself and toward interpretation or conclusion. But it is still not the case that the vision determines or compels interpretation or conclusion. Other modes of figuration, modes focussed on outcomes and/or grounded in hypotheses, do “educate” in that way, but what I have been calling “vision” betrays those instructive tendencies in much the same way that a dancer’s performance betrays the final shape of the dance or the physical laws which ground it.

The film uses certain songs in a way that calls attention to the difference between the songs themselves and their performance in specific circumstances. The most complex and dramatic example is the performance of “Dixie” to which Gallagher refers.[18]  “Dixie” is initiated by Bill Priest (relayed via Sergeant Jimmy Bagby) and is intended to play on the emotions of the white people who are in the courtroom, especially the jury. However, the song is orchestrated outside by Jeff and a band of African-American musicians and children. Priest, acting as a director, entrusts the performance of this key song of the white South to Southern black people, led by a felon, who remain invisible as they are doing it, much as Aunt Dilsey and her friends operate in camouflage while singing another white song earlier in the film. Moreover, the materials for this performance, as well as its manner, constitute a literal “trashing” of the song. Jeff has purloined the marching band’s bass drum and once he starts the tune, on a harmonica, others come with banjos and fiddles, transposing a march’s traditional brass voicing into an informal string band dance setting. Thus what the courtroom hears, the glory of the past, is twice-and-more-removed from what it is actually listening to, a burlesque by black fools and children. As the music reaches its climax, Jeff steps out in the raccoon coat he has earned, revealing to a jubilant Priest that he already has on the white vest that Priest just promised him.

Jeff’s triumph. A damn sight smarter than Larry, I would say.

Yet that very burlesque supplies the driving impetus of the film’s climactic, spontaneous parade, which burlesques everything that Maydew and the courtroom stand for. The white underclass is swirled into the burlesque when Francis Ford sounds the call that frees Gillis and triggers the anarchic carnival. This drunk with the unerring eye joins the parade just in front of a “second line” of dancing African-Americans and, now in front of some white soldiers, spits into Maydew’s hat. Drunks and poets.

And African-Americans. As I hope has been apparent in what you have been reading, I think that Judge Priest is very much about race. There will be more on this interpretation (too much perhaps) a few paragraphs from now.

In the end a trickster, a priestly orator, an alcoholic bum, and a rabble of no-count blacks have collaborated to vindicate an outcast and redeem his stigmatised daughter by trashing the law in the name of history. And they do so by figuring “the Old South” in such a way that its figural status is foregrounded, changing the materials of actual, lived history into symbols that are available for performance. The past is transformed into history, performed into history (a process that Steamboat ‘Round the Bend also foregrounds). Gillis too is freed by the story that is made of his life, that is, how his past has been performed. And African-American children dance to “Dixie” instead of fleeing from it – because march-able music is, perhaps first of all, danceable music.

Here is articulated the same messy polarity that has prompted so much discussion in the writing about The Man who Shot Liberty Valence: that history/legend thing. And, as in Fort Apache (1948), the question is not really resolved in Judge Priest; it is only thought about. For in all of these films viewers are made aware of the likely “truth” of the specific case in question – and thus have a ground which only a few of the other characters have. Ford’s films, thus, actually place an exceptionally high value on what the editor in Liberty Valence calls “fact”: that is, on what really happened. The “legend” is what is expedient, what fits the circumstances, what will be printed. Tricksters like Priest and Jeff spend their lives fitting themselves – their actions and their desires – into circumstances, living one legend or another. But they can only do this properly when they see things whole, when their vision is acute, an ability that is characteristic of fools, drunks and poets and generally denied the rest of us.

Now let us look again (again).

Tag Gallagher:

As with most good Fords, our sense of experiencing a people’s culture and values powerfully transports us into Ford’s storybook world. Today’s jargon on racism, for example, is not adequate to describe the intimate interactions of whites and blacks in Judge Priest. Just as the singing of “Anchors Aweigh” in Salute(1929) defines an era, a class, and an ideology, so too here does Priest’s joining the blacks in “Old Kentucky Home.” The blacks (roly-poly Hattie McDaniel and sloe-eyed Stepin Fetchit among them[19] ) relate readily to racial types, but so too do Ford’s whites, and no values of existential individuality suffer on that account (indeed, the values become more complex in individuals derived from types). Priest, in his mediative role, bridges racial barriers not only in song, but in assuming — without condescension — comparable diction and crooked-neck pose when palling with Fetchit. No doubt that Ford captures the spirit of a racist community — Priest uses Jeff to fetch croquet balls, blacks sit in gutters, are called “boy,” and treated like pets — but Ford also suggests that seeing, as Priest does, the attractive aspects in censorable individuals and societies is more promotive of true tolerance than seeing only the censorable. (Uglier sides of racism, however, were more apparent in Ford’s original cut, which included a lynching scene and an anti-lynching plea by Priest [“one of the most scorching things you ever heard,” said Ford]. These were excised by the studio, to Ford’s chagrin, for lynchings were frequent during the thirties, but Ford used similar scenes in The Sun Shines Bright, 1953.) (Gallagher 117-118)

Gallagher’s critical acumen is in evidence when he makes the point that Ford’s films often make use of “racial types”, that Rogers at times mimics Fetchit “without condescension”, and when he reminds us that a sequence in which a lynching was attempted was cut from the film. But the phrase “today’s jargon on racism” hinders rather than helps matters – and leaves him open to the accusation of adopting earlier jargon when he asserts it “is not adequate to describe the intimate interactions of whites and blacks” in the film. We are parlously close here to “you nigger-loving Yankees just don’t understand the first thing about the South”. Then there is the strange statement, “Ford also suggests that seeing, as Priest does, the attractive aspects in censorable individuals and societies is more promotive of true tolerance than seeing only the censorable” – and this seems parlously close to “everybody’s beautiful, in their own way” (as well as apparently considering African-Americans “censorable”, whatever that means). Finally, there is the beginning of the parenthesis about the sequence that was actually censored: “Uglier sides of racism …” (my emphasis).

I am sure that Gallagher is far too perceptive, not to mention intelligent, to really believe what this paragraph might seem to be saying: that African-Americans are no more than local colour in Judge Priest. But I suspect that he also has no desire to become part of the polemics and debate that the representation of African-Americans in film attracts, and has written that paragraph, perhaps too hastily in places, as a kind of nod to the issue.

But this is all that Gallagher has to say about the role that race and race relations play in the course of an otherwise stellar analysis of Judge Priest. My contention is, as I have said, that questions of ethnicity, or “race”, are central to the politics of the film and the vision of its director.

Gallagher’s main analysis concentrates on the courtroom scenes of Gillis’ trial. But Gillis’ court appearance is not the first to which we are witness. The film begins with Jeff Poindexter’s day in court, and the first 40 minutes of the film set out Bill Priest’s relation with the town’s African-American community, a relation which is recalled, reprised and varied during the segment on Gillis.

The film’s opening credits for actors end with the names of the two featured African-American players, climaxing with “and” on one line and “STEPIN FETCHIT” in large block letters on the last. This is followed by the director’s credit, “Directed by JOHN FORD”, in larger block caps taking up the entire frame. A relation just this side of kinship has been made available for inference, accidentally or deliberately, like it or not.

In the next few minutes the unusual pre-credit sequence mentioned above, with its first-person address, turns out to have taken place diegetically in Judge Wm. Pittman Priest’s courtroom. A momentous coincidence has been hinted between legal proceedings and what goes on in the cinematic performance to we are about to witness. And before we have had much chance to think about the implications of this situation we learn that the case before Judge Priest is that of “a confirmed chicken thief” who has “no place in this God-fearing community”. In stentorian tones, the white prosecutor is demanding six months on the chain gang for this instance of theft. The white judge is reading a typically chaotic “Yellow Kid” cartoon in the newspaper. The black felon is asleep. There does not seem to be much chance for justice here.

Priest orders the accused to wake up, and he calls him “boy”, a term which was recognised even at the time as demeaning. But then he says, “If anybody is going to sleep in this court, it’ll be me”, and we recognise that his newspaper signifies the same inattention as the felon’s somnolence. Priest has said two conflicting things at once: that he is like the defendant (inattentive) and that he is unlike him (he can mock the court).

The next order of business is to find out the defendant’s name. He says his first name is Jeff and his last name is Poindexter. Priest determines that the name of Poindexter was “given to him” by Major Randolph Poindexter, which connects Jeff immediately to the “tragedies and comedies” of the Civil War period referred to in Irving S. Cobb’s written introduction. For of course Major Poindexter was a white officer in the Confederate Army and of course possessing someone’s last name suggests some form of kinship. There are two explanations possible for Jeff’s last name: the first is that he is Major Poindexter’s former slave and the second is that he is Major Poindexter’s offspring. The two are in no way mutually exclusive, and this point becomes metaphorically germane in later plot developments.

Priest then connects Major Poindexter to chicken thieving (which may offer some support for the argument that Jeff is blood kin to the Major). He does this by calling on some friends in the courtroom whom he also calls “boys”: white members of his old regiment, once commanded by the very Major Poindexter in question. Priest is proposing the same conflicting relation he suggested before: Jeff is like the Major (same name, a chicken thief) but he simultaneously unlike him (he is not allowed – by the times, by his race – to steal chickens with impunity). He solves this conundrum by completely conflating the Major and Jeff – saying that they saved the men in the courtroom from eating bad and scrawny chickens.

At this point Priest has made the case for the defence: the courtroom, bar prosecutor Maydew, recognises that stealing chickens is not a crime for a Poindexter (or his men).

Then Jeff offers his own defence. He has no interest in chickens (maybe he is not blood kin to the Major after all). He is a fishing man. This turns out to be a damn good thing – because Priest likes nothing better than fishing, which after all is just loafing by a river, and Jeff claims he has a surefire way of catching catfish where Priest believes that no man has caught catfish before.

What follows is this extraordinary dissolve and fade to black:

Honi soit qui mal y pense. What mal were YOU thinking, white man?

If there has been any lingering doubt that the foregoing sequence has laid out what amounts to a diagrammatic set of equivalences linking Priest and Jeff, this dissolve in which Will Rogers mimics Stepin Fetchit “without condescension” as Gallagher puts it, surely must put it to rest.

The dissolve fades to black and then fades up to reveal Dilsey singing as she disconnects some garments from a washline, “I got to take down the judge’s clothes”. I will not comment on how that line might be read, except to say that Dilsey seems to be enjoying her menial task quite a lot more than even the most besotted fan of the old South would be likely to accept as the way things really were.

Indeed, the main point of this sequence is not innuendo, but to establish McDaniel’s very forceful personality. The strength of her voice and the sureness of her actions go some way to ameliorate the subservience of the words she is singing. The point is powerfully reinforced when ‘Rome enters and Dilsey welcomes him back rapturously, apparently believes his (white) lie about not finishing his degree, and goes off to prepare what sounds like, literally, a killer meal. What is going on here is only contingently connected to the dialogue that is spoken. It is all about the manner of that dialogue’s delivery, its performance. We are watching Hattie McDaniel eat Tom Brown alive, and all the while she is saying, “You de man, you de man”. Few performers can have enjoyed such an indulgent first screen credit.[20]

The film, then, begins by foregrounding some of the ways in which performance can subvert, or question, convention in its portrayals of both African-American characters and of Priest, who has shown himself to be a kind of comic precursor of the Reverend Brand in the later trial. The importance of African-Americans in this film is directly and specifically related to performance at almost every juncture, underlining the perception that what attracted Ford about African-American characters was precisely that they were, like Irish-Americans, always having to perform themselves. Both Fetchit and McDaniel possess voices of such individuality that they challenge the signature “grain” of Rogers’ own, and both are given scenes in which voice and performance are used to establish a collaboration in which Rogers identifies himself with their characters and their way of life.

We have already seen the first such identification – “comparable diction and crooked-neck pose” in Gallagher’s words – as Rogers becomes Fetchit when they start out on their first fishing trip. These are two of a kind – and if the Jeff character “relates readily to [black] racial types”, his imitator is “one of Ford’s whites”. Whatever difference there may be seems insignificant.

Priest imitates Jeff’s voice again in order to get Flem Talley away from Ellie Mae, figuring Flem will never look at Jeff, never suspect that Jeff would deceive him (when that is what Jeff is doing every day). When ‘Rome takes Flem’s place on the porch with Ellie Mae, Jeff’s harmonica softly plays “My Old Kentucky Home” to promote their romance, and the “real Jeff” has taken the place made for him by Priest’s imitation.

At the Reverend Brand’s Ice Cream and Cake Festival Dilsey and other black women domestics combine duties as entertainers and servants. They begin to sing something that might as well be a satire of traditional spirituals, “Masta Jesus Wrote me a Note”. But later, as the party begins to wind up, they too are singing “My Old Kentucky Home” (which is also the music for the opening credits of the film). As they sing lines that would have been familiar to almost everyone who watched the movie in the thirties – “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home … and the darkies are gay” – they are pilfering the leftovers from the feast and stowing them away in baskets. Their actions specifically mock the song’s old South vision when they are mapped onto its words.[21] Then, and this is the climax of this scene and of the first part of the film, Priest joins the women, singing with them in Rogers’ comic off-key voice. Dilsey gives him a peek at her booty and smiles. He grins back.

Looting ‘My Old Kentucky Home’. Note Step’s role in the proceedings.

As you watch the rest of the movie you can tell that it is a serious fiction about history because everything in it happens the first time as farce, the second as tragedy (or nearly). The marginal African-American community sets the pattern for the film’s other marginal figures, recuperated together (sort of) in that utopic, carnivalesque parade. Black America figures here, as it often does in the writing of Albert Murray, as the integral other side of the whole which is all America, or what America cannot help but be.[22]

In this sense the relations between Priest, Jeff and Dilsey are pivotal to the film, and the way in which those relations are articulated, performed, onscreen ought to be considered symptomatic of the vision Ford offers. And the first thing to note about those relations is exactly that they are quite clearly performed, not enacted. By this I mean that what is foregrounded in them are the specific words and deeds in which they are embodied, not the psychologies or souls of the characters who are being played. Will Rogers, Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel are of more moment than Bill Priest, Jeff Poindexter or Aunt Dilsey.

The performing relation between Rogers and Fetchit was a subject of comment at the time (see the Addendum Missing the Man below), but Judge Priest would seem to be unusual among their films together in the degree to which their mutual performance seems intended to suggest a mode of behaviour that goes beyond a specific personal relation to one that ought to be adopted by everyone. Rogers’ performance of Step encapsulates both respect (wanting to be his friend and fishing companion) and appropriation (identity theft), but the imitation is not all one way in this film. It is reflected back when Jeff first admires and then acquires key items from Priest’s clothes closet (the raccoon coat, which he “earns”, and the vest, which he borrows on account).

Rogers has one scene with McDaniel alone, but that scene (done in two shots) neatly recalls and reshapes his scenes with Fetchit. Priest has worked out what he must do to lure Maydew into a position where he will have to accept the Reverend Brand’s being called to testify on Gillis’ war record; and, on a high, he cuts and pastes one of those movie “anonymous” letters while singing pointed, but parodic spiritual lyrics in a call-and-response exchange with Dilsey.

McDaniel and Rogers. This scene begins with the word “Justice!”

McDaniel is working very hard in the background of the shot to steal the scene from Rogers, and she pushes him to get louder and louder, sillier and sillier. Rogers seems to be having a lot more obvious fun than he does with Fetchit. He has to catch her and cut through on the basis of voice cues only (he doesn’t look back). Of course, this is one contest McDaniel can’t win, but the overall effect is one of an improvised duet by two performers working in tandem to bring the house down before the curtain falls. When Jeff is called in to deliver the letter, everything sighs and collapses.

This is the kind of thing that Ford allowed the woman who played Jennie (or Genesis) to get away with in Up The River; and, as in that film, McDaniel’s powerful performance seems intended to work in some sort of racist symbiosis with Stepin Fetchit’s slow-moving one. In Judge Priest the two main African-American performers get some screentime together as well. In their longest scene together, which occurs about 20 minutes before the scene between Rogers and McDaniel just described, the basic blocking is essentially the same as in the scene of Priest’s and Dilsey’s duet. Fetchit is seated in the mid-ground and to the right during most of the scene, while McDaniel sashays back and returns (and finally exits to the left). And this scene also contains improvisation on a musical subject, in this case introduced by Fetchit mumbling some lyrics from “Little Brown Jug”. But Fetchit keeps looking at McDaniel, and she is subdued, playing to Fetchit’s mood and tempo, exchanging glances not lines, until she yells at him and leaves. The scene is mainly Fetchit’s: he plays the harmonica, sings a bit, gets all the close-ups, and does his trademarked stream-of-consciousness schtick as he tries to work himself up to swiping some food (and, presumably, some drink).[23]  The more you look at this scene, the better Fetchit’s performance gets, and the more it looks as though a pressure-cooker lid has been clamped down on McDaniel.

Fetchit and McDaniel. The first time as farce.

And, for all that, the scene leads nowhere – at least not the film as it was released. It is another nice example of Fordian “grain” in that way, contributing nothing to the story and a lot of imponderables to the overall vision and one’s sense of the film. Scenes like this always lead to unresolved questions. Were they intended? Were they mistakes? Or did they once contribute to a plot thread now missing from the movie? It is that last question which is pertinent to Judge Priest, for there is a plot thread which was excised from the film before its initial release, a scene in which there is an attempted lynching.[24]

All we know about that plot thread is, apparently, a single production still, reproduced in Gallagher’s book, showing Priest, ‘Rome and Priest’s croquet-playing courthouse friends serious, armed and waiting for something to happen (115). The scene between Jeff and Dilsey just described actually might have something to do with an attempted lynching, I suppose. Maybe it did once end with Jeff taking the jug and perhaps that theft, or its consequences, resulted in Jeff’s being the target of a lynch mob – possibly wound up by Flem Talley’s belief that Jeff, not Priest, had been the one who tricked him into fleeing Effie Mae’s porch. There is some support for this in the following dialogue exchange, from a scene which immediately follows
Priest’s “duet” with Dilsey:

Priest: Can you play ‘Dixie’ on that thing [Jeff’s harmonica]?

Jeff: For a ‘coon coat I c’n play ‘Dixie’ or ‘Marchin’ through Georgia’ or …

Priest: ‘Marchin’ through Georgia’? I got you out of one lynchin’ … If you play ‘Marchin’ through Georgia’, I’ll join the lynchin’![25]

On the other hand – and you will not be surprised that I think this is significant – if it wasn’t Jeff who was the target of the attempted lynching, it must have been Gillis. And, no matter who it was, the scene was obviously intended to add a dimension of gravity and race-related topicality to the film. Such a dimension, in its turn, gives all the African-American characters, and the set of parallels in which they are involved, a tragic dignity almost precisely parallel, and opposed, to the tragic dignity vouchsafed all the former (clownish, drunken, violent) soldiers of the Confederacy by means of Reverend Brand’s testimony.

You may think that I have skewed the evidence for my interpretation of the film by including so many instances where African-American characters perform music in what I have written. But the fact is that in Judge Priest music is significantly and directly associated only with African-Americans and Priest himself. There is another band – of white men – which does play at Reverend Brand’s social and in the big parade at the end, but it is purely a functional band, like the ones that play in Born Reckless and Up The River. For Dilsey, Jeff and Priest, music defines key elements of their characters and/or how that character functions in the movie.

Dilsey’s association with spirituals and other traditional “Southern” songs, like the music of Stephen Foster is a two-way street. She uses that music, at times clearly betraying its intentions. Dilsey and her cohort of servants provide music for Reverend Brand’s party in much the same way that the band does, fading into the background as the film requires. Jeff too plays backing music: first for Effie Mae and ‘Rome, then for Dilsey in the kitchen, and finally for Brand’s testimony and Gillis’s freedom – in the latter case accomplishing his own betrayal of a sacred song of the South. In each case, the black characters are contributing to the film’s diegesis, its vision, its staging, rather than to its plot. Their roles then, could be seen as secondary as well as subservient – unless, of course, the film’s vision is more important than its plot. At that point it becomes kind of interesting that Ford has chosen to use African-American performance in such an effective way, as diegetic music shading into extra-diegetic music (that is, as music performed by a character into music that emerges to all intents and purposes from nowhere), and as a way of simultaneously traducing and reviving tradition.

Several musical performances in the movie have the character of improvisations, and it is in this context that Priest performs in close alliance with the black community: joining in “My Old Kentucky Home”, duetting with Dilsey, setting up Step’s version ‘Dixie’ (featuring a bass drum stolen from that white band).

Bill Priest is the only character that gets his own extra-diegetic music. During the not-narratively-essential scene in which he communes solo with his dead wife, “Love’s Old Sweet Song” plays intrusively on the soundtrack (it also figures in the background played by the band during a scene between Effie Mae and ‘Rome later at Brand’s social). This means of distinguishing him, and presumably his sincerity, is quite startling and a little maudlin; still, it has the effect of placing him in a special relation to music just as Jeff and Dilsey are.

If you asked me whether Judge Priest were a “racist” film, I would say yes. If you asked me whether Judge Priest were a film in which African-Americans are shown to be pretty much like the other good characters in the movie and an integral part of a better, more egalitarian community, I would say yes too. Ford’s work depends upon conventions and stereotypes and, as I have argued in earlier instalments of this review, his films tend to foreground conventions so extremely that they can be understood only as fictions. Are his characters ever supposed to be mistaken for “people”? His vision is not of something lost or something that is or something hoped for: it is of no-place and no-time. That is why, I think, that Jeff and Dilsey are presented as stereotypes and as Priest’s allies – “negative”, eccentric characters that don’t “belong”. Insofar as the African-American characters are stereotypes, they are “racist”; but insofar as they are like Priest’s white allies, they are not. They are fictions, lies – like villains and heroes, like racism itself, like the visions of a man who hates only himself.

At the same time, Ford made use of demeaning and servile stereotypes of African-Americans in envisioning this particular comic utopia and only some of this offensive opportunism can be excused by pointing to the director’s reliance on convention and stereotyping in his other films. After all, he had used an African-American actor in quite a different way in the preceding Rogers movie, Doctor Bull. And Judge Priest seems to go out of its way to show Jeff divorced from the town’s black community as well as its white community, while Dilsey’s social role is visibly connected to other black women and to black children as well as to Priest’s circle and to Jeff. Here again, to say that some of Ford’s masculine figures are marginal loners regardless of race, creed or colour, and that some of Ford’s feminine figures similarly represent family and community, is to make one’s self wilfully blind to the fact that Jeff and Dilsey are the only African-American characters in Judge Priest and that the ethnic community that their representation collectively suggests is a dysfunctional one.

In sum, there are some very strong good intentions in this film, just as there are strong good intentions in all of John Ford’s work. But Ford was always something other than just a person of good intentions. The complexity, seriousness and importance of Judge Priest seems to me to derive as much from Ford’s bad intentions as his good ones.

The Sun Shines Bright is easier to talk about than Judge Priest” (Gallagher 338). Of course, I am not going to do that.


[Steamboat ‘Round The Bend (1935)]

The final film in the Ford-Rogers trilogy is the one that most writers have decided is the best. I can’t fault them, even by my own perverse standards, for it is the messiest, baggiest, meandering-est one of the lot. The Ford At Fox set has a picture on the DVD devoted to it, a commentary by Scott Eyman, a trailer, and a Restoration Comparison – not to mention a fine print. The extras seem to have been ported over from the previous restored release of this film in Fox’s Will Rogers series. This is especially true of the “Restoration Comparison”, which shows dirty and clean split screens for a number of Rogers’ vehicles. For the presumed Will Rogers audience Scott Eyman’s commentary may be pitched right on the money, but in this context it seems stronger on appreciation than understanding. At first we get a whole lot of information, and not too much attention to what is happening on the screen. But by the end Eyman is reduced to chuckling every now and then; and he fails to distinguish the “influence” of D.W. Griffith on the climax of the movie from the gently parodic hommage to that director which is actually unfolding before our eyes.

Gallagher lists Steamboat ‘Round The Bend among the “Exotica (1935-1938)” of Ford’s “Second Period” (136), films he brands “flawed and uneven”, although he considers this one the “single masterpiece” of these years. He makes a typically astute comparison between it and Ford’s “classic” The Informer, released the same year.

Both Gypo and Dr. John (Will Rogers) dwell in ideologically inadequate communities wherein reality and fantasy have merged, moral choices are few, and duty and instinct often conflict. And both Gypo and Dr. John seek solutions for initial failures, the one wandering around Dublin, the other wandering up and down the Mississippi River.

Beyond these premises, the two pictures diverge. That which in The Informer is definite becomes transmutable in Steamboat; surface denotes essence in one, but in the other, although densely layered, seems merely accidental to reality; one picture is pedantic and gloomy, the other poetic and mercurial. (Gallagher 142)

One need not accept “pedantic and gloomy” about The Informer (I have done so at times and at other times not) to agree with “poetic and mercurial” about Steamboat ‘Round The Bend. Yet Gallagher also recognises that his affection for this movie is not one that Ford himself shared.

Steamboat round the Bend should have been a great picture,” grumbled Ford in 1965, “but at that time they had a change of studio and a new manager came in who wanted to show off, so he recut the picture, and took all the comedy out.” Such acerbic sarcasm thirty years after the event — the new “manager” was Darryl F. Zanuck, the “change of studio” was Twentieth Century’s absorption of Fox — suggests Zanuck’s editing was significant. We shall never know. Steamboat has less comedy than other Fords, and little of his characteristic wackiness.[26] Zanuck’s defenders, Dan and Barbara Ford among them, suggest Zanuck quickened Ford’s pacing and eliminated the inconsequential. Yet good Fords are often the sum of their inconsequentialities, and there is a peculiar episodic quality to Steamboat. (Gallagher 147))

The waxworks show functions in Steamboat somewhat like the absent attempted lynch scene does in Judge Priest – as an indicator of the film’s underlying “seriousness”. Indeed, it stands in directly for the seriousness evoked in Priest‘s second courtroom scene, which was the mythologised counterweight to the actual lynching attempt, not just pointing to, but actively reproducing the endlessly mutable stories we tell ourselves about what really happened.

In this world, names, appearances, myths, symbols and conventions are reality. In Professor Marvel’s Wax Show sits “the very whale that swallowed Jonah”! But it is also a world of transmutation. Inside the whale, asleep, lies a Stepin Fetchit character who was baptized David Begat Solomon, changed his name to George Lincoln Washington, but whom Dr. John will call Jonah, of course. The wax figures’ names are changed as well, to fit local occasion (Grant becomes Lee, two “old Moseses” becomes the James brothers, etc.). Not only do people mistake wax figures for real people (a mob is silenced when “the James Brothers” threaten), but real people are mistaken for wax figures, by some kids (who think Efe is wax) and even by us (who mistake Matt Abel, standing beside “Little Eva,” for “Uncle Tom”). (Gallagher 143)

As you might expect, I take Fetchit’s appearance and the role he plays as yet another indication of the racial politics which we saw at the forefront of Judge Priest, here much diminished. It is no accident, I might declaim, wagging my finger admonishingly, that Stepin Fetchit, the omni-American, incarnates multiple identities evoking God and country in significant genealogies, good fortune and bad. None of the identity changes in this movie is anything less than significant, which is why they are all funny.

The birth of Jonah.

Perhaps because it is not so strongly featured, Fetchit’s role gives him a few more opportunities to suggest the destructive, B’rer Rabbit side of his character. Gallagher points out that Jonah wants to dress up as General Grant (in a show to be displayed in the South), essentially gives water to a drowning man (a traditional blues lyric), and (again) gets to play “Dixie” to white Southerners. He thinks that these actions “satirize Uncle Tom” and place Jonah in the company of “the country’s many hucksters”.[27] (144) But Fetchit’s character is in almost no sense an Uncle Tom (a noble, long suffering, endlessly believing old guy). He is, rather, Jim Crow (an ignoble, shiftless, complaining young guy) – and what he is satirising or, more accurately, deconstructing, is the position of African-Americans in post-Civil War Southern society. This man is not stupid: he is deceptive and dangerous in the spirit of the traditional American song, “The Blue Tail Fly”.[28]

And there is Fleety Belle (Anne Shirley[29] ), who is also representative of a despised and misjudged minority, and whose relation with Duke (John McGuire) probably accounts for the community’s willingness to hang him rather than judge him as it would “one of its own”. (The parallel/contrast with Judge Priest is pretty striking and is underlined in the one shot of a courtroom that we get: it is the same courtroom that Bill Priest used). Fleety Belle’s reputation illustrates the melodramatic consequences of attempting to transcend one’s socially assigned position, and she possesses the uncorrupted eye of an outsider (that is, she knows better than Dr John what is going to happen to her lover, Duke).

Doctor Bull fails to clean up his town but, like the roaming protagonist of a western movie, he leaves it behind for the wide, wide world. Judge Priest sets his community on a new path and stays in the place where he started. And Dr John Pearly, a day tripper, kind of has it both ways, going endlessly up and down the river.

Honi soit qui mal y pense
. This is a John Ford film, but Will

Rogers is the one who was born in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Will Rogers’ death, shortly after completing Steamboat, ended what possibly was Ford’s most fertile creative relationship. Naturally it was not without strains. There is an amusing story that Rogers — after characteristically giving Ford a continuous line of instructions on how to direct and then seeing Ford walk off the set, leaving him in charge — went sheepishly to tell Sheehan that Ford had just disappeared, for no apparent cause[30] … The Rogers films are almost the only prewar Ford movies in which one does not sense Ford making things happen, but rather letting them happen. Not coincidentally, they, like the Carey silents, derive their magic primarily from the nuances with which characters relate in little things rather than from their larger dramas. (Gallagher 147)


[The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)]

In this instance too, the presentation of the Ford At Fox DVD seems intended to reflect the stature of the film imprinted on it. In addition to a picture on the disc, there is a commentary by Anthony Slide, another Restoration Comparison, plus an Interactive Pressbook, Advertising Gallery and a Stills Gallery.

Slide’s commentary is serious and impressive. He addresses his comments to the image, but manages to tell us a great deal about the film and the historical events on which it is based in the process. There are a couple of minor errors of fact, and I don’t always agree with his understanding of Ford or the film, but this is one commentary definitely worth listening to. The Restoration Comparison, on the other hand, is a somewhat dismaying: it shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the cleaner version of the film on the disc is missing quite a bit of “information” from the top, bottom and sides of the image. The controls for the Interactive Pressbook, Advertising Gallery and Stills Gallery are all mapped onto your DVD remote, so if you are looking at the DVD on a computer or if you don’t use a remote, these extras are not available. That’s all right, you won’t miss much. The Interactive Pressbook contains two (count ’em, two) pages, way too small to see more than headlines on my lounge room’s BFS[31] . You have to wonder why they did it. And the Stills Gallery contains no (count ’em, no) stills with African-American actors in them. The Advertising Gallery has a lobby card and some black-and-white picture ads as well as two (yes, two) of your standard no pix basic cheap column ads – the kind where you fill in the title of your movie and you are ready to go.

Now to the movie itself. Many of the themes or motifs of the four preceding films seem to be more or less consciously reprised in this film: the mutability of history, the unreliability of the law and the courts, the risks of being a despised outsider, the fickleness of communities, the evils of established organised power. Here, however, they seem to be operating within an agonised universe of such contradiction and complexity that every decision is fraught with destructive consequences. Without a doubt, Prisoner is one of Ford’s most political films. It sets freedom in the service of one’s duty to humanity above all other considerations – and the man of vision above humanity itself. I find watching it both an exhilarating and an excruciating experience.

The question of why I find this particular film so excruciating is not easy for me to answer. I think it is because there is a way in which a certain mad obsessive mindset seems to originate in John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald), and then spreads through everyone (or almost everyone) in the diegesis, villains and heroes alike. The first part of the film shows two instances of the kind of utopian pluralism that is a feature of the last two Rogers movies: Lincoln (Frank McGlynn) calling for the band to play “Dixie” to commemorate the end of the war, and the simple home life of Dr. Roger Mudd (Warner Baxter). The parallel between nation and family is clearly intended. But after Booth assassinates Lincoln, tolerance and pluralism are virtually eliminated, and Mudd becomes as single-minded and obsessed as his captors are. There is one character who seems to be significantly excepted from the virus-like spread of fanatical monism, and that is Buck (Ernest Whitman), a painfully good, painfully loyal, truly Uncle Tom figure. Buck’s love transcends race and class, the abominable injustice of slavery and the murder of the man who compassed Buck’s own liberation. For me the conventional racism of what ought to be a wholly admirable character in this film is one of its most wrenching experiences.

Dr. Mudd spends most of the movie as an outlaw, like significant male characters in 3 Bad MenHangman’s HouseBorn Reckless, and Up the River. In Ford’s films from this period, members of the military too operate outside the normal boundaries of the law, and, as we have seen, even characters one might expect to represent pillars of the community (doctors, judges, “priests”) are engaged in subverting accepted practice. What happens in this film that does not happen in the others is that easy positive identification with the outlaw protagonist through markers of class, style or ethnicity is denied viewers. Instead, a taciturn well-off former landed gentry slave-owner (not to mention treasonous conspirator) is moved into a slot in our minds already occupied by lower class idealists and charmers. Perhaps there is no better, and no more uncomfortable, example of Ford’s tendency to set convention against convention than Mudd’s character in this film.

In The Prisoner of Shark Island we are witness to the playing out of what I guess might be considered the dark side of the idea of “legend” that has been associated with Ford’s work, the legend in this case being that of Abraham Lincoln. The film deliberately avoids letting us know beyond all doubt that that Dr. Mudd is innocent. Indeed, it seems to me that The Prisoner of Shark Island opens with a possibility amounting to a probability that Mudd was fully aware of who he was treating (or at least had strong suspicions) – and that thus he is (technically) guilty.[32] In this context it may be significant that in the tribunal courtroom the film shows us the same strategies used in Judge Priest, although “in reverse”, by making Mudd’s melodramatically villainous accusers the ones who are able to trick circumstances to their advantage by building on a prejudicial understanding of history.

It seems to me that The Prisoner of Shark Island is a film about having to reap what has been sown. Race functions in the film as it did in the Civil War itself, as the principal element in what happens, but one whose motivating role is not directly acknowledged. It is hard to separate the racism shown in the film from the racism of the South, a society that is not depicted positively in the film (indeed, it is hardly depicted at all). In addition, as in Judge Priest, the racism the film displays is complicated by the way a white character, in this case Mudd himself, is despised, abused and victimised – suggesting a parallel that the white character itself would surely have refuted. But in contrast to Judge Priest, humiliation is not funny here, just as it is not in The Informer. When the African-American soldiers guarding in the prison are portrayed in an humiliating manner, the viewer is again made aware of the contrast and parallel with Mudd’s own situation; and then what he does to them in resuming the role of their master offers no easy comfort to persons of good intentions.

Mudd frightens African-American soldiers into returning to their posts.

If I stress the “race angle” in The Prisoner of Shark Island it is at least partly because just now I happen to be thinking about such issues in Ford’s movies of this period. I first saw Prisonerin the sixties, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, civil rights protests, and the expansion of the Vietnam War – and at that time my strongest point of connection with the film was the ways in which those events had created a climate of civil war paranoia in the United States. The dichotomous roles that African-American characters played in the film (conspiring with enemies of the state, serving in the army) recalled the roles that African-Americans were playing in those more contemporary conflicts as well as the prevailing attitudes of white “establishment” America towards non-whites. It seems to me that today Prisoner ought to be seen by many Americans as a parable of the ways in which terrorism has polarised the United States; but the representation of African-Americans then would appear correspondingly more gratuitously offensive.

If Dr Bull and Judge Priest are both films structured around nodal points (towns and places within them), while Steamboat ‘Round The Bend exemplifies a journey out and back that never ceases, Prisoner combines both in the trajectory of Mudd’s movement to, within and from the implacable prison of The Dry Tortugas. That still point is not merely the denial of freedom, it is death itself, and whatever happens inside is what happens to the dead alone.

The still point.

Symbolism and subtexts in Doctor Bull

Religious symbolism[1]

“The Last Adam” is one of the many titles given to Jesus Christ. The American Standard Bible translates 1 Corinthians 15:45 as, “So also it is written, The first man Adam became a living soul. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” With these words Paul, the author of Corinthians, first quotes an instructive description of Adam and then offers a parallel metaphor for the Christ, employing the common rhetorical strategy of comparison and contrast. As often happens with religious metaphors, his descriptive phrase has over the centuries taken on a numinous, or downright mystical, significance. The phrase is much commented on, and in 2006 The Last Adam, a film bearing no relation to Cozzens’ book that I can see, was distributed in the United States. There is a website headed with the phrase (as well as one for the film). A rather more informative webpage turned up by my Google search for the phrase yielded the American Standard quote above.[2] Cozzens’ novel was reprinted as recently as 1991, which may attest to its continued popularity, and/or the not inconsiderable literary reputation of its author. However, I must add a caveat to what appears below, for as of this writing I have not read The Last Adam; all my inferences about the symbolism of Doctor Bull comes from the film, not from Cozzens’ book.

In the terms proposed by the book’s title, presumably this story would be about the protagonist’s attempts to minister to the poor and outcast. His eventual self-imposed exile to a place where he can continue his good work might perhaps be read as symbolic crucifixion and resurrection.

Dr George Bull several times refers to himself as a “cow doctor”. Now, when a fictional character calls attention to his name in a joking way you can be almost certain that it is a signal to the reader/viewer to pay attention to this and other names in the text. George means “farmer” or “earth worker”, an allusion to the first Adam’s responsibility for the fauna and flora of this earth. A metaphorical association between George Bull and Janet Cardmaker, who breeds cows, is surely intended, for example (and Doctor Bull does cure one of her cows of paralysis).

“Janet” is sometimes glossed as “little John”. Little John is the outlaw Robin Hood’s faithful righthand man – but another faithful John is the most beloved of the Last Adam’s apostles.

The name of Bull’s Aunt Myra is an obvious anagram of Mary; in certain ways Myra acts like Bull’s mother, and Bull leaves her behind at the end – much as the Last Adam renounced his mother during the period of his ministry (Mark 3:34). Myra calls George “Kenneth”: Kenneth was her son, George is her nephew. Continuing this holy family strand of symbolism, May and Joe are a childless couple elsewhere in the film (and another Mary works as the Bannings’ cook[3] ).

Near the beginning of the film Myra reads out, apparently by chance, a newspaper report about a missing bride, and suggests that the doctor in the story must have done it. Somewhat later we learn of George and Janet’s long-standing and scandalous non-marital relationship. (Notwithstanding Myra, Janet is perhaps a sort of “Bride of Christ” and she is always waiting for George to show up at night). There are repeated references to brides, marriage, fertility and family right up to the very end.

Bull is George’s last name. Janet’s last name used to be Banning (more about her current last name in a moment). New Winton’s richest and most powerful family is named Banning – and they seem intent on doing just that to Bull and others who are not as they would have them be. May and Joe’s last name is Tupping, which has a rather bawdy meaning derived from “tup”, a common word for “ram”. The extremely annoying Larry, who is constantly seeking Bull’s medical advice and ends up leaving town with him, is surnamed Ward. At the end of the film Larry is forced to marry Minnie by her brothers: a familiar situation that needs no further explication in the movie and is revealed in Janet’s living room, just after Bull has proposed. In this context of significant names learning that Virginia (ahem) Banning claims to have been made pregnant by a football player named Mueller casts some doubt on her story (“Virginia has married a German … his name is Mueller!” “I’ll wager Bull had something to do with this!”).

There are other symbolic associations. Janet makes apple cider, and she and Bull talk a couple of times about how much, or even whether, he likes coming up to drink her cider. If this kind of talk were rhymed and scanned in a blues lyric the track would be one of those “Raunchy Blues Classics of the Depression”. Cider may be thought of as the last stage of the apple before it becomes entirely spirituous, a suitable tipple for someone in training to become the Last Adam.

Dr Bull’s business is surely to give, preserve and enhance life. The very first medical call he makes, to which he is unexpectedly summoned, is to assist in childbirth. The only death with which he is directly associated is of a patient whom he seems to have been avoiding seeing since the beginning of the movie. (Myra, a mistress of intuition, collaborates with him by taking the telephone off the hook.) He vaccinates the son of one of the people in town who voices principled objections to vaccination. His major project throughout the film is to make the paralysed Joe walk again, and he does this only after he has done the same for a cow that he believes is destined to die.

But Bull is frustrated in his attempts to make his world, the town, a better place. New Winton is in no way Edenic, and its sickness, or at least the sickness of a powerful segment of the community, is not physical. It would seem that if George Bull is indeed “the last Adam”, he is yet no Christ. He ministers to the body, not the soul. He can make people walk again, but he cannot lead them to paradise. In the final scene of the movie he is able to save only three others besides himself, one of whom, Larry, clearly merits saving only because he has such a lamentable spiritual character.

Presumably Bull is bound for another world, paradise by comparison with the anti-Eden where he has been living until now. And in that place and in a new life with Janet, he will renew his work, extending it to benefit the whole world rather than just the inhabitants of New Winton.

The Tarot

But there is more. I promised we would get back to Janet’s current last name, and now I am ready to do so. Why is Janet called “Cardmaker”? I have to confess that in the face of all the other meaningful names in the movie, I thought from the beginning that Cardmaker was pretty likely to point to the tarot, those arcane cards that exist in an uneasy relation to the Kabbalah and mystical Christianity. But if my speculations about the more or less traditional religious symbolism beneath the film are crucially hampered by not having read Cozzens’ novel, the ideas I am about to suggest are even more suspect, since what I know about the tarot is spotty and from the perspective of an outsider, much of it in this instance updated online.[4] That is, I am not Madonna.

In addition you should know that I have not found any Google sites linking Cozzens with the occult, much less the tarot. From what I know, there is nothing special about “The Cardmaker” in tarot symbolism (card makers are just the people who make tarot cards) and I cannot for the life of me figure out why Janet would be used as a pointer to the tarot: she makes no cards, reads no fortunes (she does read Alice in Wonderland aloud to George), interprets no characters. It is also a bit annoying that different systems of tarot interpretation hold conflicting views about such matters as which card corresponds to the Taurus (Bull) sign of the Zodiac.

Now, you must also be prepared to accept that tarot interpretation is of its very nature what Tzvetan Todorov’s Symbolism and Interpretation calls “finalist interpretation”, like church fathers interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the New.[5] This means that what follows attempts to fit aspects of Doctor Bull into a pre-existing framework, the tarot, which is assumed to be a Better, Truer text. If Doctor Bull does not fit, that will be because it or its interpreter, not the tarot, is imperfect.

On the other hand, the parallels are quite striking.

Now what do we need to know about the tarot to get going? Well, there are 22 cards in the tarot deck’s “major arcana”. They are designated from 0 to 21 and are supposed to correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and through them to the Kabbalah. Each is also supposed to have an astrological significance through the signs of the Zodiac. Each card illustrates a figure in the extended sense of that word (some are symbolic people or things, some symbolic situations). It is possible to discern a narrative about initiation in the cards and their order in the deck (a protagonist encounters various figures and goes through various stages of life on the way to a final enlightenment). The first seven cards of “the major arcana” constitute a single unit of intertwined meanings, one episode of the story, and it seems to me that those cards are all that are needed to establish a tarot-inspired subtext for Doctor Bull.

I ought to begin with “Bull” again. There is no “Bull” card in the tarot, but there are cards with associations with the Bull via Taurus, the second sign of the Zodiac. Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac; Taurus, in its turn, is sometimes considered a kind of super Aries, or at least more aggressive. Taurus is linked with the card for The Lovers, number 6, in one source (Papus), with number 5, the one for the High Priest (or Hierophant or Pope), in others (the Aeclectic Tarot website, and Cicero & Cicero), and finally with the first card, The Juggler (or Magician), by Oswald Wirth (also cited in Papus).

The Bull, The Juggler

All three of these linkages are themselves linked in the traditionally intertwined relations of the major arcana. The Juggler is paired with the Lovers, and in narrative terms what Papus calls the first “septenary” reaches a climax when the male Juggler is confronted by the choice between two women (Good and Bad) illustrated by The Lovers in the traditional tarot deck. On the other hand, the High Priest can be read as a stage in the education of the Juggler/Magician – the stage which occurs just before the choice presented by The Lovers. What is constant in all three instances of Taurus, then, is the Juggler: the protagonist of the tarot: Doctor Bull himself.

At the end of the movie Doctor Bull has chosen the Good, true love (Janet), and a way out of New Winton over Bad, no love (that I can see) and staying on as the town doctor. But throughout the movie he has been metaphorically demonstrating the kind of specialised knowledge and skill attributed to the High Priest.

the Hierophant’s purpose is to bring the spiritual down to Earth… the Hierophant (or High Priest) deals with worldly problems. He is well suited to do this because, like all Taureans, he strives to create harmony and peace in the midst of a crisis. The Hierophant’s only problem is that, like the Bull, he can be stubborn and hidebound. At his best, he is wise and soothing, at his worst, he is an unbending traditionalist.

When things are going very wrong in the world, the Hierophant is the one who wades in, quiets the panic, and offers good, practical advice. He symbolizes a connection to the divine, which answers with a very human voice, never oblique or mysterious. You know how to solve your problem, this card says; it is not easy, not a quick fix, but it is do-able. The solution is there, you’ve only to bring it down to Earth.[6]

I confess that it was when I read these words that I became convinced that there was an arguable connection between the tarot and Doctor Bull, because they seemed to describe so well Dr George Bull as the Last Adam of the novel’s title. Although not all of my sources align the High Priest or Pope to the Bull as tightly as Aeclectic Tarot does, Papus and Wirth both associate the card with the Bull’s precursor, the Ram (Aries) – Wirth via what he calls “the apocalyptic lamb”.[7]  All of them emphasise the role of the High Priest in fostering life through the application of (divinely derived) knowledge and all stress the High Priest’s role as a teacher or mentor, to which we will return in due course.

The High Priest is paired, unsurprisingly, with the High Priestess, the second card of the major arcana. Here too I found what was written on the Aeclectic Tarot site neatly à propos.

If there is a card that symbolizes the tarot reader it is the High Priestess. A woman (or man!) of psychic powers, intuition and secret knowledge. Where the Magician is about revealing, the High Priestess is about keeping things hidden behind the curtain. Things you know, but don’t tell.[8]

All descriptions of the card also emphasise the High Priestess’s passivity; she holds a book but is not pointing to any passage in it. Here, I thought, is a nice summary of Aunt Myra’s character and role in Doctor Bull. The film pairs her with Bull before we see Bull and Janet as a couple. Aunt Myra operates by intuition, although she is very much interested in knowing what is going on, and she does nothing, for example, to answer the phone or to prepare meals. The effect of her prodding about the typhoid she claims to be able to smell is to send Bull to arcane tomes of medical knowledge, where he finds out both about that disease and about a cure for Joe’s paralysis through his own efforts.

Perhaps you were expecting me to find Janet in the High Priestess – and there is perhaps a little of her character in that card (she is, for example, associated with a book of esoteric knowledge, Alice in Wonderland). However, another card is more appropriate: the third one, called The Empress. Cicero & Cicero’s interpretation is brief and to the point: “Beauty, happiness, pleasure, success, also luxury and sometimes dissipation, but only if with very evil cards” (p 39). Dissipation is exactly what the (very evil) town gossips suspect is going on between George and Janet. On the Aeclectic Tarot site the commentator, Thirteen, emphasises the card’s maternal aspect: “She’s Mother. Generally, Mother in a good sense, patient, loving, giving, generous”.[9] Papus writes about the idea of enclosure (a safe haven, a womb) and about Adam and Eve in equilibrium, and Wirth notes the card’s similarity to images of the Virgin and its association with the sign of Virgo. All these qualities characterise Janet and her relationship with George more directly than the qualities associated with the High Priestess would. They even have a bit of dialogue about that aspect of their relationship:

GEORGE: Without a harbour, a man is lost.
JANET: And a woman?
GEORGE: Oh, a woman don’t need a refuge like a man.
JANET: I wonder …

The Empress is, of course, paired with the Emperor, card number 4 (will, power, domination) – but in Doctor Bull that alliance seems not dissimilar to Bull’s relation to Aunt Myra, for there can be no question but that the most obvious Emperor in the film is the tyrannical Herbert Banning and that Janet is Banning’s daughter more certainly than George is Aunt Myra’s “son”.[10]  However, Janet’s relationship with her father and the rest of her family, like George’s with Aunt Myra, has dissolved by the film’s end: in the way of Lovers, Janet renounces them all to go off with George, who quietly renounces his relative as well.[11]

Card 7 changes the focus somewhat. In Papus’ book the card is part of the second septenary, with the role of overseeing the transition from the first to the second, like the White Knight who escorts Alice from the seventh to the eighth square in Alice Through The Looking Glass. The name of this card is The Chariot – and I think you can see I am headed straight for the train that opens and closes the movie. Unhappily for the idea of “grain” which so informs my main text, the Chariot is commonly transmuted into the Charioteer who is, unlike Alice’s White Knight, an admirable, upright, up-to-date figure very like the train’s black conductor whose middle-class professionalism I would prefer to be narratively gratuitous. Cirlot says that the “enigma” of the Chariot “is associated with concepts of self-control, progress and victory” (p. 43), a fitting overseer for the end of the film and a parallel with what has happened to Dixie by the of The World Moves On.

There is one more card in this group of the major arcana, and it is provocatively numbered 0. In the various stories of initiation implied or articulated in tarot commentary, this card, the Fool, like the integer assigned to it, simultaneously moves outside the system and permeates the inside. The Fool is folded into the episode suggested by the first septenary as that story begins, when the directionless questing Fool becomes the more focussed Juggler/Magician depicted on the first card. In one sense then, the Fool is the point of our identification, the place where the narrative touches us; and thus there is a way in which George Bull is the Fool as well as the Juggler, the High Priest and the male figure in the Lovers. But the foolishness of Bull’s character is clearly marked as characteristic of someone more than common: the privileged folly of those whom the gods love. We must seek something less elevated.

The Fool also represents what the Aeclectic Tarot site calls “the Querant”, that is, anyone seeking enlightenment within or without the story told by the tarot: a novice, a reader. From the point of view of the Juggler, who has determined his path, the Fool within the story will be a nuisance, a distraction continually demanding fruitless attention. Papus tell us that “the unnumbered card” is “is the image of the state to which unresisted passion will reduce a man. It is the symbol of the Flesh and of its gratification”, and he associates it with “THE ANIMAL KINGDOM” (pp 185-186). Wirth allies it with the constellation of the Little Bear. By these criteria if there is a clearly marked Fool in Doctor Bull it is surely Larry Ward, whose comic story in the mode of Jacobean theatre is parasitic on George Bull’s right up to the final moments of the film. And Larry is our likeness, our brother.

“The Querant” (Aecletic Tarot); “THE ANIMAL KINGDOM” (Papus)

One cannot help realising that if all this tarot symbology is at work in Doctor Bull, it is working in a perverted way. Only escaping from New Winton casts George’s Juggler and High Priest associations in a positive light; he is distracted, simple-minded, petty, stubborn and hidebound by tradition, passing out the same pills to everyone regardless of their medical condition. Janet, as the Empress, is denied the fecundity that is supposedly one of the key elements of her card, or rather it is perverted into cider and animal husbandry. The Lovers have spent years in a relationship that represents only an occasional respite from a stultifying existence, stalled short of complete consummation. Larry never moves beyond one or another variety of hormonal folly and he boasts of coming from a family in which no one has been married for many generations; and the High Priestess and Emperor also seem caught where they are, bewitched by their circumstances, content to spin in place. The Aeclectic Tarot site tells me that these are all characteristics of “blocked” cards (one of the ways in which cards that are reversed in the deck may be interpreted), and by so doing tends to confirm some form of deliberate use of the tarot in constructing the narrative of the film.[12]


The tarot symbolic system is, like physics, astrology, Freudian, Jungian or Marxian symbolism, intended to make manifest a structure that is fundamental to existence. Thus one might expect to find the meanings of the tarot articulated more or less obscurely in everything in the universe, including everything written or crafted by humans. And it follows that of course one can find it in Doctor Bull. Adrian Martin’s rule about random books and the interpretation of movies, referred to in the previous section of this review, is only a rather broader application of this principal of universal symbolism: it assumes that insofar as (human) thought and writing are common to all humans, then each utterance merely reiterates what has been said before. We are all saying, “Lo!” along with Charles Fort all the time over and over again.

This is surely true (or at least it is fun for critics and other diviners to think that it is, which may amount to the same thing), but it is also the case that sometimes writers, including film makers, deliberately make reference to other writers and other systems, and that sometimes they even make use of such systems to underline or structure their work. My case for considering that the system of the tarot (partly) structures Doctor Bull is based on what appears to me to be an unusually coherent use of names and character traits that seems to correspond point for point with significant and systemic elements of the tarot as I have come to understand it.

Supposing that you accept this argument, I presume that you are wondering if I am such a Fool as to wish to claim that John Ford put all this tarot stuff in this movie – as though John Ford were one of those Weimar cineastes, like Murnau or Lang, who knew something of the occult and from time to time made use of that knowledge in their work.

No, I am not. I think that the tarot stuff probably comes from Cozzens’ novel and/or from Paul Green’s work on the film. From the title, The Last Adam, alone it is clear that Cozzens intended that his book be read in terms of religious symbolism, and it is true that Green made something of a speciality of “folk” religious drama. I believe that it is most likely that if Ford was at all aware of tarot symbolism in the screenplay for Doctor Bull, he probably thought it was worth satirising (and there is also the possibility that the source material of the film was itself intended to be parodic or satirical); and I am very sorry indeed that we do not seem to have a scene where George Bull injects his paralysis remedy into the sick cow, including Janet’s insert reactions.

And yet in all fairness, I must remind you of what I know directly about John Ford – which is that, in later life at least, he was very much excited by that branch of epigraphy that quickly crosses over into the occult, and into which the tarot may be seen to fit rather comfortably. The tarot does provide a “vision”, in Yeats’ sense, and I have been insisting that Ford is best understood as a director in thrall to his vision. The symbolism in Doctor Bull, no matter where it comes from, transports the diegesis of the film from the realm of prosaic replication (of reality, of convention) to one of poetic sense in which everything is at once what it seems and what it does not, in which the invisible washes over the visible, that cannot be read without stopping.

And that is what matters in criticism: to make you stop, look again and think. In this instance what intrigues me is how these tarot meanings appear to have been invisibly traced onto a film that functions perfectly well without them. I don’t think that this has happened necessarily because of John Ford’s beliefs or even as a result of his skill. But I do think that they are “there” as surely as the grain of Andy Devine’s voice is “there”; and that stopping, looking again and thinking about those meanings are ways to appreciate, to sense and to cherish this film.

After all, what would it signify if John Ford were a tarot adept, sneaking secret messages into his work like a communist screenwriter or a painter of allegories? Would it in any way, positively or negatively, alter the value of his work, the reasons for stopping, looking again and thinking about the work? What are such systems of meaning in an artwork if not simply structuring devices? The sense of any artwork is in its articulation, not in the ideas that may be abstracted from that articulation.

Missing the man: Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit[1]

The actor and the icon

Perry was simply a better actor than most of his more celebrated peers … In contrast to either the slapstick or the highly theatrical caricatures developed by nearly all of his contemporaries, Perry’s stage character was infinitely more believable, eerily realistic and, consequently, more provocative and empathetically engaging to moviegoing audiences.[2]

This is Mel Watkins’ understanding of Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) and his stage character, Stepin Fetchit. Watkins has written a sympathetic and extensively researched biography of Perry, and I am going to rely exclusively on what he says in Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry for the account of Fetchit’s career that follows, because his seems to me to be a mature and balanced assessment of one of black America’s most reviled performers. But, as you will see, I have a slightly different understanding of Perry and Fetchit from Watkins’, albeit one that parallels his in many ways.

Some of the best passages of Watkins’ book deal with the way in which Perry performed Fetchit on stage. He begins by putting that performance in context.

In reality, Perry was not imitating white purveyors of racist stereotypes, as many critics have asserted. He was working within the parameters of an established and accepted comic representation that, at the time, dominated the era’s theatrical world. He stands out from the hundreds of black comedians who were working variations of the same character only because, ultimately, he was far superior to most of them. (61-62)

The key sentence here may well be, “He was working within the parameters of an established and accepted comic representation that, at the time, dominated the era’s theatrical world”. In his own lifetime Lincoln Perry became so firmly associated with the Stepin Fetchit character that it was more or less tacitly accepted that he had originated the traditional character type that he had only tweaked and varied. Such a misinformed belief has suited a range of Perry’s critics over the years because it has permitted them to hold Stepin Fetchit responsible for what they imagine is a reprehensible cultural stereotype.

Watkins’ different understanding is partly derived from the dual, not to say schizoid, nature of Fetchit’s stage performance.

the comedy derived primarily from the combined near-hypnotic languidness of his stage entrance and the contrasting light-footed dance steps that followed. Occasionally, he spiked his heavy-lidded, hangdog demeanor with a surreptitious wink, a subtly ironic grin or, more infrequently, a barely audible quip or joke.

Every movement was meticulously controlled … Onstage, he would come meandering out, scratching his head, looking utterly confused and lost. Mouth agape, eyes half closed, shoulders slouched, arms dangling, he would slip into a practically incoherent monologue, delivered in a whining monotone to no one in particular, most of often it had little meaning beyond the visual impression of confusion.

Then, suddenly, the gangling actor would spring into a spirited dance routine that, when first encountered, often astounded audiences. His facial expression changed subtly, the half-closed eyelids lifted, eyes momentarily widening to reveal a flash of energy, near-arrogance, that the simpleton mask had intentionally concealed.

If [Bert] Williams’s sluggish stage character was the indolent philosopher or wise fool, then Perry’s lazy man was the scheming slacker, the dolt as trickster.

In motion pictures, Perry’s slouching, hesitant, incoherent darky pose was seized upon while the contrasting aspect of his act – the smooth vaudeville entertainer – and the man who enacted it were nearly always ignored. (62-63)

We ought not misread the last sentence of Watkins’ description. What “were nearly always ignored” in the movies were “the smooth vaudeville entertainer” and “the man who enacted” the whole act, presumably Lincoln Perry. That is, in films we don’t get to see much, if any, of the flashy dancer, Stepin Fetchit – or of Perry as he appeared to those who knew him best.

The point is important for two reasons. First, after about 1929 Watkins makes almost no attempt to maintain a rigid distinction between Perry and Fetchit, and the former name gradually disappears. I would like to believe that I have used “Perry” to refer to “the man” and “Fetchit” for “the character”, but in point of actual fact, there is no difference between the two for most of Perry’s movie career.

The second reason that Watkins’ point is important is because the “slouching, hesitant, incoherent darky pose” is eventually what made Stepin Fetchit a despised figure in the African-American community. Indeed it is not too much to say that Fetchit’s noxious reputation is the main reason Watkins wrote his book at all. The reason that Watkins’ devotes so much time to describing the Stepin Fetchit figure as a deliberate creation of Lincoln Perry is because most critics have treated the Fetchit that appears onscreen as though Perry never existed. And the reason that he stresses aspects of that character which most critics have ignored is because the prevalent scapegoating of Fetchit has resulted in more or less intentional misreadings of what appeared onscreen as well.

Watkins briefly compares the stage Stepin Fetchit to the stage performers, Pigmeat Markham (1904-1981) and Moms Mabley (1894-1975) – and later he discusses the ways in which movie performers like Clarence Muse (1889-1979), Hattie McDaniel (1892-1952), Bill Robinson (1878-1949) and Willie Best (1913-1962) related to Fetchit. But Watkins does not mention Spencer Williams Jr.(1893-1969) in this context, which is a little surprising, especially given the effect that Williams’ most famous role seems to have had on Stepin Fetchit’s career. Williams was directly involved with movies at around the same time that Perry was – from 1928 to 1949, with a “rediscovery” appearance in 1962. They even appeared together in Fox’s The Virginia Judge(Elmer Sedgwick 1935). Williams’ stock character is, it seems to me, just as believable as Perry’s, but neither so shiftless and idle nor so overplayed. Unlike Perry, Williams willingly acted in and wrote for “race film” shorts in the late twenties, but failed to make a big impact on the white majors. In 1937 he began to appear in independent all-black features; and in the forties he embarked on a career as a director/actor (and uncredited writer no doubt), making some of the decade’s most interesting African-American movies, including The Blood of Jesus (1941),Go Down Death (1944), and The Girl in Room 20 (1946). He is best known for playing Andy Brown on the Amos ‘n’ Andy show (1951-53), a popular television series which was cut short because of complaints about its racism.[3]

There is no filmography in Watkins’ book (nor does it need one), but I have extracted an implied list of “key” films or, at least, those that seem “key” to me.

Key films:

In Old Kentucky (John M. Stahl 1927)
Hearts in Dixie (Paul Sloane 1929)
Show Boat (Harry Pollard 1929)
Salute (John Ford 1929)
Carolina (Henry King 1934)
David Harum (James Cruze 1934)
The World Moves On (Ford 1934)
Judge Priest (Ford 1934)
Marie Galante (King 1934)
The County Chairman 
(John Blystone 1935)
Steamboat Round the Bend 
(Ford 1935)
The Virginia Judge 
(Elmer Sedgwick 1935)
(Lewis Seiter 1936)
Love Is News 
(Tay Garnett 1937)
(Gordon Douglas 1939)
Big Timers 
(Bud Pollard 1945)
Miracle in Harlem
 (Jack Kemp 1948)
I Ain’t Gonna Open That Door/Richard’s Reply 
(short) (no director credit 1949)
Bend of the River 
(Anthony Mann 1952)
The Sun Shines Bright 
(Ford 1953)
(5 John Ford movies, 4 Will Rogers movies)

I believe that Stepin Fetchit’s film career falls into the three major divisions suggested by the spacing above. First, from 1927, when he debuted in MGM’s In Old Kentucky, to 1929 when his initial contract with Fox ran out. Second, from 1934 when he was re-signed by Fox, to 1939, when his career in Hollywood was all but finished. And third, from 1945, when he first appeared in an all-black independent feature, to The Sun Shines Bright in 1953. He did appear in features more or less continuously from 1927 to 1939, he did appear in two features made in Hollywood in the fifties, and he did appear in cameo roles in Hollywood movies 1974 and 1976, so other ways of chunking the filmography are clearly available. This just one that makes sense for this writing.

During the first period of his movie career, Hollywood films made the transition from “silent movies” – that is, films with no synchronised soundtracks – to “sound movies” – that is, films with synchronised soundtracks. In Old Kentucky was a silent movie; Hearts in Dixie was a sound movie. Film actors were faced with many problems in attempting to adapt to sound, not least of which were the ways in which studios used the transition as means to pressure “difficult” or marginal performers. However, these same years corresponded to a mini-boom for African-American participation in movies, which was directly connected to the burgeoning popularity of African-American entertainers in general. Certain studios, Fox among them, actively wooed black talent during the transition to sound. This situation seems to have allowed Lincoln Perry to create a novel strategy for Stepin Fetchit’s sound performances.

“I decided to go ahead pantomiming, just as I had always done. I picked out the important words in the lines I had, the ones important for laughs or that gave cues to other actors. I consciously stress them – the rest of the speech doesn’t matter. I mumble through the rest, gestures helping to point the situation.” (Stepin Fetchit c. 1940, qtd. in Watkins 63)

Perry made what may have become the “wrong” choice eventually, but a very experimental one, by choosing to downplay clear dialogue delivery for intonation. This was not quite such a radical tactic as it may seem at first. The Fleischer Studios did much the same thing with its animated Popeye character, stressing the lines that counted and allowing the character to mutter between times. However, when Jacques Tati staged virtually all of Les vacances de M. Hulot (1953), on a similar premise decades later, the tactic seemed avant-garde. Many screen comedians of the twenties who were supposed to excel in pantomime found their careers destroyed by sound, and in a certain way perhaps Perry at last became one of those. Yet the initial reaction to how the Stepin Fetchit character sounded seems to have been a positive one.

The most admiring review of Perry’s performance [in Hearts in Dixie] … came from none other than Robert Benchley, the actor, screenwriter, author, Algonquin roundtable wit, and drama critic for both The New Yorker and Life magazine. “Of course, entirely outside the main story (what there is of it) is the amazing personality of Stepin Fetchit. I see no reason for even hesitating in saying that he is the best actor that the talking movies have produced. His voice, his manner, his timing, everything that he does, is as near perfection as one could hope to get” … “When Stepin Fetchit speaks, you are there beside him, one of the great comedians of the screen.”[4] (85-86)

Watkins clearly understands Hearts in Dixie as a watershed for Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit.

The actor’s Deep South drawl and lazybones languor are simultaneously funny and unsettling. Hearts is, after all, the picture in which the underlying logic and rebellious nature of his trifling, overtly slothful character is most clearly defined. The old slavery-based pretense of illness or physical malady to avoid insufficiently rewarded, backbreaking labor is established quickly by shots contrasting worn and weary cotton pickers with the jubilation demonstrated at a nighttime celebration where Gummy [Fetchit] shucks off his “miseries” and leads the revelers in spirited dance. Gummy, who has spent the day lolling barefoot in a chair, lights up the screen in this and other sequences, revealing a joyousness and energy that is unmistakably associated with his having avoided the day’s grueling labor. (86)

At the point when he was first beginning to work in all-black independent productions (that is, about six years after leaving Hollywood), Perry himself justified and analysed the Fetchit character in a controversial interview for the Baltimore Afro-American.

“I am an original looking man to start with and I try to look as dumb as I can when I’m acting. I look as if I’m always trying to get out of something, but you see that I have a soul and I’m thinking fast.” (Stepin Fetchit 1945, qtd. in Watkins 244-245)

Watkins builds on Perry/Fetchit’s own analysis to explain how and why the character maintained its popularity with African-American audiences for such a long time.

In films Fetchit’s bumbling ineptitude typically disguised a determination to avoid unwanted tasks. His hesitant, dawdling reactions to commands from whites most often resulted in chores being postponed or assigned to someone else. His seemingly befuddled responses to requests and mumbled, under-the-breath responses to questions usually resulted in a standoff… Fetchit’s Br’er Rabbit-like characters were experts at ducking and dodging, demonstrating that calculated sloth and the pretense of confusion and ineptitude could thwart an employer’s demand for hard, unrewarded labor in a dead-end work situation.


Many of Fetchit’s black fans understood the subversive aspect of the humor and the social circumstances from which it had been derived … Many viewed Fetchit as a sort of folk hero who cleverly jeered white gullibility and thumbed his nose at expectations of Negro allegiance to mainstream models of respectability. For them he confirmed the value of pretense, deception, and a little old-fashioned trickery in deflecting or neutralizing oppressive white control. (159-160)

Ultimately, of course, this iconic hero is not an ethnically specific one. Charlie Chaplin’s character was also often represented as a subversive trickster not overly fond of work; Victor McLaglen played such a figure in Hangman’s House. Close parallels to Stepin Fetchit can be found, significantly, in Pat Buttram and George “Gabby” Hayes, popular western sidekicks. Those knowledgeable about older Australian films may be reminded of the Dave character in the Dad and Dave stage, film, radio and television series. Seemingly slow-witted tricksters are found in popular traditions throughout the world, notably in rural settings, and are almost always representatives of the powerless that are set against one or another form of established power.

Perry becoming Fetchit

The argument that Stepin Fetchit was a quintessential African-American incarnation of such an implicitly worthwhile figure is still hard for many people to accept. I think one reason for this is that Lincoln Perry deliberately effaced himself and began to live the character that he, and the movies, had created. It was as though all the positive, hidden qualities of the character – its flashy dancing – must have been Perry’s, and the negative, visible, “Fetchit” side had eaten them up.

Some performers confuse their public and private personae: they become known by their stage names and they act on the street the way they act on stage or screen. Frank Sinatra, at least after 1954, may be a good example, and the condition sometimes seems to be an occupational hazard for rock and pop music performers. However, others do not confuse their public and private selves in that way. Bing Crosby was a much less engaging person in private than he was when he was performing. Writers are often quite different in person from the way they are on the page. The hugely talented and popular African-American stage comedian, Bert Williams, played the same demeaning character for most of his life; but he always took care to black himself up for the role. He quite consciously put on a mask for each performance and took it off again after he had taken his last bow.

Lincoln Perry wrote a showbiz “Letter” regularly for the Chicago Defender from 1926 (31) to early 1929 (76). The “Letters” suggest that Lincoln Perry is very much a upright striver: “Let’s be professional and artistic and above all on the square” (38); “Conquer oneself and the rest is easy” (39); “Hurrah for the spirit of the musicians and performers of this city [Los Angeles], and may its spirit become the spirit of the profession the world over” (55); “We … can be meek and humble in all success / Which is very pleasing to God” (57); “our misfortune and failure in the past were only the offspring of our follies, carelessness and neglecting of our duties toward God” (65); “[sound] is nothing but a test of one’s real acting and speaking ability. Many will be made and many will lose” (71); “I consider [Hearts in Dixie] a great opportunity to be costarred with America’s greatest Race artist [Charles Gilpin] and far be it from anyone to think that I considered myself equally cast on account of this picture” (73).

However, he also used the “Letter” column to report that he was “under the watchful care of a psychological specialist” in September 1927 after completing In Old Kentucky, his first film (55). Perry had apparently got that role by convincing a group of white movie makers that he really was the lazy, inarticulate aspect of his vaudeville act: he even introduced himself to them as “Stepin Fetchit” (50-51). In December 1928 the Defender published an article which accused Stepin Fetchit of being “Too Proud to Work in Films with His Own Race” in the movie he was then making, Hearts in Dixie. No Lincoln Perry “Letters” appeared in the Defender or anywhere else after this. In February 1929 a letter defending himself from those charges and signed by Stepin Fetchit appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier (75-76). Stepin Fetchit seems to have been the name he was known by to white producers and directors throughout his Hollywood career, and it was certainly the name that fans and friends used. 1928-29 seems a convenient date to mark the transition from Perry to Fetchit.

Sometimes Fetchit seemed quite conscious he was playing a character.

[Fetchit] often urged reporters to blur the line between his real-life and screen personas. “He is shrewd beneath his happy negro [sic] humor,” a reporter wrote in 1929. “When I left him he said, ‘Ah talk to you like Ah never talks in the studio. Make it light, make it funny, ’cause that’s what folks want from me.”

… Mainstream journalists not only presented his quotes in a broken coonlike dialect but also regularly lampooned the actor’s ostentatious ways as an example of a tasteless African style and portrayed his lavish spending as childlike, Zip Coon caprice. (112)

But then Fetchit took to using almost any public appearance as an opportunity to act in character. This seems to have been particularly true for court appearances.

[In court in Philadelphia January 1930] Fetchit … offered a unique explanation for his erratic driving. “I stay up every night so I’ll be sleepy the next day,” he told the jury. “It was 3 a.m. when I was arrested and I was sleepy then.”

… The bizarre excuse was accepted … According to one news story, “The screen star fell asleep in the courtroom and had to be awakened to be told the jury had acquitted him.” (Philadelphia Tribune) (123)

Five years later, in Judge Priest, Fetchit was shown asleep in a courtroom in the course of a fiction. But then, perhaps, all his courtroom appearances occurred in the same noplace as that one on the screen.

[December 1935] The next day he appeared in a Harlem courtroom to face charges on the process-server assault case. “Course I didn’t do it,” he told the judge. “Imagine a friend of Will Rogers’s doing a thing like that.” When the judge realized that the defendant was the famous picture star, he smiled and quipped, “Get the gallows ready.” (201)

There was another side to Stepin Fetchit’s behaviour in public. The judge’s collusion here suggests one of the reasons why Perry might have found it expedient to dissolve himself into his creation: stars and other notable people are often allowed more legal leeway than “ordinary” folk. It is also the case that stars and other notable people often act as though they need not behave in an “ordinary” way; and it seems feasible that one of the ways Perry, the middlebrow writer of “Letters”, may have allowed himself to act like a star would be to do so in the character of Fetchit. After the disappearance of the “striver” Perry of the “Letters”, Fetchit only occasionally articulates that writer’s more conventional attitudes. Instead, he drives fast cars, gets into fights, drinks too much and generally behaves in an irresponsible manner. In such cases we are getting all the flash usually missing from the screen. This is Stepin Fetchit, the star, rather than Stepin Fetchit, the character.

But, just like in the movies, there is only a little evidence of the clever trickster in the star’s behaviour. Doubtless it is clever to provoke some characteristic outburst to publicise one’s theatrical engagements, and Watkins says that Fetchit was a successful negotiator with Fox on his own behalf (certainly the tactic of going back to the stage at every opportunity in order to demonstrate his continuing box office potential must have made some impression on studio executives). However, Fetchit’s most ambitious theatrical opportunities rarely reached fruition and his outrageous public behaviour sometimes prompted theatre owners to cut his appearances short. Ultimately it may have been his failure to acquire the services of a good agent that resulted in his making no films in Hollywood for the 12 years between Zenobia and the shooting of Bend of the River.

At the same time, each and every time Fetchit stepped into a courtroom he took the opportunity to make a mockery of the law in one way or another. Doubtless this kind of quasi-outlaw conduct, along with all the other instances of his public irresponsibility, contributed to the hostility that Fetchit provoked among upstanding members of the African-American community just the way the apparent shiftlessness and stupidity of his screen character did.

[June 1941] Fetchit’s slow-motion movements, drowsy-eyed expressions and laconic responses reportedly kept onlookers gawking. “It was good matinee,” one reporter offered, “four times the justices threatened to clear the courtroom because of laughter.” (239)

[October 1943] With Fetchit behind bars on what appeared to have been inconclusive evidence, the case took another bizarre turn. Rumors began circulating that the actor had somehow managed to substitute a lookalike or stooge in his cell and was actually on the West Coast. The trial judge vowed that the prisoner was Fetchit, saying he had seen “him in a Will Rogers picture,” … [Fetchit’s agent] said “Stepin’s always trying to fool people and that’s what got him into jail, trying to fool people.” (242)

He also occasionally used certain aspects of the Fetchit persona to obstruct and mock performers, causes and even audiences. His extremely public feuds with other African-American performers were divisive, to say the least – and he was a poor husband and worse father. Benefits seemed not to bring out the best in him. For example, he came on stage drunk and then refused to leave when his act was finished during a benefit for the NAACP Defense Fund in 1934 (179-181), at a time when Fox was publicising his “reformation”. In these instances self-destructive behaviour would seem to have turned into behaviour intended to denigrate and damage others.

Temperament on the set and irresponsible and arrogant behaviour offscreen seemed almost in a Mr Hyde-like opposition to the timorous Fetchit character: the hot dancer who had been suppressed onscreen was overpowering his cool, shuffling alter-ego.

Rogers, Ford, Fetchit

By the thirties … the actor was beginning to pose a dilemma for industry insiders. His unpredictability, demands for star treatment, and increasingly cavalier attitude had begun rankling some studio executives. (118)

But there is more to what was going on with Lincoln Perry/Stepin Fetchit than some sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation of the former into the latter. Like any other African-American performer working in the white world of Hollywood, Fetchit had to face a daily round of humiliation and hypocrisy. Surely at least some of the on set shenanigans and outbursts (and there do seem to have been rather a lot for someone who was, after all, only playing character parts) would have been occasioned by Perry’s perceptions of racism either in his treatment or in the way the scripts treated the character he was to play.

He also became prey to a common paranoid delusion for stars: that he was surrounded by people who were trying to supplant him. The first of what would become a continuing series of feuds with black celebrities was with Clarence Muse, who had taken over the lead in Hearts in Dixie when Charles Gilpin was fired. Muse was not the target a smart man would have picked. He was very intelligent and lowkey, had a law degree, was an accomplished and recognised “legitimate” actor, and was as ambitious for his race as he was for himself. He was just the kind of person you would pick to represent the best – that is, almost everything that Step was not. It did not help when Muse replaced Fetchit himself in similar circumstances in 1930, prompting one press release to comment, “It is generally regarded as a step forward to have Clarence Muse selected to take the Fetchit role. Although Muse is not the comedian Fetchit is, he is a much more finished actor” (124). In 1931 the two almost came to blows at a Boy Scouts Benefit (154-155), and I do not think they ever appeared on the same platform again. Considering that many of Muse’s favoured platforms were devoted to causes intended to raise public consciousness of the difficulties facing African-Americans, and especially black performers, the dispute between them had serious long-run consequences for Fetchit.

At any rate, in December 1930 Fetchit’s contract with Fox was not renewed. He did make several movies in 1930-1932, most of them cheap ones. He was rehired by Fox in 1934, and appeared in minor roles in David Harum and Carolina – both of which, nevertheless, were A pictures.
It is significant that Fetchit appeared in two Henry King movies, because King was certainly one of Fox’s prestige directors at the time. Carolina was based on a play by Paul Green, who is mentioned in the review of Doctor Bull above. Marie Galante was a picture noted at the time for Spencer Tracy’s absences from the set, although not for Fetchit’s.

Fetchit’s career at Fox suffered from his appearing only once in a Shirley Temple vehicle (Dimples 1936). Temple’s movies were the studio’s bread-and-butter from about 1934 to 1939, but she is supposed not to have liked Fetchit much, and she insisted that “Uncle Billy” Robinson do the choreography for her dance numbers in Dimples. Bill Robinson, a prodigiously talented black dancer, was a particular favourite of Temple’s – and another enemy of Fetchit’s. For all that, Dimples (which Watkins does not discuss) is apparently a movie with a strong sub-text about slavery in which at one point black actors appear as white minstrel show performers in blackface.[5]

[Harry} Levette … rightly pointed out that Stepin Fetchit’s comeback and newfound acceptance in Hollywood was largely due to Rogers’s taking the actor under his wing. Fetchit had been assigned key roles in four films with Rogers after returning to Hollywood, and, when released, each was a critical and box-office success. The actors obviously liked one another and their lighthearted rapport translated into an on-screen chemistry that made them a huge draw for both white and black audiences. (197)

He worked first with Will Rogers in David Harum and it would seem that they got along pretty well. Rogers was Temple’s strongest box office rival in the early thirties, and during that period Stepin Fetchit was an expected part of a Will Rogers picture. Their relationship garnered a great deal of favourable attention, especially in the African-American community.

‘When queried about his relationship with Rogers, “America’s greatest living humorist,” Fetchit said neither of them tried to “recite” the script the way it was written; they studied it and tried to be spontaneous before the cameras.’ [1935 Baltimore Afro-American] [Fetchit on improvising with Will Rogers:] “Paht of the time, he surprises me. Paht of the time I surprises him. But mos’ of the time we surprises each other.” [1935 New York Times] (qtd. in Watkins 191)

Writing on The County Chairman (1935), Watkins asserts that the Rogers-Fetchit films are precursors of white-black “buddy” movies, (192-193). “Remarkably,” he says, “the movie suggest that Rogers both understands and admires Fetchit’s leisurely approach to life” (193). It seems to me that this is also true of Judge Priest, made the year before.

“The veteran black entertainment writer Chappy Gardner”, is quoted by Watkins as evidence that the African-American showbiz community at least recognised the implications of Fetchit and Rogers performances together.

“Color prejudice fades when this boy acts,” he wrote. “Will Rogers, a Southern gentleman from Oklahoma, lends a big hand in dispelling race feeling by calling on Fetchit and giving him the chance to exercise his acting ability. Fox studios too must be credited for having the nerve to take the lead in which a black actor might have the opportunity to help rub out prejudice.” (193)

Apparently John Ford thought well of Stepin Fetchit too (presumably from his work on Salute), since he used him in five pictures overall. Still, it looks as though the most significant factor getting Stepin Fetchit back into the majors may have been Winfield Sheehan (see 72, l66, 171). Watkins writes, “When Winfield Sheehan, one of the actor’s staunchest Fox supporters, abruptly left after Rogers’s death [in 1935], Fetchit lost another crucial ally at the studio”, but the evidence seems to point to Fetchit’s career at Fox having pretty much gone into reverse after 1935: no Will Rogers, no Winfield Sheehan, and no more John Ford pictures until 1953.

Stepin Fetchit had some nice things to say about Ford, who may be the only movie director he ever identified by name in an interview.

“John Ford, the director, is one of the greatest men who ever lived,” he told a journalist in 1971 … “And on that picture [Salute], John Wayne was my dresser! John Ford, he was staying in the commandant’s house during that picture, and he had me stay in the guest house. At Annapolis!” (119)

For the first year and a half after his return to Fox (February 1934 to September 1935) Stepin Fetchit, the flash star, was treading the straight and narrow. No more highly-publicised scrapes, no displays of temperament (183, 196). He appeared in three movies directed by Ford during this period: The World Moves OnJudge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend. (The other Fetchit-Ford films were made either before – Salute in 1929 – or after – The Sun Shines Bright in 1953.)

Judge Priest, I argue in the main review, is a film structured in large part by white-black relations and Fetchit’s good working relation with Will Rogers. But the film also shows Jeff, Fetchit’s character, as somewhat isolated from the local African-American community. He only appears tangentially in a key scene that seems clearly intended to bring together all the elements of the town, and which makes a point of showing black women and children quite prominently (and not always subserviently). Instead the responsibility of acting as symbolic liaison in this case falls on Hattie McDaniel, Fetchit’s contrasting female counterpart.

For whatever reasons, Fetchit’s isolation in this film (which parallels a similar isolation in The World Moves On and Steamboat ‘Round The Bend) was apparently matched by his isolation from the more serious and dedicated side of the Hollywood African-American community. He had already been accused of not wanting to appear onscreen with other African-American performers, and he only appears sparingly with McDaniel in Judge Priest. Their most significant scene together simply does not work, and one reason it doesn’t is the same reason that the scenes that both actors have with Rogers do work: in this case McDaniel and Fetchit are not performing with one another. Stories at the time apparently asserted that McDaniel upstaged Fetchit (184), which she was certainly capable of doing; but watching the scene, it actually seems that Fetchit refused to move up anywhere near her intensity, forcing her to play down to him.

John Ford definitely found humiliation funny, and Stepin Fetchit is one of the most humiliated figures in American show business. His comedy, like Jerry Lewis’s, is about inability, about infantilism, about being subhuman or prehuman. He can’t talk, he can’t walk, he falls asleep. Even if this humiliating state is somewhat ameliorated by the ways in which he and his films with Ford make us conscious that it is being performed, no one can escape reacting to Stepin Fetchit’s character in this way. It seems that Ford’s idea of a funny black man in Judge Priest and Steamboat ‘Round The Bend is a humiliated one. But then, Ford’s idea of a funny drunk, a funny old veteran, a funny idiot, a funny Irishman – and, tellingly, a tragic Irish idiot (The Informer) and a principled doctor (The Prisoner of Shark Island) – is a humiliated man.

The scapegoat

Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers made regular money and many fans playing chuckling black maids. But both were also publicly involved with collective attempts to improve conditions and roles for African-American screen actors, which Lincoln Perry was not. Stepin Fetchit not only isolated himself from such attempts at “betterment”, he also publicly feuded with virtually any black actor who might have threatened what he perceived as his position at the top. He continued to attack Clarence Muse when he could, and was openly hostile to Bill Robinson.

This was a mistake. Although Robinson was known by studio executives to be a difficult person on the set, Shirley Temple did call him “Uncle Billy”. Fetchit ought to have seen the writing on the wall when Robinson was given the role he had played in the silent version of In Old Kentucky in the 1935 remake (George Marshall), which starred Will Rogers. After Fetchit had left the studio, Robinson continued to appear in Fox movies until Temple stopped making the kind of pictures in which he could be featured. He also contrived to perform in One Mile from Heaven (Allan Dwan 1937) in the kind of part that the upright African-American showbiz community approved, and returned more or less triumphantly for Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone 1943), a celebratory all-black all-star musical.

To compound matters Fetchit made some trouble on the set of The Littlest Rebel (David Butler 1935), a Shirley Temple picture in which he was to play a supporting role alongside – or somewhat beneath – Robinson. He was replaced by the cheaper Willie Best (198-199).

As noted above, he was in court in December of 1935, just a month later. It looks like his “reformation” was over. 1935 was also the year that Darryl Zanuck took over at Fox. Watkins describes some inadvisable and annoying things Perry did when he was negotiating contracts with Zanuck (207). It does seem that Zanuck could have played a part in stalling and then finishing Fetchit’s Hollywood career, especially since Zanuck did engineer Sheehan’s departure from Fox and Fetchit was certainly a Sheehan protegé. At any rate, Fetchit was through at the studio after Fifty Roads to Town was released in June 1937. And after Zenobia in 1939 his initial Hollywood career was over.

At this point you can practically hear Stepin Fetchit’s peers telling him not to let the screen door hit him on the way out. Not one, but two all-black all-star musicals were released in 1943 (Cabin In The Sky, Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut, was the other). Neither had a spot for Stepin Fetchit who was, perhaps predictably, back in court during that year. One can understand this a little – after all, had he not been quoted as not wishing to appear in all-black productions? – but to me that excuse rings very hollow. I think that by this time all the sins of all the servile and lazy African-American characters who had ever been – or were to be – on the screen had been heaped on Lincoln Perry, and the rest of his life was a protracted sacrifice ritual that is not yet completed.

Fetchit did make more movies, and ironically, these were all-black cast pictures. Independently, and cheaply, made all-black cast movies were a feature of American film productions going back to the early twenties, and by the early forties New York was something of a centre for such pictures. His first such appearance was in Big Timers (Bud Pollard 1945), by all accounts not a great movie and memorable for us perhaps only for what seems to be a snippet from Fetchit’s stage routine.[6] Watkins believes that this film, however lacking, provides visible and aural evidence that Fetchit’s comedy is most properly understood in an all-black context where his is only one of many comic and serious stereotypical portrayals (246), but he uses a dialogue passage from Fetchit’s next film, the 1948 Miracle in Harlem (Jack Kemp), to illustrate the performer’s impressive stream-of-consciousness cleverness. Miracle in Harlem is an interesting production based on a “colour blind” plot that might have served for a British quota quickie or an Australian movie of the time (candy shop menaced by unscrupulous powerful people). The film pivots around a mannered but effective performance by Hilda Offley, playing an older woman called Aunt Hattie.[7] At one point she sends Swifty (Fetchit) on a mission to deliver a note secretly to Lieutenant Renaud of the police (Monte Hawley).

Improvisation 1.

This is pretty funny stuff, and it shows that Fetchit hadn’t lost his chops. Not only does it contain that segue from “knife” to “fawk”, Fetchit also refers neatly to his character (“I ain’t s’posed to know what I want”) and his personal troubles with the law (“I just gen’lly falls to pieces ’round poleeces”).[8] It seems to me that Watkins is perfectly correct in stressing that in an all-black comedy context Fetchit becomes just one of a number of strange characters. If Renaud were white, his impatience and abruptness would make the exchange exemplary of white-black relations, but as it is, he is just a harassed cop confronted by another petty annoyance.

During this period Fetchit also made an appearance in a “soundie” musical short, based on the popular song “Open The Door, Richard”. Here too his work is funny and to the point.[9] Watkins does not speculate about what may have prompted Hollywood’s Anthony Mann and/or Aaron Rosenberg or whoever to use Fetchit in Bend Of The River, but perhaps Steamboat ‘Round The Bend had something to do with it, since he had played a vaguely similar role in the 1935 Ford movie. 1951-52 was also the period in which the Amos ‘n’ Andy television show was demonstrating its popularity, and it is certainly possible that some elements in Hollywood might have thought that old fashioned racial stereotyping was going to make a comeback. Maybe he was hired on the strength of Ford’s interest in using him for The Sun Shines Bright. At any rate, Bend Of The River allowed Lincoln Perry another chance to show what a good comic character actor he could be, maybe a better chance at that than he got in Ford’s film the next year. Certainly the role is founded in the stereotype that Fetchit had made his own, but just as certainly the more extremely offensive aspects of that stereotype are toned down for this film.

In 1952 Louis Armstrong recorded a tape of a dialogue between him and Stepin Fetchit. Watkins uses the dialogue between these two performers to place this brief period of florescence for Fetchit in a broader context (253-255). Taping was one of Armstrong’s hobbies and the tapes of conversations that he made in this way are invaluable records of the people who speak on them. In this instance we ought to recognise in advance that there are more than a few points of similarity between Armstrong and Fetchit, beginning with their being known to friends and public alike by a name they had acquired through performance (in Armstrong’s case this was “Satch”, derived from “Satchelmouth”). Both were pioneers in their chosen fields, both had been targeted for pandering to white tastes by adapting themselves to offensive racial stereotypes, both had lived high and had been accused of trying to get away from their ethnic roots. Armstrong begins by noting how completely Lincoln Perry had been absorbed into Stepin Fetchit, “You always think you’re before a camera … Every move you make, boy. You just a born movie star, you know that?” (253). Of course Armstrong knew that much the same thing had been said about him (a born performer, always on). And of course, Fetchit knew that too. They are identifying with each other.

Later their conversation makes Fetchit, Armstrong and Leroy “Satchel” Paige the equivalents of each other in the context of a hypothetical movie about the life of the great baseball pitcher:

“When we do Satchel Paige, that’s when I retire,” Step says.
“Damn, if Satchel Paige was just a little younger, he could do the life of Stepin Fetchit,” Armstrong laughs.
“I’m goin’ do that one myself,” Step says.
“Naw, I’m goin’ reduce to do that one.”
“How you goin’ get tall?” Step laughs. (254)

The Sun Shines Bright is a remake of Judge Priest with Step repeating the role of Jeff Poindexter. The film came out in a singularly tricky cultural climate. A campaign protesting racial stereotyping in the Amos ‘n’ Andy television series had resulted in the series being cancelled by CBS despite its popularity with television audiences. I think that the success of this campaign as well as the stereotyping apparent in The Sun Shines Bright itself must account in large part for the terrible limbo in which Stepin Fetchit spent most of the rest of his life. More than twenty years later he played supporting roles in two comedies: 1974’s Amazing Grace, with Moms Mabley, where he got to speak some lines in his Lincoln Perry voice; and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), which is still a controversial movie, but not because of anything Fetchit may have done in it (just whether it is funny or not).

I don’t want to say anything about The Sun Shines Bright because I haven’t seen it recently and all my memories are that it is an extremely painful experience. Instead, here by way of a coda to Stepin Fetchit’s life in the movies, is Tag Gallager on Stepin Fetchit in The Sun Shines Bright, a fine passage that has given this appendix its title.

And then there is Jeff Poindexter, played by an aged Stepin Fetchit with the squeaky voice, bent head, and bumbling gestures of the comic darkie. But unlike earlier Fetchit characters, this one is not quite the traditional Fordian fool who, in The Black Watch, Salute or The Searchers, satirically reflects establishment values. Even in Fairfield, Jeff, like Priest, seems a type who has survived beyond his era, only to find his fashion obsolete. None of the other blacks share his “comic” traits. Yet Jeff is not funny in what he says or does, and he continually earns our respect. Nor do the whites find him silly, although by habit they condescend toward all blacks. Even Judge Priest addresses the noble, gray-haired Uncle Pleas [Ernest Whitman] as “boy.” (In this Priest is like the women in The Quiet Man who keep giving Sean sticks.) The mark of oppression exists in every black action, in the un-underlined contrast between their part of town and the whites’ part, in the attitude (or nonattitude) of whites toward them, in their own acquiescence to their state. In the peaceful coexistence of a segregated society the mechanics of racism are clear to behold. But they are less apparent when an audience, due to its own racism, sees Stepin Fetchit’s character as merely a comic darkie and misses the man. (320-321)

A hunger artist

About one month after the release of Judge Priest, Henry King’s Marie Galante was released. This is an unusual film, something of an ancestor of the French New Wave, if only in its sense of casual improvisation. Stepin Fetchit appears in it, uncredited, as a waiter-cum-barber working in a Panama night club. He doodles on the piano and sings a couple of blues tinged lines in existing DVDs of the movie.

Improvisation 2.[10]

“The Shim Sham Shimmy was made for me,
made for me,
all the folks like me,
breathing [or breeding] is done so nice and easy,
breathing [or breeding] is done so nice and easy …”[11]
“What do you think you are doing?” asks Plosser (Ned Sparks), “That’s the Shim Sham with music,” answers Step.[12]

And his voice is a perfect illustration of what he says. Everything Step says he says with music. Maybe that music is most evident to you in his melisma, the way he keeps sliding to and from the vowels, up, down, sideways. He croons, he whines, he quavers. His voice is pitched high, but his diction (the mumbling, muttering, fluttering) makes a bottom or ground to it. Your ear doesn’t always know where to listen, up or down the scale. But the diction is also the voice’s punctuation, and the patterns of the diction (not the words, the way the words are said) set the rhythm of his speech. Listening to Step is like listening to the great scat singer, Leo Watson, because this character never talks; like Leo, he sings thinking.

And where you will hear singing that sounds like his is in traditional, rural, blues. In Judge Priest Fetchit plays the harmonica and you might be forgiven for thinking when you first hear him playing that he is just singing wordlessly, the sounds are so much alike. But there are a lot of blues singers who sound like that kind of countrified harmonica playing. I think he sounds very like Sleepy John Estes or King Solomon Hill and that he prefigures later blues figures like J.B. Lenoir.

A relatively recently issued DVD set called “Ain’t Times Hard” (JSP Records JSP77109) surveys recorded traditional blues from 1928 to 1954. There are several singers represented who seem to me to use pitch and melisma in ways that resemble what Fetchit does: Leroy Carr, Bumble Bee Slim, Tampa Red. And Robert Pete Williams, Big Joe Williams, even John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed use a mumbling or muttering style of diction. The set is also interesting for the way in which it treats an aspect of Stepin Fetchit’s character which is often attributed to that character alone. Many of the Depression-era blues in the set deal with looking for and finding work – and many of these illustrate very ambivalent ideas about work. That is, an aversion to work is not confined to Fetchit’s “idiot” character; it is part of the blues tradition. Indeed, finding the demands of work onerous is not properly a blues, race, ethnic, class or cultural issue at all. It is, rather, a political and economic issue. I say this as one who, for years, had a sign on my office door that read, “Work Stinks! The things we give up for work are never returned!”. I believe you don’t have to be Stepin Fetchit (or me) to recognise that both of those statements are true even today.

The blues is about suffering and the overcoming of suffering, and if I approach Stepin Fetchit this way it is because this is always what I have thought his character was about. I have always turned away from the screen or forced myself to look. How can anyone bear to watch a figure formed of so much sorrow?

Consider his appearance. His head is a skull, his frame nothing but bones. He stands as though he has no musculature; nothing more than a joined skeleton with skin stretched over. He is starving, he is dying. He is the walking dead. Is this what is left of Lincoln Perry?

If it is, then how does an undead man like that move and speak? Only if he is possessed, only if a spirit breathes through him that cannot be killed. He moves in spasms like noperson or he hardly moves at all. His actions are sparse, minimal; nothing excessive in them. His movement is Cubist. He cowers. He flinches. He throws himself forward. This is when the spirit, that does not know how a person moves, galvanises him, when it rides him, dances him. (And only sometimes is this figure’s dancing beautiful.) Body, bone, are what is left of suffering, when suffering is too much to bear. The moving spirit, which is also what speaks in a voice singing crying, is a miracle to tear your heart: suffering overcome, transcended, stomped away. What animates the figure, its breathing so nice and easy so mean and laboured, that is Stepin Fetchit.

Big Mama Thornton in the year of her death, singing “Ball and Chain”[13] ; Gil Scott-Heron this year, singing Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil”[14] . For me these are some of the African-American figures still ridden by Stepin Fetchit’s spirit.

“Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast. (Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist)[15]


[1] I am referring to Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach in their History of the Film (London: George Allen & Unwin 1938, p. 316), who nonetheless do not mention Arrowsmith, Lewis Jacobs’ The Rise of The American Film (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1939, pp. 479-483) and Richard Griffith’s “The Film Since Then” section of the revised 1949 edition of The Film Till Now (London: Spring Books 1967, pp. 482-483).
[2] Sarris, “The American Cinema”, Film Culture No. 28 (Spring 1963), p. 4.
[3] Peter Bogdanovich interviewing John Ford in Bogdanovich’s John Ford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 55, 57. This is everything that Ford has to say about the “Will Rogers trilogy” in that book.
[4] The New York Times 6 October 1933 at
[5] One Man’s Journey (John S. Robertson 1933) is currently available on DVD as one of TCM’s “Vault Collection” reissues.
[6] See
[7] See
[8] See
[9] Gallagher implies that Bull’s interference in Virginia’s life is the proximate cause of the Bannings’ decision to throw him out of his job (110). But the Bannings dislike Bull from the git-go, as is clear in the scene by their family plot, and he accuses the family of having worked Mamie Talbot to death as well as holding Herbert responsible for having polluted the town’s water supply through the mine he owns. Bull’s failure to inspect the effect of the mine on the water supply in his capacity as the town’s health officer is the immediate cause of his dismissal.
[10] The drugstore is treated in an interesting way. It is Larry’s place of work, and we see only the soda fountain, a social nexus, never any part that has to do with prescriptions or medicines. The gossip, Mrs Ely, has her medicine sent to her by post, and Doctor Bull gets anti-typhoid vaccine from out of town. When Bull does make up a (joke) medicine in the drugstore for Larry, he does so, rather pointedly I thought, offscreen.
[11] These ideas about how voice works are obviously and crudely influenced by Roland Barthes’ well-known essay, “The Grain of the Voice” (Glasgow: Image-Music-Text, Fontana-Collins 1977, pp. 179-189); and their extension in this section to non-narrative aspects of the cinematic diegesis has a deep background in Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s “theory of the remainder” argued in The Violence of Language (London: Routledge, 1990).
[12] The actor playing this role is, as you might expect, uncredited, and there do not seem to be any websites devoted to male African-American movie personalities. However, I think there is good reason to believe that this person may be called (strangely enough) Not Percival Everett.
[13] Maybe not so unimportant if you want to buy into the religious interpretation included in the “Symbolism and substexts” addendum.
[14] A set of six uncaptioned stills immediately follows this paragraph and occupies all of page 117. However, the six stills do not correspond to what Gallagher has written, and the sequence he is discussing does not entirely correspond to what he has written either. Yet at the same time, his perception of what is going on in this sub-sequence seems entirely accurate to me, which is why I have quoted it here.
[15] Perhaps so, but the two dialogues between Rogers and Walthall in the film fall noticeably flat because of Walthall’s formal, old-style stage training. He just can’t relax and sound like a human being. This is not a criticism of Walthall’s acting style.
[16] Cf. Larry in a similar coat – and role – in Doctor Bull.
[17] There is an insignificant problem here, which is that I don’t see the gleam that Gallagher does. Indeed I think that the Reverend Brand is a character incapable of taking any pleasure whatsoever from Priest’s slightly underhand tactic. However, Brand came to Priest the night before with the story he is about to tell, and he has just witnessed Priest tricking Maydew into opening this line of testimony. He knows what he must do to get Gillis off. And, of course, Gallagher is absolutely right to concentrate on how Brand’s testimony is staged for the court and for us.
[18] Ford uses “Dixie” similarly in both Steamboat ‘Round The Bend and The Prisoner of Shark Island.
[19] In case you are wondering (I did), “roly-poly” is later applied to a white actor, Eugene Palette, in Gallagher’s section on Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. “Sloe-eyed”, which often means having “slanted” eyes, occurs just this once.
[20] McDaniel had been appearing in movies, uncredited, for about two years before receiving her first screen credit in Judge Priest.
[21] Stephen Foster’s music would have been considered racist by progressives in the African-American show business community, and in some sections of the white progressive community as well, when Judge Priest was produced.
[22] See Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans, New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970. For example, “Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other” (p 22).
[23] It is interesting that the IMDb says that “Little Brown Jug” is “sung a cappella by Hattie McDaniel with modified lyrics” when, in the print on this DVD at least, it is Fetchit who sings a few words of the song and plays a bit of it on his harmonica. See
[24] Why are such scenes almost always called “lynch scenes” when lynching rarely occurs in them?
[25] I like to think that Step improvised the suggestion that he play ‘Marching through Georgia’ instead of ‘Dixie’. It is certainly one of the slyest things he got to do in a Hollywood movie.
[26] Eyman’s commentary claims that the script for the film specifies that Rogers’ steamboat blows up just as it wins the race. If someone had cut that bit out of my movie, I would have been pissed off too.
[27] Gallagher explicitly acknowledges Peter Rollins’ article, “Will Rogers and the relevance of nostalgia” in American History / American Film (New York: Unger, 1979) as the source of the idea about Fetchit’s membership in the con community.
[28] For those unfamiliar with the lyrics, see the Wikipedia entry for the song at
[29] Anne Shirley was born Dawn Paris. She began her career in 1922 as Dawn O’Day. In 1934, just one year before Steamboat ‘Round The Bend was released’ she appeared as Anne Shirley playing the character of Anne Shirley in Fox’s Anne of Green Gables. It seems to me that she has just as many identities as the Jonah character, and one more than Stepin Fetchit.
[30] “Sheepishly” is not the word I would use here. (Jes’ sayin’ is all.)
[31] Work it out.
[32] Slide’s commentary is extremely interesting on this issue, both in point of what is now accepted by many as historical fact and in terms of how the film itself was developed. Gallagher devotes a footnote to the divergence between recent academic opinion on the issue and efforts to have Mudd formally exonerated as well (fn 239, p. 623). I must point out that it is often accepted that the film is declaring Mudd innocent of conscious treasonous action. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) fails to fully exonerate its male protagonist – which it does – then so does The Prisoner of Shark Island.

Endnotes for Addendum: Symbolism and subtexts in Doctor Bull

[1]  Religious symbolism is surely not the only kind of symbolism one can find in Doctor Bull. Anyone reading the few paragraphs below will find plenty of reason to imagine subtexts having to do with sex and fertility and/or socio-politics, for example.
[2]  Located at
[3] I am upset that Doctor Bull’s cook is called Susan and not Mary, because that cook’s sickness is the first intimation that we have that there is typhoid in the community and if she were called Mary she would be Typhoid Mary.
[4] At Aeclectic Tarot, The books I have consulted in writing these paragraphs are: Papus (Gérard Encausse), The Tarot of the Bohemians (1892. Trans & rprt New York: Arcanum Books 1958); J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (1958. Trans New York: Philosophical Library 1962); Oswald Wirth, Le tarot des imagiers du moyen age (Paris: Tchou, Editeur 1966; this book too is presumably a reprint since Wirth died in 1943); Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero, The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot(St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications 1996). Page numbers from these books appear in the text of this addendum as references for direct quotations.
[5] See Todorov, Symbolism and Interpretation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 97-130 and 163-170.
[6] From
[7] My translation. Let me remind the reader of May and Joe’s last name again, Tupping, and its association with “tup”, the ram. I suspect that if I knew more about the tarot I would be able to fold May and Joe, as well as Virginia Banning and her invisible German mule, into this symbolic subtext.
[8] From Thirteen’s commentary at
[9] From Thirteen’s commentary at
[10] The Emperor is the secular ruler and thus allied with power, domination, will, certainty – “a Pluto imprisoned in the centre of things”, Wirth calls him (p. 132, my translation). One tends to get a bad impression of the Emperor even from the most sympathetic commentaries. In the film Banning, his wife and two other sisters act as one.
[11] The name of the town in the film, New Winton, can be obliquely related to the imperial pretence of the Banning family. The best known real New Winton is an artificial village in Scotland created in the mid-nineteenth century by Lady Ruthven (whose given name was Mary) for the workers on her grand estate at Winton. A picturesque hamlet was established as an adjunct to the family’s grand house – a kitsch version of actual human settlement in the mode of other architectural follies and company towns. New Winton is now, of course, conserved and preserved as an example of historic settlement from a better time, but a despotic impulse worthy of the figure depicted as the Emperor by the tarot decreed the original into existence, however benevolent we may believe the impulse’s inspiration. (See and
It seems likely to me that the name of New Winton must be intended to bear some symbolic significance in Doctor Bull, if only because other names are significant, but I am not really all that certain that Lady Ruthven’s New Winton is being directly indicated in spite of the happy coincidence of its creation. I do believe that we are meant to recognise a correspondence between “New Winton” and “New Jerusalem”, however.
[12]  Thirteen, at See the sections for each card’s “blocked” interpretation.

Endnotes for Addendum: Missing the man: Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit

[1] While I have been writing this addendum I have benefited from being able to correspond with John Willis, a friend for over 50 years. John knows more about the African-American show business traditions that spawned Stepin Fetchit, and a great deal more about the blues tradition, than I do. However, the things said about those traditions in this essay come from me, not from John. What I have gained from my friend in this instance has been the chance to discuss Lincoln Perry and his character with someone who sympathises with (or at least is willing to tolerate) what I am trying to do. It has been like talking over the stuff we used to talk about back when we lived in Burton-Judson.
[2] Mel Watkins, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005), p. 60. Subsequent references to this book will appear as page numbers within brackets in the main text.
[3] Williams’ career is summarised on pp. 31-35 and 173-179 of G. William Jones, Black Cinema Treasures: Lost and Found (Denton: University of North Texas Press 1991). It was the Amos ‘n’ Andy television show that had effects on Fetchit’s career, as should become apparent further on.
[4] Watkins does not mention that Benchley was, at the time of the release of Hearts in Dixie, engaged in making sound comedy shorts for Fox, the studio that employed Stepin Fetchit and had produced Hearts in Dixie. Benchley’s was a very popular series, dependent on Benchley’s writing and delivery, which continued on and off with one studio or another into the forties, and is considered pretty classic these days. Benchley then, would have had some exposure to Fetchit’s work at Fox, and it is even possible that his very favourable review may have been influenced by the studio.
[5] I have based my remarks about how black-white relations are treated in Dimples on the comments for the film headed “Interesting Racial Angles” by Michael E. Barrett and found on the IMDb site at:
[6]This brief bit can be seen as “Stepin Fetchit Rap (from the 1945 musical ‘Big Timers’)” on YouTube. The material referred to as a “rap” actually appears to be a more or less traditional “toast” or a very good pastiche of one; it is followed by what appears to be a condensed version of Fetchit’s standard exit routine.
[7] There is no such thing as coincidence. I think the aural evidence is very strong that Hilda Offley is the person who plays Genesis, the African-American woman prisoner, to such strong effect in Ford’s Up The River.
[8] My transcription of what Fetchit says differs from Watkins’ (247). The print of Miracle in Harlem that I have seen comes from the “Harlem Double Bill” series of DVDs distributed by Alpha Home Entertainment (ALP 59190).
[9] Watkins calls this soundie Richard’s Reply. I have seen it as a two part video on YouTube under the title “Lazy Richard”.
[10]  The source of this version is choppy and the clip clearly has chunks missing.
[11]  I know, I know: you don’t think “breeding” is very likely. Neither do I really, even if a lot of Marie Galante has to do with almost every male in it attempting to breed with the title character. And yet, after all, there is no doubt that Fetchit, like other vaudeville performers, was adept at sneaking lewd ideas past the censors.
[12] Currently the IMDb credits Fetchit with the words and music of the song, which it calls “Shim Shammy”. This is interesting because the song “Shim Sham Shimmy” is nowadays almost always credited to Champion Jack Dupree, who was in Chicago in 1934 when Marie Galante was released, started a career as a boxer in 1935, and did not record “Shim Sham Shimmy” until 1953. However, Dupree’s rocking blues is not what Fetchit is singing. (Other songs with that title that were current at the time include one credited to Jimmy Dorsey and another to Clarence Williams, but neither of them resembles what Fetchit sings either.)
[13] See Willie Mae Thornton, who was born in 1926, died one year before Lincoln Perry did.
[15]  I thank Ian Johnson for permission to use this paragraph from his compelling translation. The translation of all of the story can be found at

Created on: Thursday, 22 April 2010

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →