Guess which of John Ford‘s films was his favourite. Come on, take a wild guess.
The Sun Shines Bright is not a typical John Ford movie. There isn’t a single A-list actor, nor does it appear to have an expensive budget. Despite this (or because of it?) the director labeled it as his favourite.
The Sun Shines Bright is about a small southern town at the turn of the twentieth century. It is based on three short stories written by American humourist Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944).
The town’s circuit judge, played by Charles Winninger, is facing re-election. Winninger’s character is a down-to-earth man who refers to his drink as “corn squeezin’s”, and scurries about helping his fellow townspeople. However, he is always in election mode and often mockingly protests, “No politics today, gentlemen.” It’s a rather disingenuous campaign strategy when you think about it.
While the campaigning is afoot, an African American teenager (Elzie Emanuel) is arrested for raping a white girl. Winninger works to calm the town’s anger, especially when a lynch mob marches toward the jail where Emanuel is held.
In the midst of all this, a young woman who was adopted as a child (Arleen Whelan) tries to find the truth about her birth family.
There is a lot to admire about The Sun Shines Bright. It’s beautifully filmed, like all of Ford’s movies, with each shot artfully framed. It doesn’t easily slide easily into one genre, so it is more reflective of actual life. It is a drama and a comedy and a philosophical history.
It’s the kind of movie that should make us think Ford-as-storyteller is a fine humanitarian.
But it doesn’t.
It can’t, because we are watching John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety. This is where words do not match actions, and the discrepancy between the two is so jarring we can hardly concentrate on the plot.
The themes of this film are hypocrisy and redemption, as illustrated by these scenarios:
- a young woman is ostracized by her fellow townsfolk because she was born out of wedlock.
- when a sick woman with a dubious reputation arrives in town, she shunned by “decent” folk and is forced to take refuge at a brothel.
- when a white girl is assaulted, police immediately arrest an African American teenager without proof.
These are thought-provoking themes that should be explored in film. Yet it’s strange that in a movie preaching Equality For All, the director presents African Americans as weak, one-dimensional characters who are completely dependent upon white townsfolk. Subtext: everyone deserves to be equal but them.
These characters have neither original thought nor ambition nor bravery. Really? People who survived slavery – and all that went with it – are now simpering fools?
It’s Faux Piety. Because Ford presents African Americans as ludicrous caricatures, the movie becomes hollow. When Emanuel is found innocent of rape charges, the film celebrates Winninger the Hero instead of examining the actions that imprisoned an innocent teenager to begin with.
We are left wondering: Redemption for some, but not all?
The Sun Shines Bright could have been one of the great films of Ford’s career. Instead, it leaves us feeling like a great premise has been squandered.
The Sun Shines Bright: starring Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell. Directed by John Ford. Written by Laurence Stallings. Republic Pictures Corp., 1953, B&W, 100 mins.