John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety

Charles W... sldfj asfdj  Image: lsdkjf

Charles Winninger won’t talk politics today, gentlemen. *Wink!*  Image: Alt Screen

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.

skdfj alksfj d Image: blu-ray.com

Stepin Fetchit as Winninger’s “assistant” (read: Servant). Image: blu-ray.com

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.

This post is part of the JOHN FORD BLOGATHON hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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21 comments

  1. This sounds like an incredibly progressive film tackling some heavy issues. I’ve never heard of this film and indeed need to see it. Thanks so much for once again bringing such thoughtfulness about great film-making. And I love the term, ‘corn squeezings’ I believe I’ve heard it used on The Andy Griffith Show and it tickled me then as well! Cheers

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    1. You know, I’d never heard the term “corn squeezin’s” before, and I was so taken with it I’ve been using it ever since – ha ha!

      I’d be interested in hearing what you think about the film if you do have the chance to see it. :)

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  2. I’ve never been convinced that “The Sun Shines Bright” really was Ford’s favourite from among his films. I don’t doubt his fondess for Irvin Cobb’s stories or, perhaps, at this time in his life, having nostalgic feelings toward his early career and Will Rogers. But it seems to me he just liked confounding interviewers and critics as much as anything else in this world with outlandish statements. Of course, I could be very wrong. He often confounds me.

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  3. I’m not familiar with this film at all – or the work of Irvin S. Cobb. Though it sounds like a stereotypical (though well made) artifact, still – it’s John Ford – and I’m very curious to see it.

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  4. Interesting take.

    I admit up front that The Sun Shines Bright has always been a difficult film for me to like with a capital L, but since Ford claimed it to be his favorite a couple of times, I’ve been darned determined over the years to TRY and appreciate it. Its extreme simplicity is so distracting that it becomes easy to dismiss, particularly during the first viewing. Likewise, Ford’s portrayal of African-Americans is so steeped in what was the early-to-mid-20th century cinematic norm that, through our 21st century viewfinder it does, superficially at least, come across as “faux piety.” But in reality, Ford was taking a pretty liberal stance with a subplot like this one for 1953.

    Complex as he was, Ford was nevertheless a man of his time. Having been born in the 1800s, he grew up in an era in which Separate but Equal was the Law, and African-Americans were still thought of by many as “The White Man’s Burden” – which was the title of a Rudyard Kipling poem that put forth the popular idea that it was the “civilized” whites’ duty to “civilize” people of color. (Incidentally, Ford’s grandson-biographer referred to Ford as – paraphrasing here, as I don’t have the quote in front of me – The American Kipling. That, to my mind, is oversimplifying, but it’s somewhat accurate.)

    To be fair to Ford’s portrayal of Blacks in TSSB, education was withheld from many African-Americans for many decades after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., and in the South Jim Crow laws left them with virtually no civil rights to speak of, so it’s believable for the purposes of the film that they needed a savior in a position of authority to deliver them from persecution. Also, many Blacks living in the South were forced to act like “ludicrous caricatures” for their own survival well into the 1900s. But the film, after all, is primarily about Judge Billy Priest, so it was Ford’s prerogative to make him the forward-looking hero of a fictional, hate-induced standoff in the 1890s. TSSB is a remake of a 1934 Ford picture whose title was Judge Priest – he IS the hero of the film.

    It actually holds up for me, story-wise. I think what contributes most to making the whole affair seem flawed from our 2014 perspective is the broad acting style that was prevalent in the ’50s, and the fact that Charles Winninger was the closest thing to an A-list actor in the film. Let’s face it, there were no Brandos or Clifts or Poitiers delivering those lines.

    The following video essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was helpful for me in appreciating TSSB. Check it out:

    Also, if you haven’t read Tag Gallagher’s Ford book, I highly recommend that you drop whatever you’re doing and read it right now. His incredibly in-depth examination of TSSB is as good a place to start as any. The entire book is free online for download:

    http://home.sprynet.com/~tag/tag/

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  5. I watched this film ONLY because it was directed by John Ford. And I couldn’t be more pleased. I also noted that Charles Winninger was in lots of other movies, some directed also by Ford.
    The woman with a dubious reputation was my favorite character. When Winninger follows the funeral was mesmerized by the beauty of the scene.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

    http://criticaretro.blogspot.com/2014/07/o-cavalo-de-ferro-iron-horse-1924.html

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    1. You’re right – the funeral scene is breathtaking. It was so well done!

      My favourite character was the district attorney running against Winninger. He was so full of hot air! I wished there were more scenes with him.

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  6. I’m surprised that this is Ford’s favourite movie, and I’ve always wondered if he was so keen to promote it personally as it didn’t match up to some of his other work. I’ve only seen it once but I agree with your analysis on equality, I remember feeling uncomfortable watching it the whole way through.

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    1. I’m surprised, too, and the more I think about it the more I wonder if this is actually true. (He would choose this film over something like “The Quiet Man”? Really?) But you make a good point about the promotion aspect, which I had not considered. Thanks for dropping by!

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  7. Your post was very thought-provoking. It is too bad Ford didn’t elaborate on why this was his favorite film. It might have helped us understand why he made the movie like he did. I like your phrase “faux piety”. And I might have to also adopt the term corn squeezings. Sounds so much more innocent than alcohol!:) Great post, Ruth!

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  8. Late in catching up with the JF Blogathon. I wrote about Ford’s Sgt. Rutledge, that starred Woody Strode. I like to think, that in some way with that movie, Ford was trying to redeem how he had earlier portrayed black characters in earlier films. In Sgt. Rutledge, there is still prejudice in the air, but the Buffalo Soldiers-black soldiers that served in the US Calvary-are portrayed as regular men, brave men, ready to serve their country.

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