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Southern Exposure

Charles Winninger and Stepin Fetchit seize the day in John Ford's unsettling THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, now on Blu-Ray/DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  L: good ole boys nostalgia; R: railroaded lynching candidate du jour.
Charles Winninger and Stepin Fetchit seize the day in John Ford's unsettling THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT, now on Blu-Ray/DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. L: good ole boys nostalgia; R: railroaded lynching candidate du jour.
(c) Olive Films/Paramount Home Video

THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT

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“A disturbingly poetic faction of cinema” is how I would concisely describe 1953's anachronistic THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment). Concurrently, that's how I would also term its director – the frustratingly contradictory John Ford.

Even at 101 minutes, the movie is what folks refer to as “a little picture,” mostly due to the absence of stars and large-scale action sequences. Another Ford anomaly. THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT treads dangerous waters for 1953 – a loving (in a Duck Dynasty-approved delusional racial way) depiction of a Kentucky hamlet in 1905; frankly, it’s a pic that would have been uncomfortable (at least for liberally bent northern audiences) to watch in 1930.

The town is a corrupt burg, bristling with election fever. Their old reprobate Judge Priest is about to run for office, probably for the last time. His opposition is an ungainly stodgy candidate (Milburn Stone) from the “foreigner” carpetbagging Southern Democrat contingent (or Dixiecrats, as they later became known). Priest, who infamously shuffles the law to his favor, is a wily, curmudgeonly rascal who handles his court like a minstrel show. He relieves hot summer tension by bringing in his darkies, who proceed to turn the justice system into a musical evening of toe-tapping ditties. The blacks in the town know how to play both sides – easily segueing from a Dem-friendly “Marching Through Georgia” to a rousing rendition of “I Wish I Were in Dixie.” They are the wisest populace in the vicinity, as the whites are incredibly dumb and dumber – buying into the judge's patented brand of malarkey – a dubious political snake oil he's been peddling for nigh on seventy years. If you had to divide the town in two, you'd be right on the button by proclaiming the dichotomy to be half racist and half not-so-racist. Priest belongs to the latter while Ford (mercifully unlike D.W. Griffith) intuitively takes no sides, (supposedly) safely filming his narrative in leisurely reportage fashion.

THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is comprised of a series of notorious episodes, and is based upon Irvin S. Cobb's short stories. Ford himself had previously visited this territory in the 1930s with his Judge Priest movie, starring his favorite actor, Will Rogers. This version isn't so much of a remake as it is a bewildering reminiscence. The original was a congenial look at rural hypocrisy, made palatable by disguising itself as a vehicle for its beloved star. Not so here. Post-Intruder in the Dust/No Way Out, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is a 1950s WTF footnote in Hollywood history. But that's also part of its fascination. Ford, like Priest, is astute enough to realize that times are a-changing – this is the last gasp before giving up the ghost (for Priest, his way of life; for Ford, this kind of picture). The shamefully (albeit terrific) sentimental finale has a weary Priest retreating into obscurity via the confines of his musty domicile while his faithful servant rambles on. It's pure Ford – a la Liberty Valance. The director, a mass of conflicting neuroses, had himself been fired off 1949's Pinky, a Fox drama of a light-skinned Negress passing for white. Zanuck blew a gasket when he saw the initial rushes, accusing Ford of portraying the large African-American cast as a society of Stepin Fetchits (Elia Kazan was quickly brought in to start from scratch). Ford apparently took this to heart, and cast Fetchit as Priest's faithful companion Jeff, a role the actor relished, as he had (with the exception of Anthony Mann's 1952 western Bend of the River) been off the mainstream screen for nearly fifteen years. And, yes, Stepin Fetchit is what Stepin Fetchit does, but genuinely acts no differently from a large portion of the cast – regardless of pigmentation; thus THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT defiantly displays an equal opportunity example of regressive Ford at his lip-biting, certifiable…best. Fuel-on-the-fire case in point: back in the mid-1980s, I was fortunate enough to have a lengthy telephone conversation with writer Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell praised all the film versions of his works, liking and even loving some of them...with one glaring exception, 1942's Tobacco Road. “John Ford totally ruined that show! It remains an embarrassment to me, and it's all his fault. Nobody else. I wish every copy of that picture would perish in a fire. Ford absolutely missed the boat – he just didn't get it. He turned my characters into his beloved shanty Irish trash!” A bit harsh, but not entirely untrue.

What can one say about a director who delighted in belittling and even hampering the careers of the people he held most close? Look at John Wayne's ten-year banishment to Poverty Row or the blackballing of Harry Carey (the man who helped put Ford on the map). Ford's also the guy who memorably cut down HUAC poster boy Cecil B. DeMille – then ferociously went after lefties himself. He openly despised crooked self-serving politicians, but, at his 1973 AFI tribute, tearfully told the nation, “God bless President Nixon.” Let's face it, John Ford was a rabid schizophrenic sociopath, and arguably America's greatest motion-picture director.

No doubt about it, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT's happy-go-lucky gallery of bigots, rapscallions, illiterates, pedophiles, hookers and hypocrites merrily offers us the darkest side of Southern hospitality. In the forefront, behind the shady tactics of the imminent election, are tales to curdle the blood. A mob demanding the hanging of a young black man (Elzie Emanuel, possibly the smartest person in the movie) comes equipped with everything but fresh sheets; it’s almost a no-brainer that their foul-mouthed potbellied ringleader (Grant Withers) turns out to be the actual villain – a psycho-sadist who raped a teenage white girl. Then there's the negligible non-starter romance between the movie's only publicity promotable thesps, John Russell and Arleen Whalen. Russell is vile loudmouth, dangerously putting the local citizenry at risk with his galloping through the streets, and shooting off firearms. Whalen is the pent-up, cold churchgoing femme de jour, raised by a smug bourgeoisie family who neglected to tell her that her biological mother was a whore.

In fact, it's the return of the now-dying prostitute that provides the impetus for THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT's being. Silent, dignified, stoic, the much-abused yet still striking woman walks through the streets to “da po' side o' town” where she quietly excepts her fate – wanting only to glimpse her daughter before her passing. Like so many Ford females (Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, Joanne Dru and Co. in Wagonmaster, Linda Darnell in My Darling Clementine, Margot Grahame in The Informer), the prostitute is generally the most interesting and honorable participant in the proceedings (A banner over the entrance to Billy Wilder's office heralded the key to Screenwriting 101: “If she's not a whore, she's a bore.”). With her brief appearance, Dorothy Jordan (an underrated screen presence and wife of producer Merian C. Cooper) achieves movie greatness.

The death of Jordan’s character (billed only as Lucy Lee’s mother) brings about THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT's bravura segment, one of the finest in Ford's filmography. Defying the mean-spiritedness of the town, Priest risks his election win by leading a funeral procession for the courtesan smack down Main Street. With increasing guilty remorse, the locals gradually swell alongside the casket: blacks, whites, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats. Cynics might deem it as “black and white and cornbread all over,” but, trust me, it's one of the most gut-wrenching, glorious scenes ever filmed. Scott Eyman, author of the 1999 Ford biography Print the Legend, surmises that it was for this sequence alone that the director undertook the project to begin with. I tend to agree (the funeral of a whore was a scene Ford had been wanting to film for decades).

Laurence Stallings wrote the screenplay for THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT – reportedly sitting on the Ford back-burner since 1949 (the year he was booted off Pinky). It is, like everything Ford, a contradiction of terms. Some lyrical dialogue is mixed in with a plethora of the humor Caldwell found so offensive…and then some (angered Jewish immigrant Ludwig Stossel being denied attending a lynching because his wife “...hid my britches.”). Then again, there's something gratingly noble about watching a symmetrical row of wizened Confederate veterans (Priest included) sitting on a moonlit porch stoop sipping an evening libation, soulfully (and mutely) gazing toward the heavens nostalgically hungering for dem good ole Civil War daze. Like I said at the beginning, disturbingly poetic.

The supporting cast of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT defines the revered John Ford stock company. Aside from those mentioned above, there's Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick, Ernest Whitman, Clarence Muse, Paul Hurst, Henry O’Neill, Hal Baylor, Cliff Lyons, Trevor Bardette, Mae Marsh, Chuck Hayward and a 14-year-old Patrick Wayne. Former silent-screen star and director James Kirkwood appears in a telling role as the town's iconic General. The director’s brother, a Methusala-esque Francis Ford (dubbed Feeney, the actual Ford surname) is teamed with a youthful Slim Pickens as a comedic pair of imbecilic (and endearingly murderous) mountain men. Yeah, I know.

The leading role of Judge Priest is wonderfully essayed by renowned character actor Charles Winninger (likely his one starring role). Rumors suggest that Ford tricked Republic head Herbert Yates into greenlighting the project by dangling the plum of Spencer Tracy as Priest. Frankly, that seems implausible, since Tracy and Ford, while sharing many similarities (Irish heritage, alcoholism, being nasty bastards/brilliant artists and Katharine Hepburn), to put it mildly, didn't get along (a viciousness that surfaced during the filming Up the River in 1930). That said, their subsequent collaboration, 1958's The Last Hurrah, while a difficult clash-of-personalities shoot, fared well with the press (the ending practically mirroring the climax of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT). This was, after all, a personal picture for Ford, and he wanted no dirt-bag competition like Tracy to spoil his fun.

Yates needn't have worried. The relatively scant cost of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT hardly canceled out the still-trunkloads of cash daily filling the studio's coiffures, the result of two recent Ford/Republic blockbusters, Rio Grande and The Quiet Man.

As one might expect in the slowly but ever-changing cultural climate, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT was blasted by the critics upon its release in 1953. The picture was branded an outrage (“...so amateurish as to be almost unprofessional…” shrieked a trade paper), and disappeared virtually overnight. Could Ford have been having the last sarcastic laugh? Was it his history lesson slap-in-the-face for the country he’d take a bazooka for? As abstractly indicated earlier, the director and the movie (and ultimately its lead) become aesthetically interchangeable. If so, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT transcends antiquation, and assumes the mantle of cunningly sardonic. A further clue may lie in the line, “He saved us from ourselves,” unanimously mouthed by the oafish mob of Priest (Ford?). In addition, the movie perfectly coincides with Ford’s later works, which are unrelentlessly bitter. While the hostile reception of THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT was scrutinized as a situation where the punishment befit the crime, some lucky 1950s moviegoers did get to view the picture the following year – when it filled the bottom of a limited double-bill with Republic's hit, Johnny Guitar! Damn!

The Olive Films Blu-Ray is, for the most part, a very good-excellent 1080p transfer. Ford veteran Archie Stout did a tremendous job with the black-and-white cinematography. The visuals, although occasionally grainy, are sharp as hell (if hell is indeed a series of red-hot stalagmites, as cartoons have led us to believe). The audio, featuring an old-fashioned Victor Young score, while more than acceptable, does display an infrequent (but unintrusive) wonkiness. Don't let that stop you.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic Studios, THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT remains a curio that is ultimately rewarding, but one that must be approached with caution. Late in life, Ford unabashedly decreed it his favorite of all his works, and told film critic/director Bertrand Tavernier that despite Yates' creative bookkeeping and penny-pinching ways, “Republic was the studio where I had the most freedom...I did everything the way I wanted.” ‘Nuff said. Like William Pittman Priest, YOU be the judge.

THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]: 1080p High Def-inition]. Mono audio: DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC: 887090058209. Cat #: OF582. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090058100. Cat #: OF581. SRP: $24.95.