928 (69). The Sun Shines Bright (1956, John Ford)

Screened July 12 2008 on DivX in Weehawken NJ TSPDT rank #595 IMDb

Often cited as John Ford's favorite film, this turn-of-the century period piece about folksy Judge Priest, the de facto patriarch of a sleepy Kentucky town, at first seems hopelessly dated with its unrepentant nostalgia for a Confederate society whose implicit bigotry enables a cavalcade of dubious stereotypes, not least of which is the embarrassing jigaboo schtick of African American cultural albatross Stepin Fetchit as Priest's servant. But on formalist terms, this may very well be one of Ford's most perfect achievements, in which he masterfully orchestrates the rites and rituals that govern a small community into a 90 minute cinematic circus. Each scene brims with Ford's inimitably attentive playfulness with decorum, decoding and sometimes debunking the social assumptions guiding each character's interactions, and the sheer beauty of how Ford films bodies moving through space in a civic ballet is a joy to behold.  Ford acknowledges and embraces the contradictions of humanism and prejudice governing class, gender and race relations, such as distinguishing one form of vigilantism (shooting a rapist businessman in the back instead of arresting him) as acceptable while another (lynching a helples black man) is strongly condemned).  Progress and tradition are locked in a perpetual duel over the life of this town, most vividly in the contrasting protocols of local Confederate and Union army veteran meetings and the scandalous funeral of a prostitute where Judge Priest, at risk of losing his job, takes a principled, proto-feminist stand under the guise of common decency. Tensions finally give way to a prolonged procession - bubbling with music and devoid of words - involving the various factions of the entire town.  Filled with collective joy and private sorrow, it strikes a mournal grace note that simultaneously commemorates and laments the man-made forms that maintain and constrict this microcosm of society. 

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Maybe there's one that I love to look at again and again. That's The Sun Shines Bright. That's really my favorite. At Republic, old man [studio head Herbert] Yates didn't know what to do with it. The picture had comedy, drama, pathos, but he didn't understand it. His kind of picture had to have plenty of sex or violence. This one had neither, it was just a good picture. But Yates fooled around with it after I left the studio and almost ruined it.

- John Ford, quoted in Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films, University of California Press, 1986

Usually cited as Ford's personal favourite among his own films, this picks up the story of Judge Priest, his 1934 Will Rogers vehicle, and follows the picaresque experiences of the old judge of Fairfield, Kentucky, some 15 years on, as the twentieth century exerts a pull forward equal to the retrograde magnetism of the Civil War. Winninger's judge casts benevolent paternalism over an American community idealised almost to the extent of the Irish village in The Quiet Man, but still riven with vestiges of racism, religious prudery, and the scars of the North/South divide, and now facing an electoral tussle between the Old and the New. A mosaic of Americana both sentimental and self-consciously critical, with the emphatic past tense its safety valve.

Time Out

Ford is equally revered by the masses and the most rarefied of cinephilic sensibilities. No one makes stronger images, supercharging a single look or gesture with the maximum voltage celluloid can withstand. The sweetest and gentlest film in the series, The Sun Shines Bright (November 29), nearly sustains that energy level from beginning to end.

The one non-western on the program, this 1953 political melodrama was Ford's own personal favorite, and you can feel his love of the material in every quietly ecstatic texture and rhythm. Charles Winninger is warm, restrained, and effortlessly at ease in the role of Judge Priest, a kindly official up for election in turn-of-the-century Kentucky. He will twice do the right thing—throwing moral support behind a dead prostitute and a falsely accused black man—despite the potential effect on his campaign.

Still, contemporary audiences will recoil from its toxic racism. Co-starring Stepin Fetchit—'nuff said—as the judge's gibbering porch monkey, the film's other black characters are restricted to grinning banjo players, Aunt Jemimas, and soulful crooners who show up whenever massa needs a little background gravitas. We can make all sorts of excuses for the era, dig up whatever proof of the great auteur's humanism, deconstruct till the cows come home, but why not keep it simple and acknowledge that the uglier conventions in Ford are inextricable from the sublime? What could be more American?

Nathan Lee, The Village Voice, November 14, 2006


The Sun Shines Bright is one of two or three John Ford pictures one would lke to call his finest. Yet it never had a New York first run, was dismissed by the Times as so many sentimental cliches, and was quickly cut from ninety to sixty-five minutes. Its failure contributed to the demise of Ford's Argosy Pictures, and even today its depictions of blacks may, wrongfully, incite indignation. Any treatment of this obscure film must try to evoke its artistic magnitude and to clarify its attitudes toward race.

It might well have been titled Intolerance, not alone for its theme, but for its formal complexity as well. Unlike Griffith's film, however, its structuring antimonies are simultaneously thematic and formal. And its complex subtleties are hidden beneath an air of effortless ingenuousness. For, despite four intricate story lines and twenty or so district characters, the movie's narrative, composed in tidy sequences with a Mozartian concision and nakedness of technique, unfolds most of the time midst dancing and parading through suites of beautiful and intriguing compositions. Rarely has a movie been so inventive - and playful - with montage.

- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films. p 284. An unequivocally thorough appraisal of the film can be found on pages 284-302.

It seems significant that Ford’s favorites among his own films tended to be the artier efforts that did relatively poorly at the box office:   The Informer (1935);   The Long Voyage Home (1940);   The Fugitive (1946—perhaps the most self-consciously composed of all his pictures);   Wagon Master; and the only non-independent feature in the bunch, a belated spin-off of Judge Priest that he made for Republic Pictures, one of the cheaper studios in Hollywood. This time he approaches the Irvin S. Cobb universe without any stars--unless one counts Stepin Fetchit, the only significant actor apart from Francis Ford (in his last credited screen appearance) who appears in both pictures, and a subversive purveyor of southern black stereotypes whose subtly loaded portrayals of servility masking cunning have often been misunderstood.

A lot of Ford’s most deeply moving work could be described as a meditation on social rituals, and this masterpiece really comes into its own, despite a rather convoluted plot, in its closing stretches, when it becomes nothing but social rituals—a funeral, an election, and a parade. The funeral and the parade (the latter in tribute to the Judge Priest, played here by Charles Winninger, who has recently officiated at the funeral of a fallen woman), and there’s an almost Faulknerian twist and irony in the way that the funeral becomes triumphant while the celebratory parade becomes almost unbearably sad and tragic. This is one of the Ford films in which farce precedes rather than follows tragedy, but the bittersweet aftertaste is no less pungent.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, from "Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films," published in DVD Beaver

Today The Sun Shines Bright is my favourite Ford film, and I suspect that part of what makes me love it as much as I do is that it's the opposite of Gone with the Wind in almost every way, especially in relation to the power associated with stars and money. Although I'm also extremely fond of Judge Priest, a 1934 Ford film derived from some of the same Irvin S. Cobb stories, the fact that it has a big-time Hollywood star of the period, Will Rogers, is probably the greatest single difference, and even though I love both Rogers and his performance in Judge Priest, I love The Sun Shines Bright even more because of the greater intimacy and modesty of its own scale. Apparently Ford did as well, because, along with Wagon Master – which it resembles in its low budget, its lack of stars, and its focus on community – I believe this is the film of his that he cited most often as a personal favourite.

Another favourite film of mine, Carl Dreyer's Gertrud, resembles Ford's in other ways – and not merely because they're set in the same period (apparently 1905 (3) in Ford's film, 1906 in Dreyer's), and tinged with melancholy nostalgia and yearning for still earlier periods. More strangely and paradoxically, I think both films are tragic in feeling despite – or is it because? – they both have what could be described as overdetermined happy endings. Moreover, both films concentrate at great length on highly ceremonial tributes paid to old men for their life's work. And both virtually end with figures retreating through doorways (two doorways in Ford's film), in eerie images that strongly suggest mortality and the ultimate isolation of death.

As a Southerner, it's very hard for me to reconcile all my contradictory feelings about Ford in The Sun Shines Bright, but I'm not sure that there's any necessity for me to do so. Recalling Gertrud again, I think that some works are great because of the challenges they offer to our beliefs. William Faulkner – who of course was a Southerner himself, unlike Ford – has just as many contradictions as Dreyer and Ford, and we don't value him any less because of them.

- Rosenbaum, excerpted from 'The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause,' Rouge, 2004, Originally published in Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit (Viennale, 2004)


Synopsis on Turner Classic Movies

About John Ford

IMDb Wiki

Quotes cited in the They Shoot Pictures Don't They profile page for John Ford:

"In portraying, throughout a long and prolific career, the history of the United States from the Revolutionary War to World War II, Ford continually resorted to a deeply, personal, nostalgic form of legend. If there is no doubt of his importance to the development of the Western, his uniquely sentimental, poetic glorification of the white American's conquest of the wilderness is both picturesque and reactionary." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Belligerent, grandiose, deceitful and arrogant in real life, Ford seldom let these traits spill over into his films. They express at their best a guarded serenity, a sceptical satisfaction in the beauty of the American landscape, muted always by an understanding of the dangers implicit in the land, and a sense of the responsibility of all men to protect the common heritage." - John Baxter (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"Emotionalism is a strong factor in many of Ford's films which, in his later days, showed a nostalgic longing for things past and old values. These may only have existed in Ford's eyes or hazy recollection, but nonetheless they make for skilfully appealing entertainment." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1983)

"Themes of courage, loyalty, rugged individualism, and the American spirit pervade the films of John Ford. The natural vistas in his Westerns hold a romantic view of history with the earmarks of poetic realism. Ford very well may be the greatest director of Westerns in cinema history." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it's not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people's eyes." - John Ford

John Ford has no peers in the annals of cinema. This is not to place him above criticism, merely above comparison. His faults were unique, as was his art, which he pursued with a single-minded and single-hearted stubbornness for sixty years and 112 films. Ford grew up with the American cinema. That he should have begun his career as an extra in the Ku Klux Klan sequences of The Birth of a Nation and ended it supervising the documentary Vietnam! Vietnam! conveys the remarkable breadth of his contribution to film, and the narrowness of its concerns.

Ford's subject was his life and his times. Immigrant, Catholic, Republican, he spoke for the generations that created the modern United States between the Civil and Great Wars. Like Walt Whitman, Ford chronicled the society of that half century, expansionist by design, mystical and religious by conviction, hierarchical by agreement; an association of equals within a structure of command, with practical, patriotic, and devout qualities. Ford portrayed the society Whitman celebrated as "something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of night and day."

Belligerent, grandiose, deceitful, and arrogant in real life, Ford seldom let these traits spill over into his films. They express at their best a guarded serenity, a skeptical satisfaction in the beauty of the American landscape, muted always by an understanding of the dangers implicit in the land, and a sense of the responsibility of all men to protect the common heritage. In every Ford film there is a gun behind the door, a conviction behind the joke, a challenge in every toast. Ford belongs in the tradition of American narrative art where telling a story and drawing a moral are twin aspects of public utterance. He saw that we live in history, and that history embodies lessons we must learn. When Fordian man speaks, the audience is meant to listen—and listen all the harder for the restraint and circumspection of the man who speaks. One hears the authentic Fordian voice nowhere more powerfully than in Ward Bond's preamble to the celebrating enlisted men in They Were Expendable as they toast the retirement of a comrade. "I'm not going to make a speech," he states. "I've just got something to say."

—John Baxter, Film Reference.com