John Ford’s wistful, sentimental comedy The Sun Shines Bright is placid in tone, but broiling with complexity in its themes and politics. The film most beloved by Ford himself among many canonical masterpieces, for the most part the interest in this slice of post-Civil War Deep South Americana lies in its complicated depiction of race and the Confederate legacy.
Set in 1905 in Fairfield, Kentucky, the loose-limbed narrative melds three of Irvin S. Cobb‘s ‘Judge Priest’ short stories. Charles Winninger is Billy Priest, Confederate veteran and local judge. Priest is up for re-election and a series of events threaten to undermine him in the run-up to polling. But although deeply flawed – functionally alcoholic, condescending to the town’s black residents, and wedded to the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War – he’s principled to a fault. He stands up to a lynch mob intent on hanging a young black man, and leads the funeral procession for a prostitute who had returned to the town from which she had been driven decades earlier.
The Sun Shines Bright is a difficult film to parse in 2022. A film that harks back to schismatic 19th century division, set in 1905 and made half a century later, some of Ford’s vision is progressive, even radical. But a further 70 years further on, some of the director’s more forward-thinking elements can seem clad in a specific armour of paternalistic muscular Christianity that hasn’t quite had the livery of the ‘white man’s burden’ scraped away.
The film’s tricky racial politics are exemplified by the presence of Stepin Fetchit, the alter-ego of actor Lincoln Perry, as the judge’s assistant Jeff Poindexter (Perry would habitually play a given role in character as Fetchit). His ‘Laziest Man in the World’ persona, and his vocal delivery, a semi-intelligible screech somewhere between King of the Hill‘s Boomhauer and Bobcat Goldthwait, were criticised by black leaders as far back as the ’30s when the character was at its peak (he appeared in Ford’s first take on Cobb’s stories, 1934’s Judge Priest). Despite the monstrous stereotype, some modern black criticism has sought to recast Fetchit as a misunderstood trickster figure.
It would be much easier to dismiss The Sun Shines Bright as a creaky anachronism if it wasn’t effused with such warmth and affection for its characters. Not least, Winninger’s cranky, but charming leading performance hits a sweet spot that Walter Matthau would make his own in later decades. And it’s no less serpentine in its attitudes than the perennially-lauded The Searchers.
Despite a few scenes that will make modern teeth itch in discomfort (the first 15 minutes are particularly difficult), the power of a scene like the funeral procession can’t be denied. It distils all of Ford’s qualities as a director into one dialogue-free masterclass in social commentary and the maxim of show-don’t-tell. But of course, no-one could be criticised for failing to make it that far.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 24 Jan 2022