A native of Kentucky who later relocated to New York where he became the highest paid reporter in the United States, it was in his home state that the writer Irvin S Cobb set many of the three hundred short stories he penned in his career, among them those featuring Judge William Pittman Priest who later appeared in two films directed by John Ford, Judge Priest of 1934 with Will Rogers and The Sun Shines Bright of 1953 starring Charles Winninger in the title role.
Adapted by Laurence Stallings from three of Cobb’s stories, The Sun Shines Bright, The Mob from Massac and The Lord Provides, the film was a more satisfying experience for Ford who later regarded it as the favourite of his films, the previous adaptation having been cut by the studio about concerns over the material, the latter also cut on original release but now restored to 101 minutes for Eureka’s new Blu-ray presentation.
Set in Fairfield County in 1905, former Confederate officer Judge Priest is up for re-election, his popular rival Horace K Maydew associating himself with the victorious forces of the Union, yet despite Priest’s loyalty to the past and his friend General Fairfield he is open minded and liberal, employing a black assistant, Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit), and conspicuously avoiding prosecuting the madame of the local brothel, much to the consternation of the conservative “temperance women” of the town.
The return of the handsome rogue Ashby Corwin (John Russell) and his courtship with Doctor Lake’s adopted daughter Lucy Lee (Arleen Whelan) already ruffling feathers, so tongues are set wagging by the arrival of an ailing woman who takes lodging at Mallie Cramp’s establishment and wishes to see Miss Lake before she passes, but any burgeoning society scandal is swept aside when a young woman from neighbouring Tornado is assaulted and a local black boy accused of the crime, pursued by a lynch mob.
A not entirely groomed mongrel of three progenitors further hampered by what can only alluded to rather than said and with many important developments occurring offscreen, The Sun Shines Bright would already have been a product of its time even if it had not looked back a further five decades to a town still in thrall to a fading and tarnished past which was never glorious to begin with, the members of the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic pompous, well-fed and well-armed windbags whose continuing obsession with flags and ceremony borders on tragic.
While it would be rare for a narrative of this time set in the south to feature any black characters so centrally or positively and the intention is laudable the representations are awkward stereotypes, though perhaps the same can be said of the rest of the ensemble, the whiskey loving judge, the coonskin capped backwoodsmen, pitchfork waving farmers and doe eyed Miss Lake who for a moment considers restraining the horse pulling her runaway carriage then opts instead to swoon, but for all the clumsiness the final scenes pull together as surely as the townsfolk to present a community diverse and divided but also capable of uniting in beautiful harmony when faced with tragedy.