The Sun Shines Bright (1953) – Film Review
Director: John Ford
Cast: Arleen Whelan, Charles Winninger, John Russell
By Sarah Morgan
John Ford’s name has become synonymous with the Western genre, and rightly so. After all, this is the man who brought us such classics as The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name but a few.
However, there was far more to him than that. Held in high regard by contemporaries such as Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Ford could turn his hand to pretty much anything, including comedy, drama and literary adaptation. All three are represented in The Sun Shines Bright, a charming if largely forgotten entry on his CV from 1953.
“Wisdom and compassion”
Despite its title, the film has been overshadowed by other, more memorable movies Ford made around the same time, such as The Quiet Man, Mogambo and Mister Roberts. Nevertheless, its release on Blu-ray could give it a much-needed boost.
Unlike the majority of the director’s other projects, there’s no major star here – the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda or James Stewart gave many of his other movies heaps of appeal before anyone had even bought a ticket. But in The Sun Shines Bright, it’s character actor Charles Winninger who takes the lead role of Judge Billy Priest, while the script is based on short stories by Irvin S Cobb which were published by The Saturday Evening Post during the early part of the 20th century.
Priest initially appears to be a rather foolish old man who’s perhaps a little past his sell-by date. However, as the day for his re-election grows ever-closer, he displays the kind of wisdom and compassion necessary to carry out his role. He sets out to save a young black man from a lynching, brings together a long-estranged family, plays Cupid and displays empathy while dealing with a potential scandal.
Winninger is very likeable in the lead role, although the performance of Stepin Fetchit as his black valet will probably be jarring to modern audiences. Some critics have claimed that Fetchit, a hugely popular and successful actor during the 1930s but whose regular portrayal of a supposedly lazy man was deemed embarrassing during the rise of the Civil Rights movement, deserves to be re-evaluated. I’m not convinced – he stands out like a sore thumb, delivering cringeworthy moments every time he opens his mouth.
The Sun Shines Bright wasn’t Ford’s first stab at adapting Cobb’s stories for the screen – in 1934 he released Judge Priest – but it is the best. The film isn’t perfect by any means, but its high points, including the emotional ending, make it well worth a look.
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
Optional English SDH Subtitles
Brand new audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride (author of Searching for John Ford)
New video essay by Tag Gallagher (author of John Ford: Himself and His Movies)
A collector’s booklet featuring a reprint of Judge Priest short story The Lord Provides; a new essay by James Oliver; and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Sun Shines Bright is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £19.99