Order in the court! The legalized atmosphere in the world of cinema can be as compelling as it is comical. The courtroom shenanigans on the big screen — no matter how serious or silly — always has its requisite overseer to control the proceedings: The judge! Hence, we will take a look at the gravel-banging justices in the Top 10 Movie Judges and see how they hold up as masterful magistrates in the movies.
In ALPHABETICAL order here are the Top 10 Movie Judges selections to consider:
#10 Judge Roy Bean from “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” (1972)
Filmmaker John Huston’s western “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” introduced Paul Newman as the titular titan of law and order despite his outlaw status. Bean, left for dead, returns to the dusty Texan town of Vinegaroon and appoints himself the community’s judge after violently dispensing with the roguish riff-raff that were responsible for his previous dire circumstances. In return, the townsfolk of Vinegaroon were most appreciative of the defiant Bean as law-enforcing protector of the region “west of the Rio Pecos.” In essence, Judge Roy Bean was very unorthodox in the way he conducts business for the safety of his town. Using his former instincts of a former law-breaker, Bean was able to manipulate the visiting bad element and turn them into his marshals. And when something feels unappealing to Bean he will be the first one to shoot first and hang heads without hesitation. This frontier troubleshooter was complex and flawed . . . a renegade judge for a renegade time.
#9 Judge Mel Coffey from “Inherit the Wind” (1960)
Veteran character actor Harry Morgan’s portrayal of Judge Mel Coffey in filmmaker Stanley Kramer’s captivating courtroom drama “Inherit the Wind” is not what one would call memorable per se. Nevertheless, Morgan’s Judge Coffey did preside over the controversial Scopes “Monkey” Trial where the hot topic involving educational and legalized debates about evolution versus creationism determined the fate of a southern schoolteacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York from TV’s “Bewitched”) that dared to instruct his science students on the Darwinism agenda thus violating an existing Tennessee state law. The handling of such a button-pushing subject matter in the 1920’s seemingly overshadows whatever input Judge Coffey had on the pressing proceedings. In all fairness, the legal deliberation over man’s humble beginnings as a species does not just eclipse Morgan’s on-screen effectiveness as His Honor Coffey, but it also usurps the explosive performances of Spencer Tracy’s Henry Drummond and Fredric March’s Matthew Harrison Brady as the dueling attorneys in front of Coffey’s busy-minded bench.
#8 Judge Doom from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988)
Indeed, the notorious Judge Doom (a.k.a. “Baron Von Rotten”) definitely belonged in the wacky world of cartoons in the rollicking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. As portrayed by veteran Emmy-winning actor Christopher Lloyd, Judge Doom was the menacing legal overseer of Toontown and the capital punishment crusader that loved subjecting his law-breaking toons to the deadly concoction of “the Dip.” The main agenda for the feared Judge Doom is getting his hands on the evasive Roger Rabbit for the murder of Marvin Acme. YIKES! The devious Doom (revealed to be the real killer of Acme courtesy of the vivacious Jessica Rabbit) is haunting in his human form but he can change into a toon with peculiar powers that include turning his right arm into an anvil and dangerous buzz saw. Convincingly colorful and creepy, Judge Doom finally got his just desserts by perishing in his own dreadful Dip but not before causing considerable havoc to Roger and the skittish residents of Toontown.
#7 Judge Dredd from “Judge Dredd” (1995)
The disastrous 1995 sci-fi film “Judge Dredd” was a cinematic joke in most people’s eyes back when it was released. Two-time Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone slipped into the shoes of the explosive Judge Joseph Dredd character with awkward, over-the-top results. The movie may have been a bomb (often humorously referred to as “Judge Dreadful”) but for the most part audiences still loved the philosophical feisty Dredd with his brand of no nonsense justice as he assumed the multitasking role of jury, judge and executioner when hunting down the law-violating scum that threatened his futuristic dystopian metropolis. In this invocation, Dredd is framed for murder and convicted, and must overcome his dire circumstances but not before making his destructive mark in Mega-City One. Hmmm . . . a street-wise law enforcer with a “shoot first” mentality. Clearly, some may find the iron-fisted Dredd a bizarre breath of fresh air to behold.
#6 Judge Chamberlain Haller from “My Cousin Vinny” (1992)
Hands down the greatest cinema judge from the bench ever to appear with an infectious combination of intimidation and low-key riotous wit is the Alabama-based conservative Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne). The interaction between the no-nonsense judge and the unprepared New Jersey-bred lawyer Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) is an instant classic in courtroom confrontations. Who does not routinely recite the incredulous southern judge’s “the two yoots” (translation: The two youths) catchphrase that the diminutive lawyer utters when defending his young cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) and his buddy Stan (Mitchell Whitfield). One cannot keep a straight face when Judge Haller admonishes the frazzled urban ethnic-sounding counselor from the Northeast. Sadly, Gwynne (a.k.a. the iconic Herman Munster from the 60’s sitcom “The Munsters”) would pass away in the film’s aftermath as Judge Chamberlain Haller would be his last film role. But still Gwynne’s humorous interplay with Pesci’s lax legal eagle would instrumentally drive the zany pulse of the solidly amusing “My Cousin Vinny.”
#5 Judge Henry X. Harper from “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
How would you like to be the judge on the bench when hearing the case of a questionable Santa Claus fighting for his right to be considered a legitimate Yuletide soul? Well, Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) had that distinct opportunity in the classic George Seaton directed “Miracle on 34th Street.” An old man calling himself Kris Kringle (Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn) proclaims being the real Santa Claus, but others are very skeptical of him including a little girl named Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) who, while taught to be cynical, believes in the jolly spirit of Ol’ Saint Nick. Eventually, Kringle is deemed insane and is soon locked up. However, the sanity of Gwen’s Santa Claus is put on trial in Harper’s courtroom. Can good old Kringle emerge victorious as the beloved Santa Claus and convince Harper and the court that he is the true-blue holiday icon worth believing in?
#4 Chief Judge Dan Hayward from “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961)
Filmmaker Stanley Kramer’s stirring wartime courtroom drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” remains on of the most compelling and confrontational films to address the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s inhumane war activities. The film concentrated on four German judges accused of pushing and reinforcing the daunting Nazi-oriented policies that contributed to the chilling mass murder of the Jewish people deemed to be sub-human and inconsequential. Two-time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy is superb as the American-appointed Chief Judge Dan Haywood who must preside over this critical and controversial case in Germany as pressure mounts for this publicized 1948 legal showdown to quietly subside. After all, the war crimes against these notorious quartet of German judges may trigger more aggression in Nazi Germany — something that allied governments around the world are deeply cautious about. Thus, Hayward’s occupied bench must proceed with careful consideration regarding the emotional and disturbing ties to this toxic trial that encompasses “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
#3 Judge William Morrissey from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996)
Okay, there is nothing really memorable or impacting about Judge William Morrissey from the eye-opening biopic “The People vs. Larry Flynt” except for one major factor — casting the real-life pornographer Larry Flynt in a cameo as the judge that hears the heralded courtroom case of his fictional self (played by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson). The crude and unconventional Flynt — the unlikely crusader for the first amendment right for free speech and expression to bring smut to the forefront without crippling censorship — routinely enjoyed making a mockery out of the proceedings in front of Morrissey’s (and other judges’) bench. Director Milos Forman appreciated the irony in having the real-life Flynt don a black robe and take on the critical task of dealing with his off-kilter screen counterpart’s circus act antics all in the name of seeking justice for the hedonistic hobby of appreciating pornography in the mainstream.
#2 Judge Elihu Smails from “Caddyshack” (1980)
The late Emmy Award-winning Ted Knight gained a decent following for seven TV seasons playing the buffoonish yet lovable WJM-TV news anchor Ted Baxter on the cult classic sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” However, Knight would soon make his comical mark once again in the equally cult classic big screen sports romp “Caddyshack” playing yet another pompous character — this time the stiff-nosed and flustered Judge Elihu Smails whose branded snobbery fits the uptight surroundings of the exclusive golf club catering to the wealthiest movers-and-shakers membership. In particular, Judge Smails patience and prickly demeanor would be tested comically and chaotically when a potential member, big bucks real estate mogul Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), gets under his skin. The manic mannerisms and surly persona of Knight’s Judge Smails is deliciously entertaining and ranks right up there with popular intolerant movie judges such as Judge Chamberlain Haller of “My Cousin Vinny.”
#1 Judge Taylor from “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1963)
Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) was a personal friend of conscientious lawyer Atticus Finch (Oscar winner Gregory Peck). With the upcoming trial involving a black disabled man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) falsely accused of raping a hysterical young white woman in the sleepy southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, Taylor knew that Robinson was not going to get a fair defense in his biased court packed with angered white spectators. Hence, Taylor convinced Finch to take on the cause for defending the vulnerable Robinson knowing how his fellow residents would feel about his “turncoat” efforts in being the legal mouthpiece for the despised black man believed to be the typical “savage” that sexually violated one of their own. In quieter ways Judge Taylor was as heroic and idealistic as Atticus Finch because he wanted his friend’s integrity and intelligence to submerge the racial tension that mounted in his segregated courtroom.
Frank Ochieng has been an online movie reviewer for various movie outlets throughout the years before coming on board at CMC. Previously, Frank had been a film critic for The Boston Banner (now The Bay State Banner) urban newspaper and had appeared on Boston's WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM for an 11-year run as a recurring media commentator/panelist on the "Movie/TV Night" overnight broadcasts. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Internet Film Critics Society (IFCS). Frank is a graduate of Suffolk University in the historic section of Boston's Beacon Hill.