On his birthday, Tom Bailey (Alexander Knox), a hardworking Boston probate judge, learns from his fellow jurists that he has been assigned to the troublesome Winthrop custody case. Tom then discovers that his wife Evelyn (Frieda Inescort) and grown daughter Catherine (Martha Hyer) have forgotten his birthday, but have bought expensive hats for themselves. Claiming that he is merely following the dictates of the law, Tom rules against Joan Winthrop (Myrna Dell), a widow from a lower-class family who is fighting with her rich father-in-law for custody of her son.

Later, Evelyn informs Tom that Catherine has become engaged to wealthy heir John Struthers III (James Warren) and must have fine clothes for her trousseau. Although Tom protests his wife's extravagances and social ambitions, he pays for a lavish wedding and agrees to consider a job as chief counsel at John's father's bank.

On the train to Washington, D.C., however, where he is to do some preliminary work for Struthers, Tom feels suddenly ill and disembarks in the next town. There, Tom is told by small-town doctor Charles P. Boyd (Whitford Kane) that his only problem is an unfulfilling home life. Tom protests Boyd's diagnosis, but finally accepts his offer to go fishing for a few days. The absentminded Tom forgets to mail Evelyn a telegram explaining his change of plans and is shocked to read in the newspaper three days later that he has been reported missing. As Tom is boarding a Boston-bound train, he gives Boyd another telegram to send to Evelyn, but the stubborn doctor tears it up. When Tom finally arrives at his house, he overhears Evelyn nonchalantly discussing his disappearance with her friends and, without revealing himself, turns and leaves.

Sometime later, Tom, now a drifter, arrives in central California and meets Peggy (Ann Sothern), the divorced owner of a roadside diner. The kindhearted Peggy at first believes that Tom, who calls himself Tom Brown, is a petty thief, but soon deduces that he is both honest and educated. Respecting Tom's desire for privacy, Peggy asks him no questions and offers him a job as a short-order cook. Soon, Tom is reveling in the tranquility of his new life and begins dating the popular Peggy. After he realizes he has fallen in love with her, Tom feels compelled to reveal that he is married. Although Peggy insists that Tom's marital status is unimportant to her, Tom is disturbed by the situation. When Peggy then learns that her application to adopt Nan (Sharyn Moffett), an orphan she has befriended, has been rejected because she is single and runs a diner, Tom becomes determined to obtain a divorce and marry her. After assuring Peggy he will return soon, Tom goes to Boston and finds that, during his absence, Catherine has given birth, and in her reduced circumstances, Evelyn has become a kind and thoughtful woman. The reformed Tom then determines to overturn his Winthrop decision, which is being appealed by Mrs. Winthrop. With help from his loyal assistant, Hector Brown (Ian Wolfe), Tom scours his law books for a precedent with which to reverse his own ruling, but is unsuccessful. Tom is about to concede defeat when Peggy calls and inadvertently uses the word "prejudice" to describe his old attitudes. Inspired, Tom rushes to the courthouse and convinces the panel of judges that his previous decision was invalid because he was prejudiced against Mrs. Winthrop. The case eventually winds up in the state Supreme Court, where Mrs. Winthrop is finally awarded custody.

Back in California, Peggy learns that, as a result of Tom's legal success, she will be allowed to adopt Nan. Tom is then offered a position on the Supreme Court, but turns it down, still determined to return to Peggy. To complete his mission, Tom signs his divorce papers and says goodbye to Evelyn, whose dignified graciousness deeply touches him. At the train station, Tom overhears a woman referring to him as an "old man" and suddenly begins to re-evaluate his recent life.

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“The Judge Steps Out”, based on the never-solved disappearance of Judge Crater in 1930, was the inspiration for this RKO film and quite a movie it is.

Filmed between mid-January and late March 1947, “The Judge Steps Out” was withheld from American release for nearly two years; before making the rounds in the U.S., it was shown in Great Britain under the title “Indian Summer”. Its Manhattan premiere was at the Palace Theatre on June 2, 1949, and was followed by its wide release on June 11, 1949. By the time the movie premiered, four cast members, William B. Davidson, Paul Everton, Elmer Jerome, and Carl Faulkner had already passed away.

As many actors do nowadays, they write material for themselves to act or direct to showcase their talents. And Alexander Knox, as early as the 1940’s was no different. Co-writing the screenplay with director Boris Ingster, Knox was able to showcase his Broadway talents in the best way imaginable.

Ann Sothern is gorgeous as ever and extremely sympathetic as the roadside diner owner who falls head over heels for Knox. Frieda Inescort is wonderfully bitchy in role of Evelyn, Tom’s unsympathetic wife. I would have loved to have seen the catfight these two would have had, and it’s quite the toss up on who would have won!

If you haven’t seen this film, try to catch it on TCM some night. It is definitely worth staying up late for. If you are an avid film collector, grab this one at the Warner Archive website after you’ve seen it. I guarantee you’ll want to see it again and again.