Not John Ford’s finest hour
After the commercial and critical failure of The Fugitive in 1947, John Ford, pictured left in 1948, decided to concentrate on Westerns. They were more bankable, as My Darling Clementine in 1946 had shown, and would help bail out his company Argosy Productions, which was now seriously in the red. In fact he made the best of it by saying that making Westerns “gives me a chance to get away from the smog, … to get away from this town [LA], to get away from people who would like to tell me how to make pictures. You’re working with nice people – cowboys, stuntmen, that kind of person. … It’s a great life, just like a paid vacation. I love to make westerns. If I had my choice, that’s all I would make.” That last comment was probaby a typical Ford exaggeration, but he made the point by doing five Westerns in three years.
Fort Apache, the start of what would become a cavalry trilogy, was the first oater he made following The Fugitive, and, a fine film, it was a box-office and critical success. It was logical to follow up quickly with another. The new picture was to be a color remake of MGM’s 1936 talkie Three Godfathers, itself a remake of Universal’s William Wyler-directed Hell’s Heroes of 1929 and John Ford’s own 1919 silent Marked Men (now sadly lost) and an earlier silent too and it was to be called 3 Godfathers. All the versions were based – actually quite loosely based – on the sentimental Peter B Kyne story The Three Godfathers published in 1912, about three outlaws redeemed by nursing an orphan infant. Click the links for more on those versions.
Ford and his partner in Argosy, Merian Cooper, wanted to make it themselves and get MGM to release it but Metro still held the rights from the 1936 version and anyway there was no way Argosy could raise the $1.25m needed, so Ford and Cooper convinced MGM to make it. Cooper and Ford would produce, and have a very free hand.
Ford commissioned Laurence Stallings and Frank Nugent to write the screenplay. Playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, literary critic, journalist and novelist Stallings would work six times with Ford, including on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the year after, and he had co-written Metro’s Billy the Kid in 1930 and a handful of other Westerns. Nugent, a Ford regular (they worked twelve times together) would write or co-write Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, The Searchers and Two Rode Together, as well as other non-Western Ford pictures.
The writers and director felt free not only to tinker with Kyne’s plot (all versions did that) but also to depart significantly from the previous talkie versions. The biggest difference, plotwise, is probably the inexorable posse, led by Marshal B Sweet (Ward Bond) and including deputies Hank Worden and Ben Johnson (in his film debut). The two deceased outlaws come back as ghosts. At the end, the marshal and Mrs Sweet (Mae Marsh) will adopt the baby. New Jerusalem hardly figures, the town action being in the burg of Welcome, Arizona. There’s also no love interest to speak of. There wasn’t in the book but the 1936 film version made a thing of it (I suppose it was expected) with Irene Hervey having a built-up part as the former fiancée of Bob who still loves him really even though she’s now engaged to the bank cashier. In Wyler’s version too there was the sexy saloon gal Carmelita (Maria Alba) to dally with the outlaw. In 3 Godfathers, however, there’s a token banker’s daughter, Ruby (Dorothy Ford) but she has a brief scene in the first reel and one in the last and that’s it.
Trains figure quite largely, too, a change that might have surprised author Kyne, who emphasized remoteness, isolation and desert. Kyne didn’t die till 1957 so he would certainly have seen Ford’s version of his tale. The final scene of the receding train might have been in Ford’s mind when he shot the end of Liberty Valance.
As for the leaders of the cast, Ford lined up some of his other regulars for the cast: John Wayne topped the bill, of course. Indeed, the trailer told audiences that the film was “brought to you by John Ford and John Wayne, the same director-actor team that gave you Stagecoach and Fort Apache”, so that was a bit of an honor for Duke.
Wayne projected a very different persona than his driven Dunson in Red River or his tough but decent York in Fort Apache. He is named not just Bob Sangster this time, as in the other sound versions and the book, but baptized more floridly by Ford (in honor of preferred stuntman Slim Hightower) Robert Marmaduke Sangster Hightower. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times review of the day said, “John Wayne as the leading badman and ultimate champion of the child is wonderfully raw and ructious.” Nice word, ructious. I’m not sure he was all that ructious, though. He’s certainly bossy but really, he’s too much of a goody. Previous Bobs were stone-cold killers, and they disdained the child-saving efforts of the other two outlaws until the last reel decision to take over baby-minding. This conversion was therefore all the more striking. Wayne’s Bob (or Marmaduke or whatever) is probably too much of a saint from the get-go.
The other sound versions had contained a Mexican (Joe de la Cruz as José in the 1929 one and Joseph Marievsky as Pedro in ’36) but they were just stereotype Mexicans there to croon to a soft guitar and get shot in the robbery. In this version, Armendariz’s character of Pedro Roca Fuerte is one of the three, and quite a heroic and decent one too. “Pedro Armendariz is colorful as a Mexican pal, while adding a real note of pathos to many of the more tender scenes,” said Crowther. Armendariz was a fine actor who made many of the greatest films in Mexican cinema’s so-called Golden Era. The IMDb bio says that “He was considered a prototype of masculinity and male beauty”. Ah yes, I know the feeling. “But it was his passion, force and acting abilities, combined with his quality of a gentleman, that made him an instant favorite of great directors like John Ford.”
Cast as William Kearney, the Abilene Kid, was Harry Carey Jr, a poignant choice considering that his father had been the lead of the first two silent versions, including Ford’s Marked Men. The trailer and intro titles say “and introducing Harry Carey Jr”. In fact, while this was Dobe’s first Ford Western, he’d already had small parts in Pursued and Red River. Crowther commented, “Harry Carey Jr. does an even more touching job as a tow-headed kid from Texas who gets mixed up in banditry.” Ford usually had one actor whom he victimized and bullied, and this time it was Dobe. Nothing the young man did was right and all his scenes were accompanied by a running commentary of invective and spite. Ford even resorted to physical abuse, kicking Carey and once throwing a rock at his face. Carey took it all with good grace, heaven knows how. Of course he was very much in awe of Ford. Dobe is interesting about this in his 1994 memoir Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company (click for our review). Dobe’s father Harry Carey and Ford fell out after a long collaboration (it has never been entirely clear as to why, though many have speculated) in the year of Dobe’s birth, and Harry Carey Sr never made a Western with Ford again. Nevertheless, the bond remained strong. Carey died in September 1947 but Ford was close to Carey’s wife, Dobe’s mother, the actress Olive Golden, and always insisted that the young Carey scion call him “Uncle Jack”, which Harry Jr does throughout the book.
Other parts would be played by actors who were Ford stock company members such as Jane Darwell and the director’s brother Francis Ford (relegated, as so often, to the part of Drunk (uncredited).
Ford first wanted the arty Gabriel Figueroa (of The Fugitive) as cameraman but when Mexican locations were ruled out he drafted in Technicolor expert Winton Hoch, then working on Joan of Arc for Victor Fleming. Hoch was a real artist who would earn an Oscar for the second of the cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and would also shoot The Quiet Man and The Searchers for Ford. His photography of the Death Valley locations on 3 Godfathers is magnificent. The shots of men walking or riding through the desert are remarkably beautiful and the barren, arid wasteland emphasizes the suffering as the three outlaws strive for redemption (such a classic theme of the Western) by following their star – in this the case the star in the west. The visual is the best thing about the picture and the DVD is very high quality. All the extant film versions of this tale are very well shot, with noticeably good cinematography, but this picture takes the cake in that regard. And you know, there’s nothing like a cake.
But the redemption angle is also the principal weakness of the film, for it is a sugary, even mawkish religious tale which drips in sentiment. The 1929 and 1936 versions were tougher and grittier. In this way, Ford’s attempt (in this color one anyway; the silent ones being lost, we don’t know about those) is closer to the book, which is quite heavy-handed in its religious symbolism. In 3 Godfathers, church music swells as Pedro Armendariz approaches the ecclesiastical gothic arch of canvas on the wagon where the Madonna figure is to give birth on Christmas Eve. Harry Carey Jr is lit angelically as he looks skyward from his Bible. John Wayne reads in a Gospel that he will find a donkey, and duly does – this episode is in the book but was skipped by the others. Various tableaux of the characters are arranged like Renaissance religious paintings. And so on. There was always a sentimental Catholic side to Ford and he gave it full rein here.
There is perhaps also, as JA Place says in his 1973 book The Western Films of John Ford, the theme of sacrifice in many (Place says most) of Ford’s films. “For anything of real value to be achieved, something of great value must be given up.” Nowhere is this truer than in Ford’s passion over the years for the story of The Three Godfathers. The infant’s mother and the two other outlaws all perish to secure the survival of the baby [Jesus] and the redemption of badman Bob.
The toughness was definitely toned down. In this one, there’s more comedy (and one thing I’d say: better comedy, for it’s less slapstick and more subtle than in other Ford Westerns). Ward Bond’s lawman is determined but essentially decent (“They don’t pay me to kill people,” he says). No one is killed in the robbery, they lose the paltry amount of money at the scene (so are not weighed down by it during the desert trek) and furthermore, the leader of the outlaws (Wayne) survives. He only gets a year in Yuma at the end and Jane Darwell benignly tells him that “a year in jail’ll do you real good”. Sure. The ending is frankly cloying. I’m not sure that all this sweetening was an improvement.
The Richard Hageman music (Hageman also appears as the saloon pianist) starts with some nice orchestral arrangements of traditional American tunes (Streets of Laredo, Goodbye Old Paint and so on) but then often strays into sub-hymnodic slush. At least there is a snatch of the Stagecoach music for us to recognize early in the film as the diligence rolls into town. Carey sings Shall We Gather at the River and a bit of Streets of Laredo in a goodish tenor. Duke has to sing a snatch of Laredo later when remembering the Kid but luckily for the viewers and listeners only does a brief verse. There’s a choir of ladies to see Wayne off to jail.
This movie, loved by many, is not high on my list of fine Westerns. Like all Ford’s work it has its moments, such as Wayne shielding the dying Carey from the sun with his hat, or the dripping pipe wasting water as the bandits suffer from thirst, and photographically it is stunningly good, but the film is schmaltzy, the action mostly moves at the hobbling pace of the bandits in the desert and the gag of the three far-from-wise men caring for the new-born baby simply goes on too long.
Considering the Christmas theme, Metro missed the boat rather by delaying general release until January 1949, after the Washington DC première in November ’48.
But the picture was well received and did good business at the box office. According to MGM records, the film earned $2m in the US and Canada and $763,000 overseas, resulting in a profit of $450,000. 3 Godfathers wasn’t commercially speaking in the Fort Apache class ($3m US gross) or Red River ($4.5m) but it was no bomb. And many people still love this movie.
Later opinions haven’t been quite so favorable. JA Place, mentioned above, called 3 Godfathers “a less substantial film than many of Ford’s other Westerns – Bob does not have the depth of an Ethan Edwards |in The Searchers] or a Tom Doniphan [in Liberty Valance], both of whom see clearly and choose their existential lack of grace.” Brian Garfield called it a “tearjerker”. Dennis Schwartz says, “The religious symbols were too heavy-handed to have much affect [sic], except to mar the film into a dull mawkish stupor. Wayne as the Prodigal Son delivering the Christ child seemed a bit of a stretch. At best, it’s one of Ford’s lesser films where the scenery is more spectacular than the over sentimental story.”
Coming straight after the gritty Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers was really a nostalgic Ford regression into 1920s melodrama. In his biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman wrote, “Although 3 Godfathers has never had many critical adherents, it remains one of the director’s most affecting mid-range films; not overly ambitious, but on its own terms, remarkably effective.” I myself agree that it was affecting and effective, up to a point, and also visually fine, but on balance I agree with Leonard Maltin who prefers Hell’s Heroes as the “most satisfying, least sentimental” of all the versions we have.
I tend to agree with the opinion of Garfield, who called 3 Godfathers “a case of terminal treacle.”