Classy version of a rather mawkish tale
At the start of the year on this blog we looked at Peter B Kyne’s novella The Three Godfathers of 1912 and how it has been oft-filmed. Carl Laemmle made it at Universal in 1916, with Harry Carey in the lead, as The Three Godfathers, directed by Edward LeSaint, and again in 1919, as Marked Men, once again with Carey leading, a five-reeler this time directed by a young Jack Ford. It is possible that Ford made it again in 1921 as Action, with Hoot Gibson, though there is some doubt about this. In any case, all these silent versions have been tragically lost.
In 1929 Universal had yet another go, this time as its first sound Western, Hell’s Heroes, directed by the great William Wyler, then still in his twenties, with Charles Bickford topping the bill. This, the first treatment to have survived (and even then only relatively recently was a sound version found) was actually a fine film, in many ways a considerable improvement on the book, which was rather a mawkish and sentimental, though best-selling, tale.
However, in the 1930s the rights passed to MGM, who decided to make a big production of it in 1936 – not a time, be it said, that the ‘adult’ Western was doing well, the genre having, since the commercial flops at the start of the decade of A-pictures from Fox, The Big Trail, and Metro itself, Billy the Kid, largely been consigned to the second-feature, chiefly for the juvenile market. So an A-Western was quite a rarity in the mid-30s. Still, the execs evidently liked the idea of this one, and it went into production in November 1935 with a substantial budget.
There is a suggestion – I don’t know how true it is – that Metro had the practice of buying up old versions of stories it acquired and then incinerated them. Tragic, if true. Lucky for us, then, that Hell’s Heroes is still around, but what a pity we can’t see any of the silent ones.
Anyway, today we’ll have a look at the ’36 version.
It was directed by Richard Boleslawski, an invented name for the Polish-born Ryszard Srzednicki, an actor who left Odessa, then in Russia, in the chaos of the revolution and its aftermath, and wound up in the US in 1920. He wrote acting textbooks and created the American Laboratory Theatre in New York in 1923, the forerunner of the Group Theatre of the 1930s and the Actors Studio after World War II. Moving to Hollywood, he made several important films, though no Westerns apart from this one, at major studios like MGM and Fox before his premature death aged 47 in January 1937.
Joseph L Mankiewicz was the producer. Originally a writer (he had contributed to the 1929 The Virginian at Paramount) Mankiewicz also worked on the screenplay of Three Godfathers, uncredited. He produced some big films for Metro, then working with Darryl Zanuck at Fox. The IMDb bio calls him “a witty dialoguist, a master in the use of flashback and a talented actors’ director.” Three Godfathers was the first film he produced.
The credited writers, using Kyne’s story as a basis – though when you see the film you understand that they also incorporated many of the changes Wyler and his writers made) were Edward E Paramore Jr, who co-wrote The Virginian in ’29 and would later do The Oklahoma Kid and Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, and Manuel Seff, whose only Western this was – he did mostly comedy/romance.
They chose Chester Morris for the lead. He was not an actor I knew, but then he only did two Westerns, this one and Wagons Westward in 1940. He is better known as Boston Blackie, in the series of Columbia detective pictures of the 1940s.
In Three Godfathers he has the look of Johnny Mack Brown, certainly in costume, a sort of dime-novel affair all in black with fancy two-gun rig. However, he was (sorry, Johnny) a better actor than Brown. Though he is Bob, the ‘leader’ of the gang, he presents as young (he was in fact 34) compared with Wyler’s Bob – a burly Charles Bickford. He’s a pretty ruthless outlaw, until he weakens and saves the baby. In fact I’d say that the conversion from ruthless to caring was a bit too sudden and thus implausible, but well, not glaringly so.
His two compadres, who also perish in their efforts to save themselves and the infant they rescue, were Lewis Stone as Doc and Walter Brennan as Gus.
Stone had a distinguished look and played upper-class suitors and other gentleman parts. He was Oscar-nominated for The Patriot in 1928. He appeared with Chester Morris in Metro’s successful The Big House in 1930 and did quite a few pictures with Greta Garbo. He had a lifetime contract with MGM and appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as “Artist with the Longest Contract to One Studio”. He signed with Metro in 1924 at the very start of the studio and remained with them as a contract player until his death in 1953, a total of 29 years. He was not an obvious choice for a Western, though he had led in three silent ones. But then nor was Morris.
Brennan was different, and we were discussing his Westerns the other day (click here for that). As we said, he made a specialty of old-timer roles, even when he was young, and as bewhiskered Gus he gives it plenty of cackling badinage. He was still in his thirties at the time but you wouldn’t know it. He’d had small parts in half a dozen silent Westerns in the 20s and was then a regular on Tim McCoy talkies but he’d made a breakthrough in Barbary Coast the year before Three Godfathers, as a crusty old-timer, naturally, and that permitted him to start getting bigger roles, such as this one.
All three of the godfather players do a very good job, and the acting is one of the strong points of the movie. The writers succeeded in making each a strong and separate character, and not necessarily types we associate with a Western.
In common with other versions, the ones we know about anyway, there’s love interest (there was none in the book) and they invent a whole first reel of business in the town of New Jerusalem before the bank robbery (it’s all dismissed in a couple of pages by Kyne). Bob was run out of town two years earlier and had to leave his love, Molly. Now he’s back and she’s engaged to the bank’s chief cashier. They cast Irene Hervey as Molly, and built her part up. Hervey was an alumna of MGM’s acting school, winning a studio contract in 1933. While at Metro, she was briefly engaged to Robert Taylor, an affair which was vetoed by Louis B Mayer who saw it as detrimental to Taylor’s career. She would move to Universal and there have a middling part in Destry Rides Again in 1939. Three Godfathers was only her second Western, after being the leading lady of George O’Brien in The Dude Ranger in 1934.
Lower down the cast list in a small part was Bob Livingston, who the same year would do well at MGM with the serial The Vigilantes Are Coming.
But the majority of cast and crew were not what you would call Western specialists. It was OK because apart from the first-reel bank robbery, there wasn’t too much ‘Western’ about the story, which could really have been set at any time or (desert) place.
The picture was, in common with the other talkie versions, shot in real and harsh desert locations, this time in the Mojave Desert (like Hell’s Heroes) and photographed by four-time Oscar winner Joseph Ruttenberg – again, his only talkie Western. It’s very well shot too, and the cinematography is another of the film’s strong points. There’s a good quality print on YouTube.
Reviewer ‘JTM’ in the New York Times said that the picture “succeeds in catching the spirit of the Westerns of two decades back, when bad men could be heroes too, and grim-visaged Bill Hart frequently expired nobly in the cactus country in the performance of some glorious act of atonement to top off a screen life of iniquity.” JTM was probably right about the old-fashionedness of the film but still it’s well done. Myself, I prefer Wyler’s, but I do see that MGM’s treatment has a lot going for it.
It’s probably time we had another look at Ford’s 1948 remake, to close the book on the outlaw trio with hearts of gold. That will be for another day.