I don’t mention Westerns very much since honestly I don’t see many with exception of STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956), THE WILD BUNCH (1969), both versions of CIMARRON (1931) plus (1960) and the Clint Eastwood Modern classic THE UNFORGIVEN (1992) plus a host of others. I do watch more than I think they just don’t appear make me want to explore it as much I do as much other styles. This middle remake the THREE GODFATHERS (1936) struck a chord with me begging me to mention it.
This THREE GODFATHERS (1936) edition Directed by Richard Boleslawski is the remake of the John Ford 1916 version of course to be later tailored for John Wayne in Technicolor in 1948. The Western genre is one of the few that works effectively in black and white or color. The non color adds to claustrophobic style allowing one to better concentrate on the actors. An intimacy with the film and the audience with an example of John Wayne’s bravo first Hero shot with his gun upraised and saddle by his side in STAGE COACH (1939).
This is a film hero larger than life and get ready for a story. Technicolor added the vistas and natural beauty which also let well to the telling of the stories against a broader canvas.
The picture’s story does’t really change as one find Three bank robbers finding a wagon containing a dying woman with a child with whom them pledge to take care. Leaving out the biblical parallels of three men, wise to the ways of the world, wandering in the desert with a child you get a story of perseverance and self persecution.
Lewis Stone who would go on to be known as Judge Hardy from the ANDY HARDY series gets a turn as a grizzled gun fighter James Underwood who is worn by age and memory. No matter how you try to disguise Stone’s voice those tones come through particularly when the “Shakespeare” sequence. Stone has long and varied career with many styles of roles yet this picture shows him a sad person filled with life to the point of being like Roy Batty in the rain on the rooftop from BLADERUNNER (1982) remarking that it is ‘Time to die”.
Walter Brennan gets what proves to be his life long role he would do variations of as the not so intelligent yet sincere Sam Bartow. Underwood and Bartow have an strange affinity for each other as they hint at the past. Bartow hints that Underwood was to tell him about a packet of letters he has been carrying a round only to see them burned. The both act as confessors for each in the desert as the journey continues. The two also act a buffer between the baby and the tough, black clad leader Bob Sangster played by Chester Morris. Barstow and Underwood take a more active role in the care of the child giving it their ration of water and limited food which Sangster will have nothing to do with.
Chester Morris was one of those that I and a few others refer to as being from the “Lyle Talbot School of Acting’. Lyle had the good looks, the voice, a variety of roles yet for reasons unknown was never thought of as a “Star”. They would have streaks of success as Morris had with “BOSTON BLACKIE” series of films and radio adaptations. Morris would get to play against the likes of Jean Harlow in RED HEADED WOMAN and Wallace Beery in THE BIG HOUSE in the thirties. Morris later drifted into smaller roles obscurity of B films and television . Bob Sangster is hard and nails bank robber who is first against taking the child. He lets Underwood know he should get rid of the books he salvaged from the wagon. He is also more action oriented then the other two as it is Sangster that find the horses gone and does his level best to find them.
One harrowing moment features Chester Morris as Sangster abandoning the child several times only to turn back as the child is crying and discharge his gun. The camera lingers on the desperate, dirty, Sangster and when the child falls silent you thinks the worst. The picture then cuts back to a calm baby and a dead rattlesnake beside him. Sangster sling the child up and continues into the desert.
THREE GODFATHERS (1936) makes good use of the scenery as the desert looks dark and foreboding at night and a bright, scotched hell kitchen in the daylight. Sound is a strong suit as there is often an absence of it with exception of dialogue and slight music particularly in on moment featuring a single gun shot. The vast empty dusty world figures strongly as one morning Sam Barstow strides through the sand to his destiny.
Western Religion fills the screen on more that one occasion in subtle and not so subtle ways which fit what the studio being MGM has to do for the story to get passed the censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Today one may scoff at the control these groups had yet in the thirties in Hollywood a studio could not afford to have a picture destroyed at the box office. Real power was within these groups to forbid people to not see a picture which they often obeyed.
THE GODFATHERS (1936) features Mojave Desert locations which must have been novel for the actors and difficult for the crew. One can imagine Klieg lights, makeup running, in the desert plus the assorted wild life without today’s facilities. The picture also features a look the three aspects of ‘family” from the action male or father played by Chester Morris to the dutiful son by Walter Brennan and the the nurturing mother by Lewis Stone. The family is set up to fail because it is not traditional and all order must be restored through a return to a proper family by the “Grace of God” Still it is an interesting “buddy’ film to see.
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