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03 July 2016

An Unjustly Neglected Classic Western: Three Godfathers, 1936

The 1936 version of Three Godfathers, which was based on a  1911 story by the popular and prolific Western writer Peter B. Kyne, is a forgotten classic. The 1949 version, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is far better known; but frankly I feel that this version is actually superior in many ways.  

This rarely shown film is not actually pre-code, but it might as well be; it’s more than gritty, and appears downright grim compared to 1949’s shiny Technicolor re=make. But it has the advantage of being truthful rather than sentimental. It’s realistic right from the start; Bob, Chester Morris’s slick bank-robber, is far more ruthless that Wayne’s roughly similar character. Lewis Stone, as Doc, an educated man who has fallen from a background of privilege to the life of an outlaw, has a deeply sardonic view of the situation, with underpinnings of shame and melancholy (this character has totally disappeared from the remake).
Lewis Stone as Doc

The third member of the gang, if you can call it that, is Gus, an illiterate petty criminal. played by the superb Walter Brennan. The fourth outlaw is known only as Pedro (Joseph Marievsky).As the story opens Bob is leading the others to his hometown, where he hasn’t visited in years, with the intention of robbing the bank. They successfully do just that, but in their escape Doc is wounded and Pedro killed.
The survivors make their way to a waterhole Bob knows of, but the water has become poisoned. And there they find a dead man, and a covered wagon containing the man’s wife, near death herself, and her newborn baby. And now we see what makes this such an unusual and compelling Western — the rest of the story is simply about the outlaws’ choices. The young mother dies, and the three lawless, violent men must choose whether or not to let her helpless infant die, too. And at first Bob insists that that’s exactly what they’ll do. The rest of the movie is the stark working out of this moral dilemma.
Everyone who is interested in Westerns and in how social questions are faced in films of different eras should check this version out — not to mention fans of Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, and Walter Brennan, fine actors all, and all of them playing roles that are out of the ordinary.

Walter Brennan, Lewis Stone, and Chester Morris

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