Three Godfathers (1936)

This is either the third or fourth adaptation we've covered of the classic western Christmas novel, The Three Godfathers, depending on whether you consider the 2003 anime Tokyo Godfathers adapted from or inspired by the original. Of the relatively straightforward versions, the 1929 version, Hell's Heroes, by William Wyler remains my favorite, while the 1948 3 Godfathers starring John Wayne, is my least favorite, and this one - directed by Richard Boleslawski - lands somewhere in the middle.

Well, the middle leaning closer to Hell's Heroes, if I'm being specific. Unlike the 1948 movie, this one doesn't pull its punches in the second and third acts, or the first as far as the bank robbery is concerned. I know the John Wayne version has its fans, but this is one of those stories I don't like watered down (unless, I suppose, the water in question is poisoned).

The rough outline is basically the same as the earlier version and source material: three outlaws find themselves with an orphaned child at Christmas, no water, and the knowledge if they return to the only town they could hope to reach they'll be hung. As they move through the desert, one by one they find a sense of responsibility and lay down their lives to get the child to safety. The last of the criminals - the worst of the bunch - fills up on poisoned water to get enough strength to deliver the child to a church, then collapses dead (the 1948 wasn't about to kill John Wayne, so instead his character survived and was rehabilitated).

This version expands the beginning by adding a little backstory for Bob (Chester Morris), who's destined to be the last godfather standing. Here, he's given a past with the town of New Jerusalem - it's where he was born, in fact, though he's been away a few years. Because of this, everyone knows him, though their reactions tells us they're not exactly happy to see him.

Bob also runs into Molly, his ex-girlfriend, who's now engaged to the town's bank manager. He tries rekindling their affair, but Molly isn't interested, so Bob turns to another girl from his past. The next day, he robs the bank with his partners and murders Molly's fiancé in the process (while the man's wearing a Santa suit, no less). On the way out of town, one of his accomplices is shot and killed by the town's dentist, and another is wounded in the arm.

The wounded outlaw/godfather calls himself Doc, played by Lewis Stone, who'd go on to play Judge Hardy in Love Finds Andy Hardy and the rest of that series. He's the oldest and smartest of the three, and the most immediately sympathetic. We never get his full backstory, but he's extremely well-read, loves books, and from the start is about as ethical as a person in his line of work could be. He's the one who pushes the others to take the infant, while Bob is initially willing to leave the child behind or even kill it to put it out of its misery. The movie implies he might not be long for this world even before his injury - he has a cough that attracts speculation about his health - so it's no surprise when he's the first to sacrifice himself. His life ends more or less the same way it ended in the 1929 movie: when he can't carry on, he hands over the kid, waits until the others have gone on ahead, then shoots himself.

The second godfather, Gus (Walter Brennan), is sort of the intellectual opposite of Doc. He's uneducated and a bit awkward, but he generally seems well-meaning and kind. Mostly, he cares deeply for Doc; he seems to take on the role of primary caretaker out of this obligation, as much as any other reason. I doubt it was intentional on the part of the actors, but it's not hard to view Gus's admiration as romantic in nature. Regardless, he takes off alone to die in the desert almost immediately after they lose Doc and wills what he has (mainly just the take from the robbery) to Bob.

Actually, this is a cleverly set up moment. Gus can't actually write, so his "will" is written by Doc, prior to either of their demises. He narrates a fairly standard if simple will, signs as a witness, and gets Gus to write an 'X.' Only when we actually see it after both he and Gus are gone, it's a frank note from Doc to Bob asking him to do something right for once in his life.

The ending plays out more or less by the book, though of course everyone recognizes Bob and reacts accordingly as he stumbles into the church. He hands the child off to his ex, then symbolically pauses under what's either a wreath meant to resemble a crown of thorns or just a crown of thorns. Eventually, he collapses.

The woman seems to understand all this signifies and intuits what must have happened, because she seems more touched by the sacrifice than upset over the fact Bob shot her fiancĂ© a few days earlier. There's a brief callback to a watch Bob had earlier in which she defends his legacy and holds the baby she's presumably going to adopt. 

Had I not seen Hell's Heroes last year, I'd probably be singing the praises of this dark, somber western. All things considered, it's a good movie; I just don't think it's as good, as artistic, or anywhere near as cuttingly subversive as its predecessor. To be fair, some of that could be because it wasn't allowed to be. By 1936 Hollywood had enacted rules governing elements such as the depiction of religion, so it's certainly unsurprising the fourth outlaw wasn't killed by a preacher, nor was I shocked by the absence of the sequence in which that same preacher failed to see the last godfather stumble in and hand off the infant at the end. But fair or not I certainly felt the absence of those details.

On top of that, this just didn't have quite the same artistic flair as Hell's Heroes. This might actually be a feature in some ways - the 1929 film felt extremely experimental (with the experiment in question being a young director playing with an entirely new media), while this felt more refined and clean. Sure, there are still plenty of artifacts of the time it was made, but it does feel much more modern and polished than the earlier film, which included some extremely dated elements.

Personally, I prefer the more experimental, expressionist aspects over the safer, streamlined remake, but it's not hard to imagine someone having a different reaction. And it's not like this is devoid of stylistic elements, either - it's just not as striking as the earlier film.

I mentioned earlier this opens with a hefty amount of comic relief, which is a mixed blessing. Some of the jokes hold up well, and it makes for an effective contrast with the movie's dark ending. However, as was depressingly typical of the time, that comedy includes a few racist caricatures. To be fair, these are fairly quick moments, mostly visual gags, but I still found myself cringing a few times. 

On a less important topic, the movie's inclusion of a Santa suit felt a bit anachronistic, though I suppose that depends on when the events were supposed to be taking place. Regardless, it seemed to be a setup for Bob to say, "There ain't no Santa Claus." The line's delivered more as a gruff character moment than a joke, but this does feel like a reference (possibly to the Marx Brothers movie released a year earlier).

I don't want to give the impression this isn't good - it's a solid adaptation with good characters and some impactful moments - but for my money, Hell's Heroes is the best adaptation of The Three Godfathers to date.

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