Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tonight's Movie: 3 Godfathers (1948) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

This year's Lone Pine Film Festival paid tribute to Western directors, with particular attention to the work of John Ford.

The Friday and Saturday night "keynote" screenings, followed by panel discussions, were Ford's 3 BAD MEN (1926) and 3 GODFATHERS (1948). It was quite interesting viewing Ford's variations on a theme, filmed over two decades apart, on back-to-back evenings.

As a side note, the theme was continued to a lesser extent in the festival screening of George Blair's DESERT PURSUIT (1952), which featured outlaws mistaken for the 3 Wise Men near the climax of the movie! However, that film did not feature the "redemption" theme which is such a strong component of the Ford films.

THREE GODFATHERS begins with a lovely onscreen tribute to Harry Carey Sr., "Bright star of the early Western sky." I found this especially moving as I had just watched Carey that afternoon in the silent film THE PRAIRIE PIRATE (1925). What's more, Carey's granddaughter Melinda was present at the screening. Melinda's father received a special credit in 3 GODFATHERS, "Introducing Harry Carey Jr."

Although Ford and Wayne are among my favorite directors and actors, over the years I had shied away from watching 3 GODFATHERS due to the plot. That played out pretty much as I anticipated. As is usually the case with a Ford film, I found much to enjoy -- indeed, some of Ford's other films of that era are among my all-time favorite films -- but this isn't a movie I'll be anxious to rewatch. It was rather exhausting!

My feelings about the storyline were compounded by the fact that there were some awkward filmmaking choices at various points which seemed unusual for a Ford film.

3 GODFATHERS tells the story of three bank robbers: Robert Hightower (Wayne), William Kearney, aka the Abilene Kid (Carey Jr.), and Pedro (Pedro Armendariz). The men flee into the desert while trying to escape a posse led by Sheriff Sweet (Ward Bond), his deputy (Hank Worden), and other men (including Ben Johnson).

The outlaws struggle to find water and survive the unforgiving environment, not to mention the fact that the Abilene Kid was dinged by a bullet. The men ultimately run into a stranded covered wagon where a lone recently widowed woman (Mildred Natwick) is about to give birth. Pedro delivers the baby boy, whom the mother names Robert William Pedro, and before she dies the three men pledge to save her son. Doing so will take everything the men have left in them.

The movie has much going for it: Classic scenes of Fordian beauty, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Winton C. Hoch (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON); some of Ford's typical humor and sentiment, to leaven the stressful drama; and excellent performances by many beloved faces from Ford's "Stock Company."

That said, some of the editing (by Jack Murray) and storytelling choices are strange or confusing.

For instance, early in the film Bob and Pedro walk up to a fence and are looking at something (seen here). The viewer expects to ultimately see what they're looking at, but we never do.

In another scene, we think we're looking at the wagon from one direction, then there's a cut where a character who had previously been almost next to the camera's viewpoint is now seen in the distance. Occasional moments like that made the film a bit jarring and hard to follow at times.

I also didn't care for the script when Bob tells the expectant mother's story to the other men, in a scene that goes on and on as he sits there talking. While Ford films often had classic dialogue, it seemed unusual for so much narrative to be verbally described rather than seen. Moreover, Natwick was a good 15 years too old for the part.

I did appreciate the more upbeat final minutes, which were a relief after everything which had gone before, but the burgeoning romance hinted at here seemed an afterthought.

I enjoyed the film's locations, including Lone Pine as well as the train station in Keeler, which I visited in 2014.

After the movie Ben Mankiewicz moderated a panel discussion with Rob Word and William Wellman Jr. joining John Ford's grandson Dan, author of the biography PAPPY: THE LIFE OF JOHN FORD. Topics included the comparative work styles of Ford and William Wellman Sr.  Ford was notorious for putting various actors "in the doghouse" and treating them poorly, and was quite hard on Carey making 3 GODFATHERS. (Some of the stories are recounted in Carey's memoir COMPANY OF HEROES.) In response to a question, Dan Ford said his grandfather was not like that with family members. Wellman Jr. said his own father was a tough man with high expectations, but not mean! It was left an open question whether Ford's behavior was justified in the name of art and what he got out of the actors.

Earlier in the day I had seen Melinda Carey as part of a panel on growing up in "Hollywood." She was a warm and engaging speaker. It's of note, since both her father and Ben Johnson had early career roles in this film, that she related that other than her brother's death, the passing which was most difficult for her father was when Ben Johnson died. She said that in a sense "They grew up together," and they were close their entire lives.

Roy Rogers' daughter Cheryl Rogers Barnett added to the conversation that Ben and Harry Jr., as well as stuntman Richard Farnsworth, would occasionally mind her on movie sets when she was little, and "They were fine young men." I enjoyed remembering her comment while watching them on screen in this film.

3 GODFATHERS is available on DVD, VHS, and via Amazon streaming. It also turns up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies, and in fact it's on the schedule three times in the next few weeks.

At a future date I'll be reviewing the 1936 version directed by Richard Boleslawski, starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan.


Blogger barrylane said...

The 1936 version is leaner, meaner and better, but the Ford/Wayne collaboration needs to be seen again by you. I will bet your heart softens to the film. The only real problem is the one you hit upon re Mildred Natwick. Too old. Too bad.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

You may very well be right that this version will grow on me -- I find tough subject matter is sometimes easier for me to deal with the second time around, and the movie does star some of my very favorite people to make movies.

Quite curious to compare the 1936 version which has such a great cast as well.

Best wishes,

10:49 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I would echo Barry's comments re the 1936 version of Peter B. Kyne's story, Laura. Much as I love Ford and Wayne's films I found I preferred the earlier film which I only saw again recently. An underrated classic.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Lee R said...

I watch this film just about every other year at Christmas time. On the years I skip this film I watch Donovan's Reef for my Duke Christmas time picture. Of the 2 I much prefer Donovan's Reef. 3 Godfathers does seem to go on forever as they wander the desert. Though when I do watch it, I appreciate it for all the great actors in it. Just wish they had edited out about 20 minutes.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, that is really interesting you preferred the earlier version. I've read it's darker but I love the cast, especially Chester Morris, so I'll give it a go, hopefully sooner rather than later! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

Lee, thank you for contributing your thoughts! DONOVAN'S REEF has always been popular at my house, too. It somehow feels like hanging out at a party with the cast, LOL. I agree that 3 GODFATHERS went on too long, though I would have been happy with just a few minutes shaved off. I was ready for that baby to make it out of the desert quite a while before it happened! Yet as you say, what a wonderful cast!

Best wishes,

4:43 PM  

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