There aren’t many stories that have been filmed five separate times—not counting homages and ripoffs—and even fewer that attracted the same A-list director on three occasions, but that is the case with Peter B. Kyne’s Three Godfathers. The director was John Ford, who first made it with his then-collaborator and star Harry Carey in 1916. Unfortunately, both that film and a 1919 remake that reteamed them called Marked Men no longer exist. An up-and-coming William Wyler tackled the first talkie adaptation (also released in a silent version), called Hell’s’ Heroes, in 1930. Ford returned to the sturdy vehicle with John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and a fresh-faced Harry Carey, Jr. in 1948. The film is dedicated to Ford’s departed comrade Harry Carey and costars the actor’s son, at the outset of his long career in front of the camera.

Lost in the shuffle is an understated MGM remake of the story filmed in 1936, produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by Richard Boleslawski, late of the Moscow Art Theatre. Despite his imposing background, the Polish-born director made good commercial fare during his all-too-brief career in Hollywood. He had recently completed an excellent adaptation of Les Misérables with Fredric March and Charles Laughton and was flying high when cardiac arrest cut his life short at the age of 47, in early 1937.

I chose and introduced this unjustly forgotten picture at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival and stayed to watch a 35mm print on the big screen. Not having seen it in a while I was careful not to oversell it to our audience, but when it was over it got a hearty round of applause and I had to admit that it is exceptional. The following day, my old friend Jeanine Basinger (who received TCM’s Robert Osborne Award) said, “It’s better than the Ford.” 

Now, Warner Archive has released the film as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray disc alongside the 1948 remake. This is news worth spreading among your film buff friends.

The script doesn’t overplay its hand in making it a Christmas parable about the baby Jesus. Journeymen screenwriters Edward E. Paramore Jr. and Manuel Seff keep things simple and give the audience credit for recognizing the underpinning of the narrative. 

Boleslawski tells the first third of the story in ultra closeups of his actors Chester Morris, Walter Brennan, and Lewis Stone. Each one commands the screen and justifies this unusual presentation. (This must have been a departure for cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, who was just beginning his decades-long career at MGM, where he would go on to win four Oscars.) Morris had proven himself an all-purpose leading man since the coming of talkies but his career never caught fire and he wound up headlining B movies like the Boston Blackie series. Lewis Stone, who apparently never looked young (and yes, I’ve seen the 1922 version of Scaramouche in which he plays the leading role) has never been better, as the most thoughtful and literate member of the outlaw trio who come upon a newborn baby in the desert.

As for Walter Brennan, he was forty years old, appeared to be sixty, and was still doing uncredited walk-ons months before this movie went into production. 1936 was his watershed year, as he won the first of three Academy Awards for his performance in Come and Get It. The hayseed he portrays here could have been a broad caricature but isn’t—a credit to both the actor and,  likely, his director. (Boleslawski was the first man to bring Konstantin Stanlisavski’s techniques to America and taught the founders of the Group Theater). 

Brennan, Stone and Morris make a terrific team in this story of outlaws who manage to perform one good deed before meeting their reward. They inhabit their characters completely and make you care what happens to them, not just to the infant they rescue. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces like future cowboy star Bob Livingston, leading lady Irene Hervey, Sidney Toler (two years before he inherited the role of Charlie Chan), and ever-reliable Willard Robertson. 

Put this Blu-ray on your must-have list…and thank me later.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024