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A study in contrast: The Three Godfathers


slaytonf
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On tomorrow as part of the monthlong celebration of the Western, TCM will be presenting two versions of an often adapted novelette by Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.  Published in 1913, it was an instant success.  Though I can't say why.  It's full of stilted, mannered prose.  It evidently appealed to contemporary tastes.  It's based on the biblical tale of the three magi, only in this instance instead of bringing gifts they act as guardians, and make sacrifices to save the life a child they find in the desert.  And instead of being kings, they are murderous criminals, fresh from a bank robbery.  Choked with symbolism, and simple on the surface, it actually involves some precise geography and timing to make it come out even in the end.  You can read it here:

 

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/51942/51942-h/51942-h.htm

 

It was soon adapted in 1916 with Harry Carey starring.  He also starred in the next adaptation in 1919, this time directed by John Ford.  It must have stuck in Ford's mind, because years later he remade it as 3 Godfathers (1949), with John Wayne, Pedro Armendaríz, and Harry Carey, Jr.  It's an unfortunate, soppy, sentimental treatment that wastes a lot of good talent, celluloid, and time (if you spend it watching the whole movie), and worst of all, spoils the true value of the story at the end by hollywoodizing it--or Fordizing it.  We'll be treated to that late Monday/early Tuesday.  Don't bother staying up to watch, but record it to compare with:

 

Three Godfathers (1936), directed by Richard Boleslawsky.  This hard-headed, unsentimental retelling stars Chester Morris as perhaps the most slimy rotten bad guy ever in movies--certainly in westerns.  He's a man that does people wrong not just from self-interest, but for sheer enjoyment.  Walter Brennan, and Lewis Stone accompany him in the undertakings--Brennan the simple companion of Stone, an academic fallen through character flaws.  Irene Hervey, and Dorothy Tree also make short, but impressionable appearances as his onetime squeeze and a bar hostess/prostitute, respectively.  There is a lot of wit and satire to balance out the heavy side of the story, the dialog spare and direct.  All in all, the best adaptation.  Airs 1:00 p. m., pdt.

 

Not seen, and almost as good is Hell's Heroes (1929), directed by William Wyler, and starring Charles Bickford.  It shows up from time to time on TCM.  Don't miss it.

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