Several years ago a friend recommended that I watch Three Godfathers (1936), thinking, even though it was a Western, that I would enjoy it. For the most part, a Western has to have something different than the usual Cowboys and Indians shooting it out to hold any interest for me. I remember when I was a kid, I would sometimes watch these films on TV, and would mostly feel sorry for the horses that fell during the battle. Therefore, I was delighted that I enjoyed Three Godfathers with the unusual story-line about three murderous outlaws who end up caring more for a baby than they do for themselves.
The novel, The Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne was published in 1913 and became a bestseller. The story was filmed five times in a 32-year span under five title variations or complete changes starting with The Three Godfathers in 1916 directed by Edward J. Le Saint featuring Harry Carey, followed by John Ford’s first version, Marked Men (1919) also starring Harry Carey. The third version was Hell’s Heroes (1929), 27-year-old director William Wyler’s first full length talkie, as well as one of the earliest talking Westerns. The fourth version was Three Godfathers (1936) directed by 48-year-old Richard Boleslawski making this his fourth-last film just a year before he died in 1937. The final version was 3 Godfathers (1948), John Ford’s second time at the bat, this film featuring his favourite actor John Wayne and paying tribute to Harry Carey by casting his son Harry Carey, Jr. as one of the three bandit godfathers. Off hand, you could add any of these films to the list of Christmas titles you watch during that holiday season.
Ever since viewing the 1936 film, I knew I would like to own a copy, so at some point in the past couple of years I acquired one and there it sat on my shelf until last week. Now that we are in lock-down and, like most of us, have plenty of time to watch film, I thought that Three Godfathers might be a film that my son would be interested in viewing. I’m trying to find genres and story-lines that I think would interest a 21-year-old who is not particularly interested in vintage film. And since we’re spending so much time together, he is indulging me by watching a film, sometimes even two, a week. So, when I added the DVD to the pile, and knowing Warner Archives had packaged it with another film, I thought I’d take a look to see what the heck kind of Western that second film was.
The first two things I noticed were that Charles Bickford was in it (his third film) and that it was made in 1929. Those are points for it. I really like Bickford, and a brooding, brutish, youngish Bickford I like much. Secondly, it falls in the genre of pre-Code. I also see that the director is William Wyler and features a couple of silent names that I’m familiar with, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler. Then I come to realize that this is the same story, just with a different title and I figure, since I can’t find any reason not to, I should watch it as this is a night my son is not joining me. That was to happen the following Mother’s Day night, when not only did my son join me, but so did my daughter! Watching the film was their Mother’s Day gift to me.
Look, I can’t remember details to films just weeks or even days after seeing them, so I really didn’t remember anything more than the basic story line nor would be able to recollect what the differences were while watching Hell’s Heroes. But after watching the two one night after the other, I came away liking the 1929 film best.
I haven’t read the novel that it’s based on but in William Wyler: The Authorized Biography by Axel Madsen, it states some differences. The four bandits–(and there are four in the two versions I’m reviewing, one being Mexican, so you know that if anyone is going to die early, it’s going to be him)–begin the story by holding up the bank in Wickenburg, Arizona. Things don’t go quite as planned, with the fourth man being killed and Tom Gibbons getting shot in the shoulder They make it to the Colorado River, kill their horses, and aim to make it to New Jerusalem, California.
When you look at a map, these two places are quite a distance apart. And if you follow the route it appears they took, it’s a separation of 725 miles. That’s 11 and half hours straight with a car; I can’t imagine how long it’s suppose to take on horseback–and then the rest by foot. So for possibly that reason, one of the noticeable changes which works very well in the script is that the robbery happens in New Jerusalem and the three fugitives have to make their way back to the town they are fleeing from due to the circumstances that make up the somewhat altered story.
The other thing that was changed was who the father of the baby was and who the mother named the child after. In the book, she names the child after the three godfathers, Robert-William-Thomas. In Hell’s Heroes, she names the child after his father, Frank Edwards. In Three Godfathers the baby already has a name.
So, just to start at the beginning, in Hell’s Heroes, three of the four bandits are riding through the desert-like terrain where Tom (Hatton), Bill (Kohler) and José come across a sign directing them to where they are to meet up with Bob (Bickford). It’s a post with a hangman’s noose and the carved words, “3 miles to New Jerusalem–a bad town–for bad men”.
Bob has reached the town a couple of days ahead of them and is spending the afternoon in the seedy saloon where he takes up flirting with and abusing dancer Carmelita.
The minute she’s out of arm’s reach but in eye’s view, he purposely starts up with another barfly and these two young women have a cat fight over him, with his instructions that there’s “no hair pulling allowed”. Subterfuge is what Bob’s created. The bank is robbed with one of the two cashiers being fatally shot by Tom and Bill. While escaping with the $30,000, José is shot by one of the townsfolk as they all come running, hearing the gunfire. Even the Parson helps out with his six-shooter. What disappoints the three bandits most is that they lost out on all but one of the bags of gold that was in José possession. And that’s when Tom (Hatton) gets shot in his shoulder.
After what looks like the opposite of a wonderful night’s sleep in a sand hole during a storm, they wake up to find their horses gone (no, they didn’t kill them), leaving them with just their feet to get them to their destination. Thinking they’ll find a waterhole to refill their canteens, they use a generous amount to clean up Tom’s infected wound. When they do finally reach a waterhole, the sign says, “Poison! Arsenic Water–Do Not Use For Any Purpose”. They are not happy.
What’s different between this and the 1936 film is that in the latter version there’s a lot more time spent in New Jerusalem, not only in a less sleazy saloon, but also at a church pre-Christmas social. And while the three amigos seem to like each other in the 1929 film, Bob (Chester Morris), doesn’t seem to much care for his two companions who go by the names James “Doc” Underwood (Lewis Stone) and Sam “Gus” Bartow (Walter Brennan). But that’s what makes the 1936 film work. Bob is pretty unlikable which makes him the most interesting thing in the film (And my son thought his completely black attire was cool.) In Three Godfathers (unless I’m already disremembering) the horses die from drinking poisoned water and it’s Bob who shoots the bank cashier.
Another difference, which I’m only guessing may be due to censorship is that in Hell’s Heroes, when they stumble onto the woman alone in a horseless wagon, it’s obvious their first concern is, “Whoa, there’s an unprotected woman up for grabs here”, while in the second film, that thought, if it’s there, is less conscious. Also, as in the novel, in 1929 the woman is in the throes of giving birth, while in 1936 she’s ill, with a child who’s around 12-months of age. Big difference.
I mentioned that Bob uses, without their knowledge, two women’s romantic interest in him as a deception to rob the bank. The 1936 Bob also has two women who are interested in him, but he isn’t using them for the same purpose. One of them is Blackie Winter (Dorothy Tree) who’s the bad saloon-working girl, and we know what he likes her for. But there’s also Molly, played by the very young and very lovely Irene Hervey, who is engaged to handsome bank cashier Frank (Robert Livingston), but, perhaps due to her youth, still isn’t over her infatuation with bad boy Bob, even though he’s been gone from town for well on two years.
So, instead of using women to distract the townsfolk from the fact that these three are going to rob the bank, and because Bob is known to them all having lived there in the past, the three bandits pretend that they don’t know each other, that Doc and Gus are just friendly strangers. When the three meet up at the bank close to closing time, that’s when the fun begins. Frank, the cashier, does get shot, but as he’s wearing a padded Christmas Santa-like costume, there’s the hopes that he may have been saved.
The difference between the characters played by Raymond Hatton as Tom “Barbwire’ Gibbons and Lewis Stone as James ‘Doc’ Underwood were as different as night and day. Barbwire was an uneducated ruffian who could quote passages from the bible while Doc was an educated man who carried around tomes by writers such as Shakespeare, which he was also able to quote verbatim. This was an interesting adaptation in the 1936 film, because I’m assuming Barbwire was closer to the original written character. Doc, however, was given this moniker because at one point in his life he was a doctor. Barbwire was given the assignment of helping the woman through childbirth, although I’m not quite sure what we were suppose to surmise his skill-set exactly was.
My kids made a comment during the 1936 film, that they didn’t understand why the men talked about how difficult it was to get back to New Jerusalem in the second half of the picture, because they didn’t overtly appear to be tired, hot or struggling. I realized the reason for this was that the men didn’t look worn out enough which they should have due to the fact that they were out of food, and certainly there was no water. This wasn’t true in the 1929 film where they all continued to look grimy and sweaty and dragging themselves from point to point. You felt their fatigue. In a crucial scene, when both Barbwire (1929) and Doc (1936) have to give up, you never doubt for a moment that Barbwire is at the end of his tether.
But my kids felt that Doc could go on, and I understood why. You never felt like Stone’s arm was particularly sore while you could often see that Hatton wasn’t able to use his; it just hung there. In their final moment, you see Barbwire ending his life, a rather shocking shot that happens in the background while Bob and Wild Bill are in conversation in the forefront. In the 1936 film, its only something you hear off-camera and although this may be effective watching the film singularly, it’s much less shocking after viewing the earlier film the night before.
As for the baby, in Hell’s Heroes, the mother is in labour and appears to be close to delirium. When the baby is born, she is too weak and ill to carry on but lets these three men know that she was on her way to New Jerusalem to meet up with her husband, the bank cashier that we know was killed, and that she asks for her baby to be Christened Frank, in his name.
Bob, in particular, gets grumpy having to care for this infant, but he does to the bitter end. For most of us, babies are adorable and amusing and to watch them whether they’re newborn or a year old, both are certainly helpless. However, I think it makes the story a bit more interesting when, in this case, the child is new to the world–plus don’t forget that Christmas theme (three wise men and a newborn baby).
In Three Godfathers, the husband had gone off to find water, dynamited the waterhole and, instead, obliterated the possibility of water-flow, then died before ever making it back to his wife. There is a similar scene in Hell’s Heroes, but it wasn’t the husband who dynamited the waterhole.
In Charles Bickford’s 1965 autobiography Bulls, Balls, Bicycles & Actors, he has a number of things to say about the making of this film. Even though he was contracted to MGM, having made his second film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Dynamite (1929) there and was already signed to play Garbo’s love interest in Anna Christie, he was sent to Universal to meet with Carl Laemmle Jr. to discuss the possibility of him playing the lead in Hell’s Heroes. (Incidentally, Bickford’s first film was the 1929 South Sea Rose directed by Toronto-born Allan Dwan.) He was surprised to find he liked Laemmle Jr. who he found to be modest, natural and educated, especially with regards to the theatre which was Bickford’s forte. After a two-hour meeting, with much discussion about his dissatisfaction with the script, Bickford thought that, although the story made for good theatre, it was written for a juvenile (which he was not), and poorly at that. What he wanted was “a stark; brutal quality which could be blended with the tear-jerking hokum the story already contained”. Laemmle Jr. assured him that he would take Bickford’s ideas into account for the rewrite.
When he came back to Universal to start the shooting of the film several weeks later, he was hugely disappointed with the script, seeing that it held very few changes. He decided to work on his own rewrites, hoping he’d receive cooperation from the director, William Wyler. He didn’t, nor did he like Wyler, whose name he never mentions (nor the title of the film) throughout his writing of his experience working on the project.
An interesting aside is that the the supervising story chief was C. Gardner Sullivan who had 178 writing credits under his belt by this time. True, Hell’s Heroes was only his second with regard to a talking script (the rest had been intertitles for silent film), but the very next film he was supervisor on was All Quiet on the Western Front which won Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director.
I’m politely, and possibly incorrectly, guessing that Charles Bickford was at times not always the easiest man to work with–although he only had pleasant things to say about working with the crew on Anna Christie–but here’s what he had to say about Wyler: “Even though his image is graven on my memory, I find it difficult to describe him. He was, I believe, one of the numerous members of the Laemmle tribe [he was a cousin]. His credits consisted of a few silent Western quickies and the present assignment was to be his first experience with sound. My first sight of the man was slightly disconcerting, but having learned long before that appearances can be deceitful, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t the costume that threw me; people wear all sorts of strange garments in the desert. Even British Army Officers can appear incongruous when clad only in khaki shorts and a topi. Supplemented by a pair of cowboy boots and placed upon a short tubby guy, the effect can be ludicrous, particularly when the tropical helmet emphasizes a featureless face, split by a vacuous grin. It wasn’t until after I had stated my position, emphasizing Junior Laemmle’s acceptance of my rewrite demands, that I began to wonder what I was up against. He gave no evidence at all that I’d gotten through to him but sat like a lump, his eyes vacant and his jaw slack. I continued to talk, calmly outlining my story as I saw it, but still failed to strike a spark. He seemed to be lost in contemplation of some fantastic world of his own. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be undergoing a rare experience. This wasn’t a man. It had to be a golem.”
He goes on to say that since he couldn’t back out of the picture and “seldom has a picture been made under less favorable circumstances. A truly crummy script, doctored piecemeal by an inexperienced writer (me), a cast of silent screen actors, an inexperienced sound crew, desert temperatures ranging from ninety to well over a hundred degrees, and–the golem…. The golem had one positive talent, procrastination, and time after time, the company was forced to wait in the broiling sun while he paced up and down, sometimes for hours, trying to decide where the camera should be set up. After the camera was set up and the scene shot, he would order take after take of the same scene, and for no apparent reason. Or if there was a reason, he was too inarticulate to explain. One could only conclude that the guy didn’t know his stuff and hope that out of thirty or forty takes, the cutter might find one that could be used.”
To counterbalance Bickford’s account of the making of the film, here’s what Wyler had to say, “It was the first all-sound, outdoor picture Universal made. It was made under tremendous difficulties because the camera had to be muffled in the padded booth with a soundproof window in front and a padded door in the back. Of course, George Robinson, the cameraman, was stuffed into the booth with the camera. Since the story had the men fleeing or trying to reach salvation, I couldn’t very well have them stop all the time to declaim. They were fugitives and had to move even when they spoke. So, we had to devise moving shots with dialogue. That meant putting the padded box on rails. Just imagine a dozen guys pushing this padded shack on rails in Death Valley in August in absolute silence. Microphones were concealed in cactus and sagebrush every ten feet or so. One time when we opened the door, the cameraman had fainted. He had passed out with the camera running. Outside, it was a hundred degrees, perhaps. Inside the Black Maria, it was a hundred and twenty degrees!” Wyler wanted to break with silent formula westerns, informing Robinson that he did not want to “prettify” the photography of the landscapes.
And here’s Wyler’s counter-rebuttal with regards to what he thought of Bickford. He felt that the opinionated Bickford sent the temperatures soaring even higher than they were by his condescending attitude towards Hollywood and Hollywood directors. Wyler thought Bickford felt he was an expert on dialogue where the Hollywood writers “stumbled in the dark”. The crescendo of their battle of wits came during the filming of Bob’s final day in the desert with the infant.
“He’s dying of thirst, staggering forward and, in the next scenes, has to begin to shed things–first the rifle, then the gunnysack, then the gold, and finally, for a wild moment, the baby,” Wyler recalled. “So, we discuss this and I suggest he should let the rifle drag in the sand for awhile and then just let it go.” “That’s lousy,” Bickford said. Wyler: “What’s your idea?” Bickford showed him, staggering along with the baby, finally looking at the rifle and, in a mad moment, throwing it. Wyler: “No matter how far you throw it in the desert, it’s gonna look like nothing. I don’t think it’s so good.” Bickford: “Well, that the way I’m going to do it.” Wyler: “Why don’t we try it both ways?” Bickford would not budge and refused to shoot it Wyler’s way.
So Wyler decides, “Well, on a day when he (Bickford) wasn’t working, I got someone to wear his boots and I shot it my way. I didn’t shoot the boots, just the tracks they made. It was easier on Robinson, also, since it didn’t have to have any sound. I shot the footprints. First, they went straight, then weaving, then you saw a place where he had fallen and picked himself up, then suddenly a crease appeared along the footprints. You didn’t know what it was–just this crease and, after a while, you saw the rifle lying there. I’ll fool this guy. Why stop here? I made a longer track and shot slightly erratic boot prints, then the gunnysack. Then more boot prints, then the gold, spread out in the sand, then the hat or something, and finally, the baby lying there. I did the whole thing without him even knowing it.”
This stood out. I clearly remember this scene, especially when the gold falls and disappears into the sand, impressing me that his whole raison d’ê·tre was lost forever.
In the IMDb credits, it mentions that John Huston is one of the congregants in the final church scene at the end of Hell’s Heroes. I couldn’t recognize him. But I did love the way the scene suddenly goes silent just after Bob enters the church with the infant. What bothered me in both versions, is that he never is able to tell the townsfolk the name of the child or its parentage.
I have as yet to see the 1948 3 Godfathers, something I’m not all that keen on having to watch. As unauthentic as I thought the saloon appeared to be in the 1936 film, (it may not have been, because what do I know about old-time saloons), I can only imagine how it will look in colour in 1948. Plus how likely is it for America’s hero John Wayne to appear as a uncaring bank robber, let alone as a man who condones wanton murder, and who dies in the finale? Do I care to see this story if it’s going to have a happy ending?
Although an aside but possibly a relevant one, a night or two later, I screened for my son the film Law and Order (1932). It’s a brilliant little Western, directed by Edward L. Cahn, based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, and stars Walter Huston. It connected in my mind because it features Harry Carey and Raymond Hatton who play Huston’s tight-knit posse along with a younger brother played by Russell Hopton. My son had also recently seen John Ford’s Stagecoach which features Andy Devine, and here he plays a slimmer, younger, mentally challenged character. Considering this film was made eons ago in movie time, the shootout at the end, and what supposedly brings “law and order” to the land, is quite jaw dropping.
Any way you switch it up, watching these films singularly or in a double or triple bill, you should find them a good way of spending your time.
Thank you, Caren! This was an interesting read. I’m glad your son and daughter watched with you on Mother’s Day. I had never heard of these early films and thus enjoyed your informative article.
Thanks May! Glad you read and enjoyed it!