Things get complicated when, looking for water, they come across an established that a tenderfoot, in his ignorance and panic has dynamited in an an attempt to get more water, destroying it. If that weren't bad enough, he's run off into the desert to find his stock, driven loco by alkaline poisoning, leaving behind his wife (Mildred Natwick) delirious and about to give birth. Unbeknownst to them, she's the niece of Sheriff Sweet's.
|Armendáriz, Wayne and Carey Jr. don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies|
It is, after all, almost Christmas.
It's a sweet story, about how the spirit turns with the charge of a newborn, and how even those on a downward spiral can be lifted up by a lack of self. And Ford, working with screenwriters Frank Nugent (a new find with his Fort Apache script) and Laurence Stallings (with whom Ford and Nugent would collaborate on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) keeps the sentiment high, and the humor all over the map from leaden to subtle. Even without its silent roots (Mae Marsh from TheBirth of a Nation has a large role!), the film, in tone, feels like a throwback to an earlier time, like Ford's work in the '30's circa Stagecoach—not a bad time at all. And, in the timeline of his work this looks like a wave good-bye to his western work of the past, as Ford would subtly move on to the slightly more serious She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to the dire The Searchers within the space of seven years.
It was about this time that Wayne's performance in Howard Hawks' Red River (playing "old" at 41 years of age) was noticed by everyone, and notably Ford, who had still been using Wayne in co-starring roles. "I didn't know the big sonuvabitch could act!" Ford groused to Hawks. 3 Godfathers is Wayne stepping into the limelight of Ford's films, where he would stay (mostly) for the rest of Ford's career. And, as with the humor of the film, Wayne's performance covers a lot of ground, leaden to subtle. His physical work is unmatched, as usual, casually sitting on a horse as if it was an easy chair, stumbling through the desert in an alarming drunk march (supposedly holding a baby, which throw some scary drama into it, if you think about it), doing little character things you only notice later, like the way Hightower trudges dumbly through an edge-of-town water collection at the start of the film before it becomes of the utmost importance, and something that seems peculiarly florid and over-the-top but pays off hugely throughout the film: Hightower is something of a jerk and mean-spirited and given to elaborate mock-formality when teasing others, especially the way he takes off his hat and does a too-formal presentation of it. It looks phony (it is phony for this rough man of the West), but it turns into genuine acts of kindness and civility—the man grows into the gesture and becomes him, a signature of the man he has become through the trails and tribulations that have become the period to a life of bad manners, bad habits and bad choices. And the film ends with that same gesture, sending the man off to his fate, but promising the return of a better man and a better future.
This is all done with pictures, part of the skein of direction that Ford imposes on the film that, combined with the exquisite cinematography of Winton Hoch, makes this odd, anti-Christmas Christmas film something of a precious gem for the Holidays.
|The resonant gesture of John Wayne in its most practical usage:|
Thanks to the Way of Seeing blog for noticing this one.
* There is also a harder edged 1936 version starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan, directed by Richard Boleshawski.