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3 Godfathers (1949)

After Red River Wayne reclaimed his youth starring for John Ford in Three Godfathers, the director's remake of his Marked Men (1919). Harry Carey Sr., who had played in Red River just before his death, starred in the original and this version, besides co-starring his son, is dedicated to his memory as "the bright star of the early Western sky." The popularity of this Peter B. Kyne story is rather surprising - two other versions came between the Ford ones - because it is a sentimental tale of three outlaws caring for a new-born baby with some explicit Biblical parallels. Three Godfathers emerges as a remarkably fine picture, generally underestimated alongside Ford's other great contributions to the genre at this time. In particular, a warmth of feeling and good humor keeps the potentially mawkish aspects in check and this is a film in which Wayne's range is clearly demonstrated to moving effect.

He plays Robert Marmaduke (Bob) Hightower, the leader of the three outlaws who ride into Welcome, Arizona, to rob the bank. The others are Pedro Armendariz's Pedro and Harry Carey Jr.'s William Kearny 'The Abilene Kid'. They are pleasant, likable people, misguided like the cowboy in the song "Streets of Laredo" which features in the film. Wayne is anxious that the Kid shouldn't come to any harm and during the robbery he stations him outside the bank to hold the getaway horses. But first they swap pleasantries with Buck Sweet (Ward Bond, in a sympathetic role for a change), a townsman they find tending his garden, with Wayne taken aback in mid-sentence as Buck pins his marshal's badge to his shirt. Then, as they proceed down the street, Wayne offers a gallant sweep of his hat to the lady from the East (Dorothy Ford) who is delighted to find three real Westerners. Next they commit the hold-up and hightail it out of town hotly pursued by a posse whose shots wound the Kid in the shoulder and puncture their water bag. This is desert country and they make for a watering halt on the railroad with Wayne exhibiting youthful enthusiasm at the sight of the water tower: "Boy, I'm gonna skin me down to the hide, climb up that ladder and dive into that tank right to the bottom!" But the marshal has anticipated their move and arrives before they can get close and they make off to another source of water, Terrapin Tanks.

Sheltering from a sandstorm (a fantastically vivid sequence, though only part of an always real sense of the harsh environment), they find their horses have wandered from their tether and they walk the rest of the way. Wayne goes ahead to take a look around and has a virtuoso sequence reciting the catalogue of woes that one "Mr. Tenderfoot" has imposed on them by his prior arrival there, his speech building to the worst news of all. An emigrant has dynamited the hole in an attempt to get water from it and wrecked it for good. He has wandered off and not come back. His wife is still there in a wagon. "But that ain't the worst of it. No, sir! Not by a long shot. She's going to have a baby. She's going to have it right now." Wayne masters the odd construction of the speech splendidly and concludes "I'm a tough bird, an awful tough old bird, but I'm not going back in there!"

Pedro, who has had the benefit of marital experience, is dispatched to deliver the baby and later the three gather around the dying mother (Mildred Natwick) who fails to discern any villainy in their faces and asks Wayne if he will save the baby. "Yes, ma'am, I'll save him," Wayne replies without any hesitation, looking embarrassed as she goes on to express the hope that the infant boy will grow up to be like the fine men she has just appointed as godfathers. With the mother gone, the trio milk the gentle art of baby care for all its comic worth. There are unforgettable images of Wayne's tough hombre grinning with pleasure as he nurses the baby, patting its bottom and making it cry; expressing scepticism over the advice offered by a book on baby care; carrying on a hushed conversation over the word "toilette" for fear that it's one the baby shouldn't hear; applying axle grease to "slick him up a mite," laughing with the others as he does it; and growling "Say that again," when the Kid reads with great concentration from the manual that "the best and surest way of feeding the baby is the one which Nature has provided," commenting quickly, "Well, that's out." Then the realization of their predicament breaks through with Wayne momentarily giving way to anger. It is the Kid who first spots that it is divine intervention that has brought them to this spot and that they have an ordained role to fulfil, carrying the child to the town of New Jerusalem with a bright star to guide them as three new wise men.

They start across the salt flats with the Kid knowing that he isn't going to make it and putting in his share of the carrying before collapsing and dying. Pedro takes over and, when his foot goes into a hole and he falls sideways to avoid crushing the baby, he twists his ankle and Wayne has to leave him behind with a gun to shoot himself. And so Wayne goes on alone, staggering forward, reaching higher ground, entering a gloomy narrow pass that mirrors his darkening frame of mind. He flings away the Bible that has been passed on to him, then thinks better of it and picks it up. It has fallen open at a passage about finding a donkey. "You just try finding a burro in this country!" he yells to the air, moving on in a state of delirium and starting to sing "Streets of Laredo" to have the ghostly voice of the Kid take it up and Pedro join in to spur him on. Then he finds the promised burro waiting patiently ahead and so arrives in the town of New Jerusalem on Christmas Day, bursting in on the festivities in the saloon, crying "Merry Christmas to all!" and collapsing with total exhaustion.

The film then switches to some amiable bickering between marshal Buck Sweet, who wants to adopt the child, and his prisoner, Wayne, who refuses to sign the necessary papers in exchange for a suspended sentence, preferring to keep his word to the dying mother although agreeing to Buck looking after the infant while he's away. The judge (Guy Kibbee) is impressed and gives Wayne the minimum sentence of a year and a day before (in typical Ford fashion) declaring the bar open for celebrations. When Wayne takes the train for the penitentiary, he is given a new responsibility of looking after Buck's dim-witted deputy (Hank Worden) and has the banker's daughter to wave farewell to him (in Dorothy Ford, he had an actress who, as one of Hollywood's tallest women, could really stand up to him). The festive ending of the train drawing out is an indelibly romantic image of the old West.

While it is Ford's genuine feeling for the subject that conquers its liabilities, the director draws on Wayne for those touches of dark despair and hard-bitten cynicism that he conveys so well to put the film on a realistic footing from time to time when it threatens to become saccharine or overly comic. Three Godfathers will never be to everybody's taste but is certainly among Wayne's better accomplishments.


Robert Marmaduke Hightower John Wayne
Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pete) Pedro Armandariz
William Kearney (The Abilene Kid) Harry Carey Jr.
Perley 'Buck' Sweet Ward Bond
The Mother Mildred Natwick
Mrs. Perley Sweet Mae Marsh
Judge Guy Kibbee
Miss Florie Jane Darwell
Ruby Latham Dorothy Ford
Deputy Sheriff Curly Hank Worden
Luke - Train Conductor Jack Pennick
Drunken Old Timer at Bar Francis Ford
Member of posse Ben Johnson

Previously filmed as Marked Men (1919, with Harry Carey Sr. in the Wayne role); Hell's Heroes (1930, with Charles Bickford in the Wayne role); and Three Godfathers (1936, with Chester Morris in the Wayne role).
Shooting from mid-May to mid-June 1948.
Released January 14, 1949 (U.S.); May 2, 1949 (G.B.)

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