3 Godfathers

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There’s something very charming about an outlaw who shows us his good side. Sure, he breaks laws; but in a pinch, his instinct to do the truly right thing blazes in, just in the nick of time. He’s often the anti-hero with a tough, crusty exterior and vulnerable mush inside. The lovable cad.

In John Ford’s technicolor 3 GODFATHERS (1948), based on the 1918 novelette by Peter B Kyne, Ford introduces us to three outlaws who take us on a western journey of survival with a biblical Three Magi theme. And yes, these three outlaws give us their good sides, plenty.

In this film, Ford does what Ford does best. Gathers some of his entourage of actors, finds a breathtaking filming location for a backdrop, develops unforgettable characters with sprinkles of humor, then he masters the western storytelling like no one else. 3 GODFATHERS is a indeed western. But it’s also a heist film, a race for survival film, a spin on the standard hero film, a buddy film, and a romanticized telling of The Three Wise Men/ Christmas story.

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Ford made films from the silents to the 1960s, within a variety of genres including many masterpieces, but it is the western we most associate with his signature work. When you see a Ford western, you know it, and this one is unmistakably Ford. For a demanding director who was infamous for his gruff manner and harsh treatment of his cast, he had a heart-warming sentimental side that shines through in his films.

In 3 GODFATHERS, the sentiment starts even as the opening credits roll. Both Ford and his frequent lead, John Wayne, were very good friends with actor Harry Carey who just passed the year prior. Carey starred in Ford’s silent version of this film from 1916 with the same title. In the opening credits, Ford dedicates the film to him with a silhouette of a cowboy figure resembling Carey with the quote, “bright star of the early western sky.” But make no mistake in thinking this film is a soft, wordy piece. The man was a ‘doer’ of few words. Likewise, 3 GODFATHERS is a visual story telling of action across stunning landscapes, often with horses, mules, and an abundance of thirst.

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Our three outlaws are John Wayne as Robert Marmaduke Hightower (named by Ford for his favorite stuntman Slim Hightower), Pedro Armendariz as Pedro, and Harry Carey, Jr. as William Kearney aka “The Abilene Kid.” Despite choosing opposing sides of the law, marshal Perley ‘Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond) and Hightower connect instantly with report, respect, and humor, even before the 3 outlaws rob the local bank. As Perley and a posse take chase across the desert, Hightower strategically does his best to outwit their pursuit efforts. Perley isn’t daunted, his admiration for Robert only grows stronger.

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In their quest for water and escape, the trio come across a dire scenario. A woman has been abandoned by a derelict husband who has left after forever destroying a water well in his ignorantly “tenderfoot” ways. Worst yet, she is about as pregnant as anyone could be. No means for water, the threesome make do with cactus juice and meager newborn provisions from the wagon where the woman gives birth, thanks to Pedro. There is an especially poignant and gentle scene portrayed by Mildred Natwick as the pregnant woman (supposedly 28 or 30 years old, but she was actually 43 years old at filming) who gives birth to a baby boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro, after his three godfathers.

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In Scott Eyman’s novel, “Print The Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford,” he quotes Natwick’s recall of her experience in working with Ford in this particular scene:

“I’ve never forgotten,” remembered Natwick, “that Ford seemed pleased with the scene and pleased that I done it. I guess because I knew my lines and got through it in [one] morning… I don’t know, you get things by osmosis from a wonderful director, I think. His feeling about what the woman was thinking and feeling.” 

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Natwick’s account was a stark contrast from Harry (“Dobe”) Carey, Jr.’s, for whom Jack Ford was also known as “Uncle Jack.” Despite the fond admiration betwixt his father and Jack, Dobe was not given any special treatment on the set. If anything, Ford was much tougher on him than most. Also according to Eyman’s book, this was Jack’s typical baptism onto his set via a form of fraternity hazing.

Clearly, Ford was a complicated man imbued with contradictions. Perhaps the salty layers of Robert Hightower with a firm moral code is how Jack chose to see himself.

I won’t reveal a full synopsis of this film to spoil it, but I’m confident that at the beating heart of 3 GODFATHERS is its humanity. Each of the three outlaw godfathers reveal their ultimate goodness, and individual strengths and weaknesses to us. Both small characters (like man-hungry, cackling Jane Darwell as Miss Florie) and larger characters alike are brilliantly developed and showcased. You don’t have to be a nativity believer to find appeal in this moral journey these three men face. Their struggle for survival and search for integrity at all costs, in complete devotion to the baby, tugs at the heart strings.

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I’m a sucker for the holidays. I embrace it with child-like wonder and magic. If this is a Christmas film you’ve never seen before, or if it’s been a long time, you owe it to yourself to screen it soon. You can get your chance via TCM in December 15th at 9:30pm ET, 2018. 


*This article is a submission to the Outlaws- The 2018 Fall CMBA Blogathon. I encourage you to read all the entries (click here for each day’s full list: https://clamba.blogspot.com/2018/10/outlaws-2018-fall-cmba-blogathon.html ) in this collective, of which I’m proud to be a part of. Outlaws Bannner - Jesse James

Ford & Duke Bromance: STAGECOACH (1939)

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Hollywood is known for many storied collaborations. Duos that worked together so well that the results are of cinematic legends. Such is the case of director John Ford and actor John Wayne aka Marion Robert Morrison aka ‘the Duke.’ Theirs was a rugged bromance, often contentious and many would say dysfunctional; but hardly like those BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN boys.

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The two experienced a lifelong partnership that began with filming STAGECOACH (1939). Prior to this filming partnership, John Wayne had made eighty films yet was not even a big name. Up to that point, he only starred in various small roles and dozens of B level westerns. When David O Selznick was originally offered producer role, he wanted Gary Cooper (producer Walter Wanger’s pick) as the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich as Dallas. Both Errol Flynn and Joel McCrea were considered for Ringo and Katherine Hepburn as Dallas. But Ford insisted on Wayne as soon as he felt the actor was ready. This was Ford’s first sound western. It was STAGECOACH (1939) that made John Wayne a household name.

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The story is a dramatic ride across the high desert, forcing a diverse group of strangers to get to know each other better, as they fight off their own prejudices, naive assumptions, the harsh terrain and waring Apache. This majestic western takes eight passengers on the Overland stage from Tonto to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Our diverse and fascinating travelers are: “Doc” Boone, a doctor with a drinking problem; Major Hatfield, a professional gambler and Southern gentleman; Dallas, a lady of ill repute forced out of Tonto by the gossiping spinster hens of town; a pregnant Mrs. Mallory, enroute to find her Army officer husband; Mr. Gatewood, a grouchy and absconding banker; Mr. Peacock, a feeble business man from Kansas City; Marshal Wilcox; his prisoner, the Ringo Kid, and Buck the driver.

  • Claire Trevor ~ Dallas
  • John Wayne ~ Ringo Kid
  • Andy Devine ~ Buck
  • John Carradine ~ Hatfield
  • Thomas Mitchell ~ “Doc” Josiah Boone
  • Louise Platt ~ Mrs. Lucy Mallory
  • George Bancroft ~ Marshal Curley Wilcox
  • Donald Meek ~ Mr. Samuel Peacock

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A critical character in this film not mentioned above is Monument Valley. Just like STAGECOACH (1939) marks the first collaboration of the Wayne-Ford partnership, it’s also the first of many historic Ford films on location in the spectacular Monument Valley in Arizona. As a matter of fact, there were no paved roads leading into Monument Valley prior to making this film. The visions of sagebrush, panoramic array of buttes, and the most stunning clouds billowing across the horizon defies the art of a Van Gogh. Its beauty is so striking it often distracts, taking center stage in every scene possible.

What works well in this film besides the dramatic plot points and thundering action is the breaks of comedic moments mingled amongst the colorful cast of characters. The contrast and tension between the characters is as palatable as it is charming. A stand out pairing contrasts John Wayne as the Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor as Dallas.

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Sometimes the social outcasts are the most well-mannered and hardest-working in the bunch

She’s been kicked out of town for her ‘whorish ways’ as is the doctor for his drinking and unconventional style. It’s fugitive the Ringo Kid, picked up along the way, who acts more humanely and well-mannered to Dallas than the others. He only sees her kindness, strength and beauty while the others shun her. He chooses to view her as a lady and naively never realizes she’s a prostitute. Based on her behavior on the ride, she deserves his admiration. Ringo Kid is treated with greater esteem, ironic for being a man who just escaped prison, attempting seek revenge against the men who killed his family. But based on his behavior on this journey, he earns his respect. Ultimately, despite all the contrasting personaes, tight quarters and shared life-altering experiences, it brings each a slightly more enlightened understanding. And Ford more Oscars to come, and Wayne a launch to mega stardom.

Part of what made these two- Ford and Wayne- click was a mutual admiration and some commonalities. Both were no-nonsense fellas that leaned into the bigger-than-life imagery they enjoyed projecting on-screen. The fact that they were both Americans proud of their Irish heritage later resulted in their legendary collaboration, ensembled in an Irish dream team, for THE QUIET MAN. John Wayne’s Irish ancestry can be traced to his great-great-grandfather, Robert Morrison; who was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1782. His grandmother Maggie Brown was an Irish Catholic born in County Cork in 1848.

Ford was even more enthusiastic about his Irish roots. According to the Irish American Heritage Month site:

John Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth Maine on February 1, 1894. His parents were Gaelic speaking immigrants; Ford’s father, a saloonkeeper and a Democratic Party Ward boss, was born in Spiddal County Galway, his mother from the isle of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Despite being one of eleven children, several of his siblings not surviving childhood, Ford grew up in reasonably comfortable surroundings. However, the slights and offenses that he and his family endured as Irish Americans in Yankee dominated New England forged a pugnacity that would mark his later life. In an era when all Americans were expected to assimilate, Ford took a defiant pride in his heritage and culture. As actor and fellow director, Orson Welles would observe, “(Ford) had chips on his shoulder like epaulets.”

Ford was a tough director and a tough man. He knew how to push actors’ buttons in order to get the results he desired on screen. It generally didn’t win him any popularity contests, especially from his female cast members as he was known to be notably harshest on them. (Maureen O’Hara being the rare exception because Ford knew she was as tough as the boys and the mutual respect was there, although neither were likely to admit it.) But for those who knew how to handle his gruff and bullying ways, those were the actors who remained loyal and could be seen repeatedly in his films for they knew he was one of the most skilled directors in Hollywood. This resulted in some of the most beautiful and iconic films ever made. John Wayne became synonymous as the face of these Ford classics.

Ford on the Duke:

“Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.”

Ford kept baiting Wayne during filming STAGECOACH, yelling at one point: “Don’t you know how to walk? You’re as clumsy as a hippo. And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg.” Privately Ford said of Wayne at the time: “He’ll be the biggest star ever”.

According to imdb on their relationship on this set, Ford called him a “big oaf” and a “dumb bastard” and continually criticized his line delivery and manner of walking, even how he washed his face on camera. However, at least part of this was to provoke the actor into giving a stronger performance; Claire Trevor recalls how Ford grabbed Duke by the chin and shook him. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” he said. “Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture.

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His behavior on set angered Wayne, who said of the director “I was so f–king mad I wanted to kill him.”

“I don’t think John Ford had any kind of respect for me as an actor until I made “Red River” for Howard Hawks. I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor. I know now, though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he’d respected me as an actor since “STAGECOACH”, even though he hadn’t let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he’d never said anything to me, until the right time.”

“John Ford was like a father to me, like a big brother. I got word that he wanted to see me at his home in Palm Springs, and when I got there, he said, “Hi Duke, down for the deathwatch?” “Hell no,” I said, “you’ll bury us all.” But he looked so weak. We used to be a triumvirate – Ford and me and a guy named Ward Bond. The day I went to Palm Springs, Ford said, “Duke, do you ever think of Ward?” “All the time,” I said. “Well, let’s have a drink to Ward,” he said. So I got out the brandy, gave him a sip and took one for myself. “All right, Duke,” he said finally, “I think I’ll rest for a while.” I went home, and that was Pappy Ford’s last day.”

Obviously their love/hate relationship was one only they fully understood. Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they were just a couple of good drinking buddies that knew how to bring out the best in each other, even if in dysfunctional ways; to make memorable movie magic. To sum up the symbiotic collaboration of the John Ford/John Wayne filmography, all you really have to do is watch all of their mutual films. The results speak loud and clear up on that silver screen.

*Tandem Tumbleweed Thought to Consider~ Quentin Tarantino’s recent HATEFUL EIGHT features eight characters who are mostly strangers to each other, all thrown together as traveling companions along in an Overland stagecoach who make a pitstop and face extreme danger which forces them to learn more about each other. Sound familiar? It’s a surprisingly similar parallel to the basic story structure in STAGECOACH. While the social dynamics in HATEFUL EIGHT are much more ‘hateful’ and bloody, it makes me wonder if QT is a fan of Ford’s STAGECOACH, in addition to his spaghetti western love, and found some inspiration here.

**This was my contribution to CINEMAVEN’S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH, Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, Jan 23-24, 2016. Explore all the fun and creative contributions on Theresa’s site this weekend.

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Take a Pilgrim-age to the John Wayne Birthday Celebration

Can’t get enough Duke? Turner Classic Movies network is showcasing John Wayne as their April ‘Star of the Month’ with an ample series of his very best films. And if you’re a big fan of this bigger-than-life legend of classic films like me, you may already be feeling the melancholy set in, knowing this Wayne-loving month has come to a close. Fear not fans- John Wayne’s birthday is approaching on May 26. And partner, I’ve got just the thing to set you straight up in your saddle… the John Wayne Birthday Celebration in Winterset, Iowa.

In the sleepy little midwestern town of Winterset, you will find a fitting tribute to their celebrity son, Marion Robert Morrison who was born here on May 26, 1907. Long before launching his incredibly popular five-decade career in film, John Wayne spent his childhood in this charming town as Marion Morrison. Every year to honor their hometown legend, the proud folks of Winterset host the most marvelous weekend-long celebration on the weekend closest to his birthday. This year, this event takes place May 23-26th. I had the great pleasure of making the journey to this festival last May when their special guest of honor, and theme of events, was the legendary Maureen O’Hara who shared five films with Duke. (You can read more on my trek to last year’s fest, by clicking here.)

This year’s schedules of events promises to awaken this sleepy small town with much of the same fun-packed frivolity as before. An adventure awaits from FREE film screenings, to a tour of his birthplace home, to a real rodeo, to pie eating and a celebrity benefit dinner plus so much more! If you’re the type that absolutely must get up-close to some relatives, co-stars or even book experts of John Wayne because it almost feels like being part of the Wayne inner circle, you’re in for a treat. As part of this year’s line-up, you will have the chance to nab those name-dropping bragging rights with the following folks:

Lana Wood, co-star with John Wayne from THE SEARCHERS…
-as special guest to the Birthplace Museum Benefit Dinner and Auction, Wood will recount her tales of portraying “little Debbie” on the set while working with Wayne and Ford in Monument Valley. Wood is also known as Natalie Wood’s real-life little sister and for her stint as a ‘Bond girl.’ Following, John Wayne’s daughter Aissa will host the popular auction of John Wayne memorabilia.

Scott Eyman, biographer of “John Wayne: The Life and Legend”…
-discussion and autograph session from the celebrated author who has been this month’s guest programmer along side Robert Osborne, introducing Wayne’s “Star of the Month” film series. 

Glenn Frankel, author of “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend”…
-discussion and book signing from this New York Times best-selling author who accounts the real back stories behind this enduring classic western.

Many activities at the John Wayne Birthday Celebration are free, some events attach a reasonable cost and certain key events require reserved tickets (such as the Birthplace Museum Benefit Dinner and Auction)~ so get your tickets early! Check out their site for all the details at www.johnwaynebirthplace.museum/birthday or call (877) 462-1044. Donations are happily accepted so fundraising is ongoing for the world’s only museum dedicated to John Wayne. Groundbreaking for this museum should kick off this spring!

(*photos and scheduling are courtesy of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum site)

The full schedule of activities and events:
Friday, May 23

9am–5pm John Wayne Birthplace
All Day
FREE John Wayne Movies The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Iowa Theater
6pm Madison County Fairgrounds
9pm Western Swing Dance Madison County Fairgrounds

Saturday, May 24

7am – 11am
Fire Station
All Day
FREE John Wayne Movies The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Iowa Theater
9am–5pm John Wayne Birthplace
9am
John Wayne Birthplace 5K Run/Walk
John Wayne Birthplace lot, corner of Washington & Second Streets
John Wayne Birthplace lot
10am
Madison County Chamber
12:30pm – 3pm
Courthouse Square
1pm
Book Symposium with authors Lana Wood, Scott Eyman, Glenn Frankel and Aissa Wayne
Madison County Historical Complex
1pm Cowboy Mounted Shooters Madison County Fairgrounds
2pm
Madison County Chamber
John Wayne Birthplace Museum Benefit DinnerMadison County Historical Complex, 815 South Second Ave., Winterset

Doors open at 5pm
Social hour, followed by a delicious Dinner and a lively talk about John Wayne, John Ford and The Searchers by Lana Wood (little Debbie)
Auction hosted by Aissa Wayne

Sunday, May 25

All Day
FREE John Wayne Movies The Searchers, Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Iowa Theater
10am Cowboy Mounted Shooters Madison County Fairgrounds
10am–4:30pm John Wayne Birthplace
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