Three Godfathers (1936 film)

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Three Godfathers
Three Godfathers FilmPoster.jpeg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Richard Boleslawski
Written by Peter B. Kyne (novel)
Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Manuel Seff
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Chester Morris
Lewis Stone
Walter Brennan
Irene Hervey
Cinematography Joseph Ruttenberg
Edited by Frank Sullivan
Music by William Axt
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
March 6, 1936
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited States

Three Godfathers is a 1936 American Western film directed by Richard Boleslawski and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Walter Brennan, and Irene Hervey. It was adapted from the novel of the same name by Peter B. Kyne. Three bank robbers find a newborn baby and his dying mother in the desert.


Directors Edward LeSaint and John Ford had previously filmed silent versions of the film titled The Three Godfathers (LeSaint in 1916) and Marked Men [1] (Ford in 1919), both of which starred actor Harry Carey. The first sound version was Hell's Heroes , which was also William Wyler's first all-talking film; it starred Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, and Fred Kohler. John Ford would later film yet another version of the film as 3 Godfathers (1948) dedicated to Carey, and starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz, and Carey's son, Harry Carey Jr.


A week before Christmas, four bandits ride through the desert and pause on a rise over the town of New Jerusalem, the target of their next bank robbery. Bob Sangster (Chester Morris) with a villainous smile, says he is looking forward to returning to his hometown. Doc Underwood (Lewis Stone) is a cultured man with a Ph.D. and the cough of a man dying of consumption. Gus Barton (Walter Brennan), a character who can't remember his aliases, is looking forward to a chance to loaf over Christmas. Pedro ( Joseph Marievsky) always plays his guitar and sings as he rides.

The saloon is about to close because the whole town, including Blackie (Dorothy Tree), the girl who works at the bodega, is invited to the Christmas social, which is being celebrated a few days early. Doc and Gus are also welcomed to the feast and dance—and a demonstration of the latest in false teeth by the town dentist (Sidney Toler). Bob's arrival strikes a chill through the festivities. His conversations become increasingly sinister but when he meets Molly (Irene Hervey), the girl he loved, his face changes, briefly. They dance and while the sheriff (Roger Imhof), Gus and Doc look on, Gus asks “Who is that poisonous critter?” The sheriff replies “A lowdown no account skunk.” Doc asks, “Is he a killer?” and the sheriff answers: “He’ll kill anything from a baby to an old woman.” Doc muses, “I’ve always wanted to meet a real Western killer.”

Meanwhile, Bob offers Molly a watch that he says belonged to his Mother. His sweet talk grows increasingly aggressive, as he confronts Molly with the fact that she still loves him, even though she is going to marry Ed Barrow (John Sheehan). Bob seizes her, she slaps him, and then she thanks him for driving away the memory of a strong and silent man and showing her the truth. She gives the watch back, telling him to return it to the woman he stole it from, and walks away. Bob's comments to himself are ambiguous. The woman who owned it is dead. Did he steal it and kill the owner? Or was it in fact his mother's? Bob goes to the bodega, which has reopened for the evening, and finds solace in Blackie's arms. The next morning Bob uses the watch and a long sad story about his Mother to bilk the bodega owner out of his bar tab.

Pedro is strolling the street, playing his guitar, singing and keeping watch. In the bank, Frank Benson (Robert Livingston), the young bank president, is trying on a Santa Claus outfit when the bandits come in. No resistance is offered, but Bob shoots him in cold blood, saying “there ain’t no Santa Claus.”

The robbers flee in a hail of gunfire from townspeople. The dentist kills Pedro, and Doc is wounded in the arm. They pause at the first waterhole they pass, but not to drink or water the horses. The well is poisoned and a signpost marks the distances to the next towns or watering holes. Doc refuses any treatment for his arm, and they head to the next good place for water. On the way, they find the body of a man named George Marshall, a tenderfoot by his clothes and brand-new gun (with his name on it) who shot himself. Bob theorizes that Marshall ate locoweed and went crazy. Convinced they will soon be at the good waterhole, the robbers drink deeply from their own canteens. Doc empties his. As they ride, Doc and Gus sing “Boola Boola,” the Yale fight song. This song, like a lot of the things Doc says and does—and especially the books he reads—are mysterious to Gus, but he admires and enjoys all of it.

When they get to the waterhole, they find a wagon sheltering a dying woman—Marshall's wife (Helen Brown)—and her baby boy. The waterhole has been destroyed: Marshall dynamited it trying to increase the flow, and then went off to find help. They try to lie to her about her husband's fate and her own, but she knows it is too late and commits her child to their care. They bury her and camp for the night.

Doc and Gus want to take the baby with them; Bob is in favor of “putting him out of his misery. “ In the morning they find that all three horses are dead from drinking at the dynamited well. They must go back to New Jerusalem. Bob hands a can of milk to each man and starts to drink his. Doc buys it for the baby with his share of the gold. His arm is festering, but he wants to be the first one to carry the baby, knowing that he will not last the journey. Along the way, Doc makes a will for Gus, who can't read, and gives him the book of his choice—a volume of Schopenhauer, which Gus thinks is a book of jokes.

At last, Doc tells them to take the baby and leave him. He burns a packet of letters and asks Gus to give him Macbeth to read (Shakespeare wrote “green books”). Doc doesn't open the well-worn book, but repeats from memory, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in its petty pace...” The camera stays on Gus and Bob walking away into the desert. When Doc reaches the last words, “signifying nothing” a shot rings out. Gus and Bob pause to look back, then trudge on.

Eventually they both collapse, and Gus asks what will happen if he gives out. Bob says that if the baby can crawl to New Jerusalem he won't stop him

It is night, and Bob is asleep. Gus looks up and hesitatingly says a prayer from his childhood “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild...” He leaves his share of the gold and the will beside the baby and walks into the desert. In the morning, Bob reads the will, which is actually a note to him from Doc asking him to “give the kid an even break.” The camera follows him as he leaves the baby behind; the child wails and he draws and shoots. There is silence for a beat and then we see that Bob killed a rattlesnake to protect the child. Telling himself that he is crazy, he picks up the baby and sets off through the desert. He gives the baby the last of the water, and at last they come to the spot where the baby's father's body lies. They are only 9 miles—5 hours— from New Jerusalem. Bob drops all the gold, the blankets, everything except the baby. At last in despair he falls to his knees, caked in alkali from head to toe, and prays, struggling with the words and weeping dry-eyed. Suddenly he sees in the distance the signposts at the poisoned well where they paused after the robbery. They are 5 1/2 miles—one hour—from New Jerusalem; he remembers Doc saying that it would take an hour for a man or horse to die from the poison in that well. So, he plans to fill his belly with water and then “go fast.”

Saying “Here’s to you kid,” he plunges his face into the water and drinks deeply.

Bob staggers into town; the streets are deserted, because everyone is in church. He follows the sound of hymn singing, struggling up the steps into the church and down the aisle as the congregation watches, aghast. Molly is in the front row; he kneels and puts the baby into her arms, then struggles to his feet, back pressed against a pillar. Above his head hangs a wreath that suggests a crown of thorns; he turns and falls, dead.

As Molly carries the baby down the aisle someone notices that he is using Bob's watch as a teething ring and wonders where Bob stole it. Molly says with absolute conviction that it was his Mother's.


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  1. Scott McGee. "Three Godfathers (1936)". Turner Classic Movies.