Lost in the Movies: Three Comrades

Three Comrades

We begin at the end of the Great War, as it was still known at the time - how could there be a "I" if there wasn't yet a "II" - as a German officer speaks to soldiers weary from years of war and relieved to be returning home. His words are not draped in glory, honor, and nationalism but relief and generosity toward the "enemy"; indeed, while Germany would be punished rather severely at the Treaty of Versailles (several months later), in this moment there is no sense of victors and losers, only survivors. When nationalism does emerge as a force to be reckoned with, it's an explicit blight upon the city that most of Three Comrades unfolds within (apparently designed around Berlin in the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, although the metropolis onscreen seems quieter, more like a bustling but provincial town, and therefore all the more ominous). Dr. Becker, leader of a leftist group - quite likely Communist, but as unnamed as the likely National Socialist thugs who wreak intermittent havoc throughout the film - argues for reason even as a torch-wielding parade descends on his beleaguered audience.

This is just the backdrop for an intense personal romance between a sickly young woman and her naive, good-hearted boyfriend and eventual husband, who struggles to finance her stay at a wintry rural sanitarium as well as the surgery required to keep her alive. Yet this recognizable historical context reinforces the love story's fatalism. Both from a contemporary standpoint and within the text of the film itself - which ends with a couple characters fleeing to South America as gunshots ring out across the city - the social milieu carries an apocalyptic feeling. Although Three Comrades has been criticized as politically neutered since its release (a Variety critic suggested that its time period felt like "a century ago" and that it develops "no relation between the historical events of that period and the Reich of today"), what's striking now is the degree to which it engages with world events, however cautiously and perhaps at times even cowardly. This is especially so given the collaboration between Hollywood film censor Joseph Breen and the German Consul General alleged by New Masses in 1937 (although, according to a helpful article by TCM, the documentary record suggests a more informal understanding).

The title refers to three comrades, but of course there are actually four: the three men, World War I veterans turned early auto mechanics Erich Lohkamp (Robert Taylor), Otto Koster (Franchot Tone), and Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young), and a woman, Patricia Hollmann (Margaret Sullavan), Erich's lover and close friend of Gottfried and especially Otto. No Yoko breaking up this closeknit band of brothers, nor a distaff fourth wheel fueling jealousy and competition between them, she only cements their bond. There's something rather curious in the social dynamic on display in this Hollywood romance. Considering we never see Gottfried or Otto express the slightest interest in other woman, or in Pat for that matter (aside from respectful admiration that enthusiastically encourages their buddy to pursue her), is there a possible queer reading in the offing? I can't find much (online at least) and in fact, any online commentary on the prestigious film is surprisingly limited. Anyway I don't think these gender relations actually are that unusual in reality, they just feel odd - and refreshing - onscreen.

Three Comrades belongs to that appealing Golden Age quasi-genre of very much soundstage-bound visions of Europe, in which the Old World characters spout casually American slang in accents to match, contradicted only by their names, the decor, and the occasional wide shot featuring a combo of matte shots, painted backdrops, and set work (this film has several stunners). In fact, Three Comrades belongs to what might be called a subgenre within this milieu, Frank Borzage's "Weimar trilogy" along with Little Man, What Now? - which I've yet to see - and The Mortal Storm, which I approvingly capsule-reviewed a decade ago. In all three, Sullavan stars against a backdrop of Germany's decline into right-wing violence. However, all three take pains, varied amongst each other and borne out to varying degrees in their literary source material, to avoid a too-close-to-current-events portrait of Nazism (The Shop Around the Corner, which retains Sullavan and sticks with Stewart from The Mortal Storm, while swapping Borzage for Ernst Lubtisch and dropping Young of Storm and Comrades, could be considered a remote cousin of these films, poignant in its avoidance of politics altogether).

Last night was my second viewing, aside from a clip of the car chase I included in my 32 Days of Movies compilation (because of this video, as the cars round a corner I now instinctively expect Looney Tunes' Dodo to pull up next to Porky Pig in his speedboat). This time I was particularly struck by the engaging performance of Tone, whom I only remembered as a distant third banana in Mutiny on the Bounty; here he is wise, witty, and warm - a believable big brother type smiling with tired relief at happiness he knows he can never experience firsthand but is happy to soak up from a distance. Young is also quite engaging as the leftist comrade, the mixture of fiery idealism and blunt realism that characterized anti-fascists of the period. He's always a lively presence in thirties cinema, although Mortal Storm casts him as the complete opposite of his character here. The weakest link, unfortunately, is Taylor, rather drippy and droopy as the "boy" out of league with not only his two longer-serving buddies but the reticent yet devoted Pat. Apparently the star was frustrated with the ostensibly soft roles MGM assigned him at this time, and had to be coaxed by Louis B. Mayer into accepting the role.

Sullavan is, unsurprisingly, wonderful as the fragile linchpin ever-precariously keeping these world-weary men in genuinely good spirits (as opposed to the alcoholic variety). Is - plot spoilers ahead - her final sacrifice noble or selfish? It's certainly played as the former, but Erich and Otto indicate that it's pure pleasure for them to make their own sacrifices on her behalf, and it's not as if they've much more to give considering they already sold beloved taxicab Baby to pay for her now-completed surgery. What does getting up from bed against doctor's advice, allowing her lung to be punctured, really achieve? Well, I suppose the answer is a suitably dramatic and tearjerking conclusion right up Borzage's alley although I doubt it was the director's suggestion. I would imagine the Production Code wasn't keen on suicide, but from what I can gather Remarque's book allows the heroine to die of natural causes rather than boldly stepping out of bed and out onto her balcony in a dramatic statement of her desire to "free" her friends of any obligation to her. This appears to be an addition of the screenwriters.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's draft has been available for years and, at a glance (I've read the beginning and dipped into the end) it dovetails with the finished film in the exchanges between Erich (here dubbed Bobby) and Pat but deviates in the bigger picture, emphasizing the ideological character of the postwar period. Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz rewrote much of Fitzgerald's script; the curious limitation of the story's events to just 1920 and 1921 (rather anachronistic, given how the Nazi rise occurred much later, and not at all drawn from the book which doesn't even open until 1923) was apparently Mankiewicz's call. I might have attributed this to Fitzgerald; after all, The Great Gatsby, that quintessential Roaring Twenties tale, unfolds quite early in the decade and is populated by an ensemble whose youth is rooted in the teens. It would have been quite typical for Fitzgerald to backload the chronology and emphasize how much these people had been through in a relatively short period. Indeed, a lifetime can be lived in a few short years - of such material is a lost generation formed.

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