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In 1947, John Ford directed and released an uncharacteristic failure, the offbeat Henry Fonda picture, The Fugitive. The miserable experience of shooting The Fugitive and its disappointing box office returns instigated a change of direction in Ford's career. From then on, he relied on westerns to sustain a healthy career. And since Argosy, Ford's production company co-owned with Merian C. Cooper, was then on the brink of bankruptcy, another western seemed like a good bet. This western project eventually became 3 Godfathers (1948). Ford chose to remake Peter B. Kyne's story of "The Three Godfathers." Harry Carey, Sr. had starred in two different silent versions of the story, Three Godfathers in 1916 and the Ford-directed Marked Men in 1929. MGM had made the last version of the Kyne story in 1936, and still owned the rights, so Ford would have to make 3 Godfathers at MGM under another old lion of Hollywood, studio chief Louis B. Mayer. Ford made it clear though that he would not defer to MGM's unfriendly policies towards maverick directors. In September 1947, before the project took root, Carey, a life-long mentor and friend to Ford, died of a coronary thrombosis. To pay homage to Carey, Ford decided to give his son, Harry Carey, Jr., a proper launch for his budding acting career with a starring role in 3 Godfathers.
Ford chose John Wayne and Mexican star Pedro Armendariz to co-star with Harry Carey, Jr. in the tale of three bad men who find redemption in a barren land. Ford's treatment of actors on his set was legendary. From John Wayne to supporting players, Ford's behavior was often nothing less than harsh. An unfortunate recipient of this abuse on the set of 3 Godfathers was Pedro Armendariz, who happened to be a big star in Mexico. Armendariz showed up on location in Death Valley dressed in a skin-tight black leather costume with silver studs and a big sombrero, thinking he was to be the star of the picture. Ford took him aside and instructed him to forget about looking like a hero, since Armendariz's character was a bandit, a rogue, and a low-life. Ford refitted him with a pair of pants with conchos on the sides, a gringo shirt with flowers on it, a Mexican vest, and an old beat up sombrero. Armendariz went into a rage, but Ford just ignored him. For a horse, an old swaybacked mare with a Mexican saddle was used. Every time Armendariz would complain about his wardrobe or his horse, Ford would go over to the prop truck and get a coffee pot or a frying pan and hang it on Armendariz's saddle, thus accentuating the unglamorous nature of the character.
However, Ford treated no one worse on the 3 Godfathers set than Harry Carey, Jr. Even though Carey had called Ford "Uncle Jack" all his life, he became too frightened of Ford on the set to refer to him by the intimate title. Initially, Ford made it clear to Carey that he was "going to hate my guts before this picture is over," but he did not say exactly why. Ford didn't waste time making his prediction come true. On some days, Ford would demand that Carey bend over so that he could kick him hard for some infraction or mistake Carey had made during a scene. When Carey once had trouble continuing a scene, Ford picked up a rock and lobbed it straight at Carey's face. The actor ducked, and the rock landed square in Pedro Armendariz's stomach. Most often though, Ford simply taunted Carey with audible pronouncements such as, "We should have gotten Audie Murphy!"
But despite his cruelty, Ford was still capable of sensitivity towards Carey. Once Carey's final scenes were shot, Ford commanded him to go home. Carey refused, thinking Ford was just being mean, but Ford won out in the end. As it turns out, Ford still had to shoot the film's pre-credit title sequence, dedicated to the memory of Carey's father. The title read, "Dedicated to Harry Carey, a bright star in the early western sky." Cliff Lyons doubled Harry Carey as the lone rider on Sonny, Carey's favorite horse. The sequence shows Lyons as Carey riding in silhouette to the top of a hill, pushing his hat back on his head, and looking off. Ford knew that watching the scene shot might be too much for the young Carey, so he shielded Carey from it, as a doting "uncle" would a "nephew."
Director: John Ford
Producer: Merian C. Cooper, John Ford
Screenplay: Laurence Stallings, Frank S. Nugent, Peter B. Kyne (story)
Cinematography: Winton Hoch
Editor: Jack Murray
Art Direction: James Basevi
Music: Richard Hageman
Cast: John Wayne (Robert Marmaduke Sangster Hightower), Pedro Armendariz (Pedro Roca Fuerte), Harry Carey Jr. (William Kearney, The Abilene Kid), Ward Bond (Perley "Buck" Sweet), Mae Marsh (Mrs. Perley Sweet).
C-107m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee