Taylor had become a star as the playboy-turned-surgeon in the original Magnificent Obsession (1935), but as his popularity grew, he came to resent the pretty-boy roles the studio came up with to appeal to his female fans. Nor was he happy with the growing rumors about his alleged homosexuality. It wasn't until he played an American athlete abroad in A Yank in Oxford (1938) that he began to develop a more manly image. When Louis B. Mayer assigned him to Three Comrades, Taylor said no. He wasn't comfortable playing a German and thought the script too romantic. Mayer assured him that the prestige project would help his career and promised him more manly roles, so he gave in.
Remarque's novels had been a popular source of inspiration for Hollywood since his tale of life in Germany during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), captured one of the first Oscars for Best Picture. Since Three Comrades dealt with Germany's lost generation in the years after the war, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz assigned the screenplay to the poet laureate of America's lost generation, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But though Fitzgerald was in the first rank of American fiction writers thanks to such contemporary classics as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, he never mastered screenwriting. If he wasn't being replaced on projects, they were being cancelled right out from under him. Three Comrades would be his only screen credit, and at that, only about one third of his work ended up on the screen. Mankiewicz considered his dialogue too literary and his work lacking in visual sense. He tried to salvage things by assigning contract writer Edward E. Paramore, Jr., to help, but the collaboration didn't work out. Mankiewicz wound up re-writing most of the script himself, no challenge for a man who had started as a writer and would go on to win Oscars for scripting A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
But if Fitzgerald's experience with Three Comrades would prove to be unfortunate, the film would present a boon to another MGM newcomer. Stage star Margaret Sullavan had already made a few films, including Little Man, What Now? (1934), another treatment of the rise of Nazism with Three Comrades director Frank Borzage. Though she had just scored a major hit on Broadway in Stage Door (1937), she allowed husband and agent Leland Hayward to talk her into the security of a six-film contract with MGM. The studio wasted no time in finding the perfect role for her - Pat, the penniless aristocrat who marries Taylor only to find her poor health a growing threat to his dreams. Her performance was the chief factor in the film's positive critical reception. Writing for The New York Times, Frank Nugent said, "The word admirable is sheer understatement. Her performance is almost unendurably lovely." She won the New York Film Critics Award for Three Comrades, along with her only Oscar nomination (she lost to Bette Davis in Jezebel).
Despite glowing reviews, however, Three Comrades did not do as well at the box office as the studio had hoped. Part of the problem may have been the removal of most of the novel's political content. Under pressure from the German consulate, the studio cut references to book burnings and anti-Semitism. And although the novel covered more than a decade, from the end of World War I to the rise of the Nazi Party, the film is set in 1921, long before anybody had heard of Hitler. One of the few reviews to note this may explain the picture's poor performance at the box office. As the critic for Variety noted: "In the light of events on the continent in the past five years, the background of 1921 in Germany seems like a century ago. There is developed in the film no relation between the historical events of that period and the Reich of today. The story is dated and lacks showmanship values of current European movements." In fact, the Three Comrades that reached the screen was so politically inoffensive that it played uncut in Japan during World War II.
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Based on the Novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Robert Taylor (Erich Lohkamp), Margaret Sullavan (Pat Hollmann), Franchot Tone (Otto Koster), Robert Young (Gottfried Lenz), Guy Kibbee (Alfons), Lionel Atwill (Franz Breuer), Henry Hull (Dr. Heinrich Becker), George Zucco (Dr. Plauten), Charley Grapewin (Local Doctor), Monty Woolley (Dr. Jaffe), Marjorie Main (Old Woman).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller