Three Comrades (Frank Borzage / U.S., 1938):

Germany between the wars, "fine weather for drifters." The Armistice is a beer toast while military aircraft burns outside, Romance (Robert Taylor) and Reason (Franchot Tone) and Idealism (Robert Young) in fraternal bond, a nation’s conscience. Back home they run a small garage, and into their circle wanders the aristocratic moonbeam (Margaret Sullavan) who becomes a shared Muse. "We’re neither dead nor alive," she declares at one of their outings, lending husky voice to the Lost Generation’s fatalism. Taylor courts the shimmering apparition, only to be struck by her fragility: Luxuriating by the beachfront on their honeymoon, Sullavan wistfully hears a cuckoo’s call before collapsing from a punctured lung. Erich Maria Remarque’s unstable Berlin, adapted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, rewritten by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, visualized by Frank Borzage. A portrait of love constantly on the verge of disintegration, from the tuxedo ripping on the dance floor to the tavern-set wedding with Schubert quivering out of a hand-cranked phonograph. A crash segues into a brawl, and a speech segues into a riot; Young is targeted by a rifleman during a political rally, Tone tracks down the rifleman past the locked doors of a church, and suddenly it’s a foretaste of Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (The closing image is from Der Müde Tod.) When the heroine’s monocled sugar daddy voices ominous sentiments or when she asks the men to turn around as she boards the train to the sanitarium, it’s clearly from the pen of the author of This Side of Paradise. (The American view of Germany is delightfully mirrored with a German view of America, a nightclub introducing "The Tennessee Yankee Jazz Boys" in gangster fur coats and Indian feather bonnets.) The sublime sequence with Taylor throwing out his wristwatch when the ailing Sullavan becomes unsettled by its tick-tock ("Now time stands still"), however, is undiluted Borzage. Yet lyricism cannot quite dissipate the darkening clouds: An exalted, ascending camera movement dissolves to a graveyard, the gunshots heard in the distance grow louder in The Mortal Storm. Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg. With Lionel Atwill, Guy Kibbee, Henry Hull, Charley Grapewin, and Monty Woolley. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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