“Can’t producers ever be wrong?” asked F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously, to wisecracker MGM man Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “Oh Joe! I’m a good writer, honest!” Fitzgerald’s sweetly passive-aggressive egoism guaranteed that the making of Three Comrades, a tale of three friends and their dying female mascot in Nazi-era Germany, has gained some notoriety in literary circles. It’s one of the few films where Fitzgerald received a screenplay credit, but a lot of his published script was rewritten by Mankiewicz, the film’s producer. Fitzgerald’s screenplay reads well on occasion, but it’s lumpy, distended, and enamored of the fake-toughness that marked the work of his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway. A lot of Mankiewicz’s changes in regard to dialogue were for the better, but the movie still suffers from his interference. It’s weighed down with that suffocating MGM look and Robert Taylor’s singularly unappealing leading man, yet it winds up being a beautiful film, even an unforgettable one, because of the work of Frank Borzage and Margaret Sullavan.
Sullavan won the New York Film Critic’s prize for her role here, and it was deserved: if Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner stands as her best movie, then this is certainly her best performance. She brings the film to life gradually, delicately, making full use of Fitzgerald’s wistful little poeticisms, and dying like nobody has ever died on screen before or since. Borzage seems to huddle with his actress as they pull off a miracle from within this most brutally limited studio context. As it goes on, they create a sense of winter approaching, of kindness for its own sake, of the feverish sexiness of having one last fling before your lungs collapse. Sullavan imbues everything with her special, exhausted glamour, but Borzage asserts himself strongly in a scene of revenge near a church: the film suddenly comes alive during this quiet, tense sequence, which is not in Fitzgerald’s script. Borzage’s sense of spirituality lifts the final moments where Sullavan dies into a realm of sublimity, especially when he switches to an extreme high angle as she gets out of bed to walk to her window. Three Comrades is a compromised film in many ways, but Borzage, Sullavan, and Fitzgerald form a powerfully poetic trio creating untouchably lyrical “termite” art from within a factory setting.