Criminal Heroes – 3 Bad Men (1926) and Up The River (1930)

Welcome to the final day (ed. – extended here, apologies) of the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by yours truly and Christianne at Krell Laboratories. At my last count, we had close to 30 separate blog entries from nearly as many different authors; thank you to all our participants and readers this past week! Tomorrow I will collect the full list of contributions into a separate post, for quick reference to anyone who may like a handy link collection, and as usual, there is a roll call at the bottom of today’s post with the most recent contributions.

My final entry looks at two of John Ford’s early films featuring criminals who turn good: 3 Bad Men (1926), an early silent picture; and Up The River (1930), the first feature film for both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and the only time the two would collaborate on screen.

3 Bad Men
Beginning with cowpoke Dan assisting a young woman and her father with their wagon on their way to the Dakota land rush, 3 Bad Men is one of Ford’s first real Western films and one of his best. As Lee Carleton and her father head off to catch up with the wagon train, they are spotted by the titular three band men – Bull, Mike, and Spade, a tough group of horse thieves and poker cheats. Their introduction comes by way of an early use of one of Ford’s favorite visuals, figures silhouetted against the sun along an open range. They spot the lone wagon, but more importantly, the several racing ponies the Carletons have brought with them. As they ride down to steal the horses, they are outwitted by another gang who make off with the stable. In the subsequent melee, Lee’s father is killed, and as she cries to Bull over her loss, he begins to soften toward her.

Later, as they arrive in the mushroom town of Custer, Lee hires the outlaws as protection for the rush and also out of spite toward local sheriff Layne Hunter. What Bull doesn’t know is that Layne is the man who ran off with his sister Millie, and Lee doesn’t know that Hunter’s gang are the ones responsible for her father’s death. As the film progresses, the three bad men try to find a husband for Lee, finally settling on Dan, not knowing that the two have already met. As the race for land and gold kicks off, the group doesn’t know that Hunter’s gang is preparing an ambush that will result in certain death.

3 Bad Men is a perfect hybrid of Western and comedy, with a few touches of drama along the way. The scenes where Mike and Spade scour the local tavern to find a husband for Lee are a scream, as they examine a dandy young man by checking to see if he has all his teeth. When the land rush kicks off, there’s a thrilling set of visuals with racing horses, wagons flipping over (“Busted By God”), and a baby caught in the maelstrom only to be saved by a fast-riding cowboy and delivered back to their parents. Ford knew early on how to give a sense of setting to his films, widening the visuals to the great outdoors and really showing off the great open lands of the West. For one of his first films at Fox, he truly created an epic work of cinematic beauty, full of good humor and bittersweet endings.

up the river
Similarly good-humored is Up The River, starring Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in their first feature film roles, here as jailbirds at the local lockup. Tracy plays St. Louis who, along with his partner in crime Dannemora Dan, befriend new inmate Steve (Bogart). Steve has fallen in love with Judy, a prisoner at the nearby women’s jail; when he is paroled, he promises to wait for her until she is released. When he returns home to his mother, he’s tailed by Frosby, a scam artist who was Judy’s former employer. Frosby’s running a new racket, and he threatens to expose Steve’s criminal record if he doesn’t participate. Steve’s mother is soon caught up in the scam, but St. Louis and Dan — recently escaped from jail — come to the rescue, saving Steve from a long-term life of crime.

It’s easy to see how Tracy and Bogart would become superstars, even so early in their careers. They were natural talents from the start. Even at the age of 30 here, Tracy exudes that sense of self-learned wisdom that all his characters seemed to have. Bogart is all nervous charisma as Steve, playing a character who seems significantly younger than St. Louis and Dan, even though he and Tracy were close in age. There are many wonderful sequences throughout the film, but the dinner scene is a true highlight: Dan repeatedly upstages St. Louis by over-playing the perfect gentleman to Steve’s mother, and a kind of game of musical chairs ensues. Watch Bogart’s face in this scene — he is clearly cracking up out of character, trying to hide his laughter at the mayhem. Up The River has an abundance of laughs, once again proving that John Ford was a master of multiple genres, fewer more than comedy.

John Ford Blog Roll: collecting the current posts from the John Ford Blogathon participants

Lee Price‘s final essay on Wagon Master is one hell of a conclusion to his six-essay series for the ‘thon

Girls Do Film sneak one in under the wire, a fantastic piece on The Grapes of Wrath

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear visits with The Prisoner of Shark Island, finding that despite historical inconsistencies, there is still much to enjoy

Willow at Curtsies and Handgrenades posits Young Mr. Lincoln as a superhero origin story

Mayerson on Animation has a seven-part series on storytelling using The Grapes of Wrath as an example, here on suspense and surprise

Outspoken and Freckled finds her Irish heart in The Quiet Man, one of Ford’s most enduring films

Stacia at She Blogged By Night examines the first of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache

Mildred’s Fatburgers (outstanding name) spotlights the only film Ford ever made with Boris Karloff (!), The Lost Patrol

Partner-in-blogathons Christianne writes a beautiful review of How Green Was My Valley, Ford’s most bitterly beautiful film, over at Krell Laboratories

College pal and all around good guy Duvien looks at the macho men of Donovan’s Reef at Dammaged Goods

If you had a post for the blogathon that hasn’t been included yet, please leave a link here or over at Krell Labs so we can add you to the roll call. Thanks again for reading and participating with us! This was my first time hosting a blogathon, and I can truly say that it was a lot of fun. I would definitely do this again (but maybe not watch 25 movies in preparation — that part was a little ambitious in retrospect). Anyhow, thanks again!

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