Saturday, October 24, 2015

Favourite Movies: 3 Bad Men (1926)

"My name is John Ford and I make Westerns."

Director John Ford's introduction of himself at a meeting where he shamed those behind Hollywood's black list says a lot about the man and his image. His treatment of the west as history and as a platform for storytelling is indelible, despite his artistic and box office success in other areas (The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, etc.).

Following his older brother actor/director Francis Ford to Hollywood, young "Jack" worked as a stunt rider and actor before moving behind the camera on popular western fare, mostly featuring star Harry Carey, in 1917 at the age of 23. Movies seem made for westerns with their outdoor vistas making thrilling backgrounds for stories of adventure and hardship. The 1926 release 3 Bad Men was Ford's last western of the decade and he would not make another until Stagecoach in 1939.

George O'Brien as Dan O'Malley

Herman Whitaker's 1916 novel Over the Border was the basis for the movie. The setting of the book was in the contemporary time period in Mexico. The characters and plot of 3 Bad Men remains the same though the action is moved to Dakota in 1877.

Fox Studios originally considered an all-star western cast of Buck Jones, Tom Mix and George O'Brien as the title characters. Director Ford felt the story would be better served by character actors and had his way. George O'Brien was cast as Dan O'Malley, the young romantic lead, and his strong likability factor made him a perfect choice.

Olive Borden as Lee Carlton

Gold is discovered in the Black Hills and the Sioux are displaced from their land in favour of speculators and settlers. Among the ttravellersis southerner Lee Carlton played by beautiful Olive Borden, aged 20 and at the height of her career. Lee and her father are taking a string of thoroughbred race horses to assist in their bid for Dakota land. Along the way, they meet "My name and address is Dan O'Malley" (title card) and sparks fly between the young couple.

Lou Tellegen as Sheriff Layne Hunter
Tom Santschi as "Bull" Stanley

The destination for those on the wagon train is a newly sprung up town near to the land rush location. The town is under the control of a crooked sheriff played by Lou Tellegen. He's a killer with the ladies, especially the sweet Millie played by Priscilla Bonner (The Red Kimona, The Strong Man) to whom he has promised marriage. Sheriff Layne Hunter is also a killer in the true sense of the word and has total command of a gang of outlaws who harass the common citizens. 

Tom Santschi, J. Farrell MacDonald, Frank Campeau as
"Bull" Stanley, Mike Costigan and "Spade" Allen

Our 3 Bad Men are "Bull" Stanley, Mike Costigan and "Spade" Allen. Stanley is played by Tom Santschi and his affecting performance is the core of this film's success. An imposing figure on screen Santschi was a director with 50 shorts to his credit and an actor who specialized in villains. J. Farrell MacDonald plays the perpetually soused Costigan and his map of the Old Sod face was made for his close-ups. Frank Campeau plays "Spade" Allen a gambler who, in all likelihood, has fallen on bad times. He sports an incongruous top hat in memory of better days. 

Competing bandits attempt to rob the Carlton's of their fine horses, our ragtag threesome and Sheriff Hunter's gang. The arrival of our 3 "heroes" frightens away the townsmen after the death of Lee's father. "Bull" is about to put a bullet into the back of what appears to be a young man by the body when Lee removes her hat revealing her true self. Immediately "Bull" is struck by what he has almost done. Lee looks up to "Bull" and the others as her saviours and from that moment on that is what they truly become. "Bull" is not only a man on the run from the law. He is looking for the man, as yet unknown, who took his baby sister, Millie, from home. Until "Bull" finds Millie, Lee becomes that sister who needs his protection.

A great moment for the trio is when Sheriff Hunter tries to put the moves on Lee once they hit town. Hunter discloses to the young woman the true identities of the three and Lee stands up for them as "her men". It will be a while yet before "Bull" realizes his Millie is also in this very town. Currently working on the Lee situation, "Bull" determines that they should find her a husband. A comic search attempt for such a creature carried out by Mike and "Spade" does not yield any likely candidates. "Bull", however, runs into the scrappy Dan who is fighting for Millie's honour at the local saloon. Lee and Dan let the fellows think they are truly Cupid's helpers. 

Tom Santschi as "Bull"
Priscilla Bonner as Millie

The Hunter group murder an old prospector for the information he holds as to the location of a gold strike. The settlers have had enough and in the course of fighting back, there is a fire in the saloon. The sheriff exhorts his band to retaliate by burning a newly built church. Millie rushes to warn the preacher and women at the church and is fatally injured in the attack. "Bull" channels his grief into vengeance.

The Land Rush sequence.  This is not CGI.

The Carltons have the map to the gold mine as a legacy from the murdered prospector. Layne Hunter and his cutthroats stick close to the Carlton's during the land rush with nothing but destruction and thievery on their minds. It is up to 3 Bad Men to become avengers and protectors and redeem their souls.

Three Guardian Angels

3 Bad Men is an epic western from Ford, whose work at Fox in these days ranged from quickies to the opportunity to truly stretch his artistic muscles. The film moves its audience in a deeply emotional way. It has grand adventure, with the land rush sequence being particularly memorable. It has heart and humour and romance - just the right amounts of each, for a dazzling entertainment on its own and a glimpse into future treasures from John Ford.


  1. Hi Caftan Woman. That sounds like a good one. I always enjoy J Farrell McDonald in movies by John Ford and others. I will have to go out and find it.

  2. It is indeed a good one. J. Farrell does us proud.

    Psst: The movie is currently on YouTube for interested parties.

  3. Silent John Ford is amazing as well - too bad most of his silents are lost! I saw The Iron Horse, and in it we can already see the master of western in formation. I'll look for this movie - especialy because Olive Borden is a cutie!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to find some of those lost Fords in someone's attic. It's happened before, and I'm an optimist.



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