by Ben Sachs
It's hard to say how Fitzgerald-esque Three Comrades would have been if this act of appeasement hadn't taken place, given the other dominant personalities involved: director Frank Borzage, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and MGM itself, which had the most recognizable house style of the major studios. (Dave Kehr, in his Reader capsule review, was not receptive to the MGM touch.) Yet one can hear Fitzgerald's voice in some of the dialogue, particularly in the movie's effervescent first half. The story takes place shortly after World War I, centering on three inseparable war buddies who open a garage together. Their friendship, we quickly realize, gives them a go-getting spirit and makes them unafraid of starting a business during an economic depression. "We're going to be very rich," says the most cynical of the friends, in a short speech that Fitzgerald must have written. "Germany's going to need expert mechanics in the years to come. There'll be all sorts of things to repair: souls, consciences, broken hearts by the thousands . . ."
Fitzgerald's eloquent prose fits rather nicely with Borzage's graceful visuals. What might have sounded self-consciously florid in the hands of another director feels musical under his direction. Consider the first date between moony comrade Erich (Robert Taylor) and Patricia (Margaret Sullavan), the "fallen aristocrat" he eventually marries. Their repartee conveys the author's distinct mix of wistfulness and cynicism, as well as his obsession with diagnosing the zeitgeist.
Patricia: I was thinking how nice it would be if we could pick a time to be born. I'd pick an age of reason and quiet—if there ever was one.Living on Velvet.)
Erich: I don't know. This minute's good enough for me.
Patricia: That's a lovely compliment—or is it just something you thought of to say?
This episode is too sunny to suggest much of a Fitzgerald influence; ditto the conventionally melodramatic final act. Is it coincidental that no one talks about alcohol during either of these parts? When Three Comrades is at its most literary, there are references to booze every few minutes—it's as though the movie's playing a drinking game with itself. Fitzgerald's alcoholism is well-known, but he knew as well as anyone how to depict the momentary confidence that booze can provide. When Patricia's patron warns her not to marry Erich, he says, "Germany's a pretty rough sea right now—and you're drifting." She replies, in a perfect fusion of Borzage's optimism and Fitzgerald's cocktail party wit:
But I'm not alone anymore! There's so many drifters—and we might all drift together. And some day, we might find pleasant seas. May I drink to that?