THREE FACES WEST, with John Wayne, isn’t a western, but a Depression drama from 1940, an unusual and surprising entry on the Duke’s call sheet. Mostly ignored at the time–a $1,000,000 gross leaving it 170th for the year—it had a rough row to hoe coming on the heels of his mentor John Ford’s classic The Grapes Of Wrath. Forgotten today, its a blend of Dust Bowl desperation, European refugee sympathy and anti-Nazi positioning, has a romance added, critiques the scarcity and quality of adequate medical care in rural America and a summons for the Pioneer Spirit. That stewpot sounds like a set up for a snarky put down—‘The Joads Go To Casablanca with Dr.Kildare and Daniel Boone’—but within a 79-minute framework on a $100,000 budget it works to good effect, with a thoughtful script, capable direction, fine photography and enjoyable performances. *
“Look, men, let’s quit arguing and kidding ourselves. We’re all in the same boat. And we’re all gonna sink unless we stick together. Every one of us has been served with a “dispossess notice,” not by Uncle Sam or a bank or some mortgage company, but by a little ol’ gal we’ve been kicking in the teeth, Mother Nature.”
After appearing on a “We the People” radio broadcast, stating his availability and willingness to relocate and fit in, Austrian refugee ‘Dr. Karl Braun’ (Charles Coburn) answers a request from North Dakota—out there West somewhere. When he arrives with his daughter and assistant ‘Leni’ (Sigrid Gurie), they’re met by the head of the local farmer’s association. ‘John Phillips’ (Wayne) is welcoming, but the town and region are inhospitable thanks to the ecological scourge of dust storms. When Phillips heeds the advice of the specialists at the Agricuture Department, he leads the town in an auto caravan slog to Oregon, where hope lies in land that can still grow things. The doctor and daughter go along, but there are relationship roadblocks on the way.
The hybrid elements of the interesting screenplay were distilled out of a 3-man job by F. Hugh Herbert, Samuel Ornitz and Joseph Moncure March. The efficient direction was the handiwork of Bernard Verhous. John Alton manned the camera, Victor Young the baton. The art direction (John Victor Mackay) and special effects (Republic’s gee-whiz genie Howard Lydecker) create an authentic aura of dust-bedeviled gloom and misery. Wayne’s good, with some nice shading allowed his character, Gurie pleasant and appealing, Coburn solid as ever.
With Spencer Charters, Trevor Bardette (always good as a troublemaker), Russell Simpson (venerable Ford regular—‘Pa Joad’ in The Grapes Of Wrath—here using a Scottish accent), Charles Waldron, Dewey Robinson, Byron Foulger.
* Credit where due—prolific character actor Trevor Bardette (1902-1977) showed up in 19 different movies in 1940 alone. In a 1959 newspaper article, written when he was playing ‘Old Man Clanton’ on the hit TV series The Life And Times Of Wyatt Earp, Bardette said he’d “bitten the dust” 78 times since he started back in 1936. By the time he hung up spurs in 1970 he’d rustled 246 film and TV credits.
Given a long-last breakout from Poverty Row by pal John Ford in 1939’s Stagecoach, in 1940 Wayne figured in another Ford classic, The Long Voyage Home (as a naïve Swedish sailor), in Seven Sinners as a plaything for Marlene Dietrich (off-screen as well), and as a western good guy in Dark Command.
Unfairly given the boot by her “discoverer” Samuel Goldwyn after his The Adventures Of Marco Polo tanked, Norwegian import Sigrid Gurie (1911-1969) only logged a dozen, mostly minor credits.
As to rejection, both director Vorhaus and screenwriter Ornitz were later blacklisted. Ornitz, one of The Hollywood Ten, was a Communist. Vorhaus, finked on by Edward Dmytryk, was classified by Hoover’s FBI as “prematurely antifascist”, thanks to his pre-war denunciations of Nazis.