Three Comrades (1938): Borzage’s Melodrama Starring Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor

Three Comrades is MGM classy screen adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about three young German soldiers trying to find some reason and meaning for living in post-World War I Germany.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Three Comrades

Original film poster

The movie boasts some of the studio’s best talents, in front and behind the cameras.

Margaret Sullavan received her first and only Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the dying girl. (See below).

Robert Taylor was cast as the “comrade” she loved the most; and Franchot Tone and Robert Young played his friends.

All the men are united in their love for the same girl, who soon is diagnosed as dying of tuberculosis; her illness cast a pall over the joys of youth, made sharper and more painful due to the surrounding political context.

The idealistic Gottfried is torn between devotion to his friends and belief in the teachings of political pacifist Dr. Heinrich Becker. Erich and Otto witness a fascist thug shooting Gottfried to death while trying to kill Dr. Becker. Now faced with the loss of Gottfried as well Pat’s absence, Erich and Otto sell their shop and drift through the next months, seeking Gottfried’s killer. At Christmas, Otto finally finds the murderer, trailing him to a church where Handel’s Messiah Hallelujah Chorus is being sung, and kills him in a shootout as the chorus reaches its climax.

Erich tells the doctor to proceed with the operation on Pat and Otto decides to sell “Baby” to pay for it.

Pat speaks to Erich of the three of them escaping to Rio right away. Erich tells her to simply focus on getting better and steps outside to say goodbye to Otto. When alone, Pat slowly walks out to the room’s balcony – a simple movement that she knows will likely cause her death. She is seen from below by Erich as she collapses. In the end, Pat, realizing her gloomy future, says: “It’s right for me to die, darling. It isn’t hard…and I’m so full of love.”

After Pat’s funeral, as they hear fighting in their city between fascist thugs and pro-democracy protesters, Otto and Erich decide to move to South America. As they leave the cemetery, the spirits of Gottfried and Pat are walking beside them.

As written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edward E. Paramore, and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the movie not only remains true to the spirit of Remarque’s book, but it’s also to-notch entertainment due to Frank Borzage’s smooth direction and polished production values.

The foreboding Nazi undertones in the Germany it depicted were not appreciated by American Bundists.

The movie was commercially popular at the box-office, enhancing the careers of all involved.

Oscar Context:

In 1938, Bette Davis won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel, in a competition that included, besides Margaret Sullavan, Fay Bainter for “White Banners”; Wendy Hiller for “Pygmalion”; and Norma Shearer for “Marie Antoinette.”

Robert Taylor as Erich Lohkamp
Margaret Sullavan as Patricia Hollmann
Franchot Tone as Otto Koster
Robert Young as Gottfried Lenz
Guy Kibbee as Alfons
Lionel Atwill as Breuer
Henry Hull as Dr. Becker
Charley Grapewin as Local Doctor
Monty Woolley as Dr. Jaffe


Directed by Frank Borzage
Screenplay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward E. Paramore Jr., based on Three Comrades, 1937 novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematography Joseph Ruttenberg
Edited by Frank Sullivan
Music by Franz Waxman

Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distributed by Loew’s Inc.

Release date: June 2, 1938 (NYC)

Running time: 100 min
Budget $839,000
Box office $2,043,000