Three Comrades (1938) is a love story about a boy and a girl … and their two friends.
When I originally read the description for this movie–“A World War I veteran and his two partners love a doomed woman in 1920s Germany”–I assumed that this would be just another film about a love tri … ahem, quadrangle. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was wrong. Erich (Robert Taylor) and Patricia (Margaret Sullavan) fall in love and marry, and Erich’s two war comrades, Otto (Franchot Tone) and Gottfried (Robert Young), are there to lovingly support the couple every step of the way. The loyalty and love in the friendship of these comrades is what makes the film so endearing. Erich and Patricia fall in love during a turbulent era, and their two friends are always there to ensure that they stay happily together.
Erich and Patricia meet when she is on a date with a German aristocrat. The three comrades race the arrogant Herr Breuer with their prized car, Baby. Although Baby is not much to look at, she is extremely fast. Erich is instantly drawn to Patricia, and his two friends act as wingmen to assist him in impressing her while keeping Herr Breuer busy. Patricia seems to be quite taken with Erich as well and gives him her phone number.
When Erich lies by telling his pal Gottfried that he threw away Patricia’s number, Gottfried reprimands him, and tells him that he doesn’t know how special a girl Patricia is. He describes her eyes, and, in an extremely creepy manner, describes her hands: “And her hands, long and slender. Like romaine salad. Otto and I appreciate such things …”
When Erich does decide to call her, his awkward attempt at courtship is quite charming:
Erich: “Uh, hello, this is that man.”
Patricia: “What man?”
Erich: “Oh, that man you met the other night.”
Patricia: “I’ve met lots of men on lots of other nights.”
Erich: “I don’t know exactly how to describe myself. I was one of the men that beat you.”
Patricia: “Really? You must have the wrong woman.”
Erich: “No, in our car, I mean.”
How could any girl refuse? Erich and Patricia go on a date to a bar where they run into Gottfried and Otto, and the friendship between the gang begins.
Later in the film, Erich and Patricia have a date to attend the opera. Erich, a poor taxi driver, doesn’t have a suitable tuxedo to wear. Otto and Gottfried help Erich get dressed by lending him their coat and jacket. Unfortunately, Erich can’t fit into the clothes, and so they tear them and tie them up. As long as Erich doesn’t remove his jacket (and doesn’t move much), no one should be able to tell that the clothes don’t fit. At the opera, Erich and Pat run into the arrogant Herr Breuer, who invites them to an after party. While they are dancing at the party, Erich’s jacket starts tearing and popping out of place. Although Pat tries to help him, he leaves her at the party, followed by hoots of laughter at his expense by her friends. Erich leaves and goes straight to the bar, where he meets Otto and Gottfried. He proceeds to get very drunk and assumes that it would be best to leave Pat with richer, more suitable men. He leaves the bar near dawn and finds Pat sleeping on his doorstep. She walked all the way in her beautiful new gown and slept in the cold as she waited for him to return. He wraps her in his arms to keep her warm:
Patricia:“I don’t want you ever to run away and leave me. It’s much warmer now, and this is a lovely time of day.”
Erich:“It isn’t day and it isn’t night.”
Patricia: “It’s the edge of eternity. Let’s stay right here forever.”
Erich: “Between day and night?”
Patricia: “It’s where we were born into. It’s where we belong.”
Erich: “You’re cold, Pat. Let me take you home.”
Patricia: “Take me home? How? I am home.”
Gottfried talks to Erich, attempting to talk him into marrying Pat, while Otto talks to Pat, attempting to talk her into marrying Erich: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you. You’re scared … scared of having any joy in your life because it will make it all the much harder if you lose it. You’re afraid. Now you’re not being fair, Pat. You’ve got to think of Erich now. You’re being a coward. You’re being selfish.”
Pat tells him it isn’t true, and admits that in actuality, she is ill. She’s afraid that her illness will return and that she will not be able to have a normal life with Erich.
Otto dismisses this, telling her, “Then live, Pat. Take the gamble. Stake your life on a love like yours and Erich’s every time.” He tells her not to tell Erich of her illness. He wants her only to live happily and to make Erich happy as well.
In the next scene, we see the wedding in the neighborhood bar. All the comrades are in attendance. After celebrating with their two friends, Erich and Patricia leave for a seaside honeymoon. Patricia attempts to do a pull-up on the boardwalk and suffers a hemorrhage. Her doctor is called and Otto risks his life driving like a madman to get the doctor to the hotel to save Pat’s life.
The Great Depression hits, and the three comrades struggle to earn a living. The doctor wants to give Pat surgery, but she is worried about the cost; nevertheless, Erich vows to get the money. When Erich tells Otto the cost, Otto tells him not to worry about it. He tells Erich that he will go back into town and return with the money the next day. Otto makes a great sacrifice in selling his beloved car, Baby. Erich and Pat are madly in love, and the actions of both Otto and Gottfried demonstrate that they love the couple dearly. They would do anything in the world, sacrifice anything, in order to keep Erich and Patricia happy.
Directed by Frank Borzage (known for his romantic tearjerkers) and adapted for the screen by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (with extensive edits by producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz), this film is one of wit, romance, and tragedy. Margaret Sullavan’s portrayal of an ill and doomed woman, full of immense love for her husband and friends, earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.