Friday, September 14, 2018

My Darling Clementine (1946)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller, Sam Hellman, Stuart N. Lake
Photography: Joseph MacDonald
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, Linda Darnell, Cathy Downs, Ward Bond, Tim Holt, Alan Mowbray, John Ireland, Jane Darwell

By force of will, director John Ford turned Monument Valley into the very image of pioneer America, but really it's practically the harshest environment most of them ever could have faced, let alone tried to settle. Unlike the Great Plains which were mistaken for the "Great American Desert" until well beyond the Civil War, Monument Valley, occupying the Arizona and Utah border regions, is really desert land—perhaps not as intense as Death Valley, but desert: dry, hot, forbidding, mostly barren, with sand and rocks and ancient outcroppings left over from when it was an inland sea. Plus skilled and hostile natives. Into this hell Ford regularly sent his pilgrims, who faithfully sing "Shall We Gather at the River" every chance they get, which isn't that often, only maybe once per movie, because they are otherwise busy trying to survive by their wits and their unrelenting Puritan work ethic.

I suspect the reason My Darling Clementine is my favorite John Ford picture is because it is so much more obviously made-up fictional legend instead of the manly midcentury hard reality Ford more often essays. The Wyatt Earp story and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral are concoctions mostly dreamed up by Earp himself after he moved to Hollywood in the 20th century. There's some historical veracity to pull out of this movie if you are so inclined—Doc Holliday really had tuberculosis, for example—but when you get into the details of the main events it was actually a lot of grubbing around and low behavior. The shootout, such as it was, didn't even happen at the O.K. Corral. Mostly the story as we understand it now, from this movie and many others based on Stuart N. Lake's version, more properly belongs with tales of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, Tinker Bell and Peter Pan—stories that comfort and encourage us to be our best.

That's basically My Darling Clementine. Perennial boy scout Henry Fonda (who I love exactly for his boy scout qualities) is the perfect vehicle to cement home the image of Wyatt Earp as a certain ideal of humanity. Rubber-lipped Victor Mature as Doc Holliday (this movie's alarming drunk) is the perfect vehicle for the tragic Greek poet-hero brought down by his own flaws. Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton—this might be Brennan's greatest role, one of the few times he is anything more than hillbilly comic relief. Ford and/or the screenwriters give him evolving levels of evil, suggesting a man and his sons as a kind of Spartan military unit, fighting and dying and fucking together. It's a brooding, malevolent bad bunch.

The saintly Earps on the other hand—well, that's the point of casting Henry Fonda, also known as Tom Joad and Abraham Lincoln (somebody missed a bet never casting him as Jesus). But he's so good in the role, and the Earps are given a suitable cross to bear with the murder of their youngest brother John (only 18) and the loss of their cattle. One of the main concerns of the Earp brothers is how the news of John's death will make Pa feel back home. They decide to remain in Tombstone and work in law enforcement until the killer can be found. Of course, they have little or no interest in revenge, only in enforcing the law. Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) has a big strapping appetite and likes a good breakfast. Virgil Earp (Tim Holt) is more reserved, but quite handsome. They like to kid each other a lot about haircuts and such. It's an honorable good bunch with nothing at all on their consciences.

Thus does this story reduce down to good versus evil. But the screenwriters and the masterful Ford are constantly putting a fine edge on it. Clementine Carter (a glowing Cathy Downs, possibly the lighting)—she of the title and the endlessly sawing musical theme (which let me say is actually one of my favorite American folk songs)—Clem is Doc Holliday's girlfriend, from Boston. He's been avoiding her. He also has a girlfriend in Tombstone named Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), who occasionally breaks out in song with full accompaniment. If the Earps are goodness, and the Clantons are badness, Doc Holliday is sitting uncomfortably on the fulcrum, with a woman pulling him by the sleeve on either side. Is it any wonder he drinks constantly and leaves town for days and weeks at a time, just to get away from the pressure?

But you can't get away. Another thing about legends is they always want to include elements of destiny, and it is ultimately Doc Holliday's fate to throw in with the angels against the demons, although I'm sure you can imagine what happens to Chihuahua in the moral equations of this movie. I'm having a little fun with how programmatically it all breaks down, but this is one of those movies where the getting there is worth the whole improbable ride. My Darling Clementine rarely fails to grab, and it's good for all occasions.


  1. It's always good to read another take on this classic. The dance sequence is a critical scene to me, and I'm wondering if you had any thoughts on that.

  2. It's one of my favorite parts of the story as it's pretty much the real start for Wyatt Earp and Clementine. I love/hate the high knee strut thing Fonda does in the dance. The awkwardness is nice but almost too awkward. I also like Henry Fonda dancing in Fort Apache.