The American west knows no greater champion than John Ford. It’s a bold statement, perhaps, given the illustrious and iconic past of that untamed Eldorado – its heroes and desperadoes with names like Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday living on in perpetuity. But Ford’s name arguably rises above the rest; resurrecting this pantheon of legends and crystalizing the stark natural beauty and harshness of that frontier existence - uniquely American - and as fully realized as any painting by Frederic Remington. With the movies, John Ford has imbued the west, not only with his own clear-eyed vision fully formed, but he is also able to give it renewed meaning, interpretation and life; a showcase for his great love of these wide open spaces and the rugged individualism they inspired. There are too many fine examples from John Ford’s repertoire to recollect; My Darling Clementine (1946) among them. Movie audiences from this period were undeniably spoiled by Ford’s paradigmatic portraits. Indeed, we can almost forgive noted film critic, Bosley Crowther for saying Ford “almost matched” his 1939 classic, Stagecoach with My Darling Clementine.
Pausing for just a moment on that other monumental achievement, there is little to deny Stagecoach it’s importance in the annals of the Hollywood western; a trend-setting piece of spectacular fiction, elevating the stature of both its star – John Wayne – and the western genre from B-grade kiddie fodder at the matinee to a bona fide American art form worthy of the adult adventurist in us all. My Darling Clementine is something quite different; a deepening of Ford’s comprehension and love of the western milieu; also a decided departure in tone from that time-honored mythology surrounding the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. By most any standard one might care to ascribe, My Darling Clementine remains a masterpiece. With its finely wrought screen intimacy, its’ supremely concocted screenplay by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller; Joseph MacDonald’s exquisite B&W cinematography, and, finally, galvanized performances from Henry Fonda and Victor Mature (never better than as this decidedly beefy and morose incarnation of Doc Holliday), My Darling Clementine reveals just how far Ford had managed to mature the Hollywood western into a relevant and iconic art form.
From its’ opening moments, Ford’s juxtaposition of Wyatt and his brothers set against the windswept, solitary landscape of Monument Valley, trailing their herd of cattle - careworn, weather-beaten, weary and unshaven – Ford gives us a pictorial tome imbued with his own inimitable brand of western authenticity. What follows, gradually evolves into an intensely sentimentalized, though never sensationalized portrait of the male figure; viewed from Ford’s own keen and sensitive camera eye, and, with a sincere respect for these roughhewn frontier men and their hearty and steadfast women. There is, to be certain, an underlay of the noir style permeating My Darling Clementine; Joseph MacDonald’s day for night photography producing ominous overtures to the mounting sense of dread and foreboding as the Earp clan rise up to challenge the corrosive Clantons (fronted by the peerless character actor, Walter Brennen, positively despicable as the nameless, ‘old man’).
My Darling Clementine is, of course, based on Stuart Lake’s 1946 novel of the same name. Considered biographical in its own time, the tall tales spun by Lake in both this and his 1931 book on Wyatt Earp – published two years after Earp’s death – have been largely dispelled since as glamorized fiction. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was, in fact, virtually unknown to Americans until Lake’s novels made it the star attraction of his own western mythology. But Ford had had the great luxury of actually meeting and somewhat befriending the real Wyatt Earp while he was a prop boy at Monogram Pictures. “I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee,” Ford would later recall, “…and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine, we did it exactly the way it had been.” Ford’s interpretation of the event is perhaps stained by his own awestruck admiration for Earp as a young man; also tinted by his own curmudgeonly charm to ‘make it real’ or rather, as ‘real’ as he desired it to be; for there is no denying My Darling Clementine’s raw and, at times, unsettling verisimilitude.
In viewing, and accepting My Darling Clementine as ‘history painted with light’, we should, of course, remember another famous quote from another legendary Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”; also, Ford’s own natural affinity to preserve the legacy of a man he so clearly regards as the forthright personification of American integrity. In the waning years of his life, both Wyatt and his wife, Josephine diligently endeavored to expunge their personal histories of the more unflattering facts; all references to the couple’s previous ‘relationships’ with Johnny Behan and Matty Blaylock removed. As such, when Stuart Lake undertook to pen his accounts after Wyatt’s passing his efforts were met with Josephine’s considerable resistance and scrutiny; endeavoring to preserve and maintain her husband’s image and legacy.
And Ford was not above tinkering with even these alterations to suit his own artistic sense. Nothing would get in the way of Ford telling us a good story – not even history. So, the entire film is essentially predicated on a lie; the fictional character, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) having no counterpart in the historical record, although it has been speculated she was an amalgam of two women; one of them, Josephine Earp. Discrepancies abound, beginning with Ford’s depiction of the Earps as cowboy cattle owners. They were, in fact, neither, but drifters on the plains and lawmen through and through. Also absent from Ford’s retelling herein are Doc’s common-law wife, Big Nose Kate and Wyatt’s Josephine; the two men depicted as bachelors in this movie; the former carrying on a rather tempestuous affair with the Chicana spitfire, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).
All this is artistic license of a kind. And yet, the film does not even adhere to the basic facts – the real gunfight occurring in 1881, not 1882 as depicted in the movie’s timeline. Old Man Clanton was already dead by this time and never even met the Earps, much less becoming their arch nemesis. Doc Holliday – a dentist, rather than a surgeon – survived the gunfight only to die of tuberculosis in 1887. Finally, James Earp (Don Garner), whose premature death in the movie is employed as Ford’s deus ex machina to get his Shakespearean revenge tragedy rolling, died of natural causes in 1926. Does any of this really matter to My Darling Clementine? Hardly, Ford successfully bypassing history, transposing fact to fiction and making the demarcation between these polar opposites wonderfully blurry and forgivably forgotten besides. Ford’s interest in the film is, therefore, meant to stand in for and as the truth; merely to evoke ‘essence’ with the broadest of brush strokes, dedicated to valor, dignity and the moral high ground of his own principled craftsmanship.
History is, arguably, far richer than this – also, more grandly flawed and tragically imperfect. Ford is more interested in telling us a good yarn; and in My Darling Clementine he succeeds beyond our wildest expectations. Under his expert tutelage, the towering buttresses of Monument Valley become bastions of multi-textured escapism for the imagination let loose like a Mustang; our collective hunger to believe in the nobility of man left to his own devices on this desolate range, given rise and helping to perpetuate the myth: that such greatness is not only possible, but at some level, perhaps even still attainable in the present. The iconography of the American west in a John Ford movie in general and My Darling Clementine in particular, is always depicted as vibrant, earthy and genuine. The film is a reflection of Ford’s disciplines as a film maker; pure art of the highest order. What he doesn’t know, or chooses to disregard, he makes up and out of the nothingness that is his fertile imagination.
My Darling Clementine opens on a spectacular vista; Monument Valley in the background and in all its glory; Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers, James (Don Garner), Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford favorite, Ward Bond) shot at a low angle by cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald and just as craggy, gorgeous and untamed as the wilderness that surrounds them. The Earps are driving their cattle on to California, momentarily caught unawares by the appearance of Pa Clanton (Walter Brennen); a very scruffy and weather-beaten codger, accompanied by his steely-eyed son, Ike (Grant Withers) riding shotgun. Clanton presents himself as a benevolent sage – also, an interested party, offering Wyatt three, then five dollars a head for his gaunt livestock. Wyatt, however, is no fool. He knows what his beef will be worth in California and kindly declines Clanton’s offers; the old man now directing him to the nearby town of Tombstone, where he and his brothers can rest up, get cleaned up, and have themselves a very good time.
Later in the evening, Wyatt and his brothers go into town, leaving James behind to tend the cattle after he’s already made everyone dinner around the chuck wagon. James intends to marry his sweetheart when the cattle drive is over, showing off a piece of Aztec jewelry – a pendant – he’s bought for $25. All the brothers have a gander at this hunk of jewel-encrusted metal, soon to play a pivotal role in the plot. Wyatt’s first order of business in Tombstone is to have himself a shave. Ford, already knowing the weightiness in his tale that is to follow, indulges in these early scenes of richly amusing comedy; the barber (Ben Hall) narrowly tipping Wyatt over in his new chair; applying a healthy lather to Wyatt’s unruly beard before the moment is interrupted by liquored up Indian Charlie (Charlie Stevens), shooting up the town and frightening Tombstone’s inhabitance half to death.
No one, not even the town’s Mayor (Roy Roberts), acting as the law, is willing to intercede. Wyatt isn’t much for standoffs, however, and after a few pensive moments he sneaks around the back of the Opera House Saloon, disarming and knocking Indian Charlie unconscious. Wyatt is immediately offered the post of lawman, but respectfully declines; he and his brothers returning hours later, and, in the pouring rain to their base camp, only to discover the cattle are gone and James is dead. It’s personal now, and Wyatt accepts the position of town marshal. A short while later, he befriends the notorious gambler, John ‘Doc’ Holliday (Victor Mature); or perhaps, makes his acquaintance is a better way of putting it. Doc is slowly dying of consumption; his fling with sultry Spanish chanteuse, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) already on the wane. Wyatt forewarns Doc that Tombstone will be a law abiding town from now on and that any misguided notion Holliday may have about their ‘friendship’ overriding Wyatt’s duty to the tin star is grossly misguided.
Chihuahua is a spitfire, and attempts to create a ruckus, interrupting Wyatt’s card game. He tries to be civil with her out back, but she slaps his face. In reply, Wyatt submerses Chihuahua in a nearby horse trough, wounding her pride more than anything else. A fly in the ointment arrives on the noonday stage, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) whom Doc has promised to marry. Jealousy clouds Chihuahua’s judgment and she threatens Clementine in an attempt to crystalize for both Clementine and Doc the depths to which she is willing to go to prove her love for him. Bitterly, both women are in for their own disillusionments. For Doc is conflicted from within, determined to hasten his tuberculosis with strong drink. Wyatt attempts to reason with Doc, but to no avail. After Holliday gets liquored up at the saloon, Wyatt knocks him out and has him carried back to his room at the Mason Hotel. Clementine decides she has made a mistake by coming to Tombstone. Alas, even she can see how much Chihuahua loves Doc. Mercifully, fate intervenes. There are no noonday stages out of Tombstone on a Sunday.
Wyatt takes Clementine to a social dance where the townsfolk have gathered to raise money and the roof of the new church; Virgil and Morgan stunned to see their brother duded up and taking a cordial spin around the plank dance floor. Again, John Ford knows precisely when to insert such moments of relaxed domesticity to break the tension in his otherwise tautly scripted showdown western. Recovering in his hotel room, Doc decides he’s had quite enough of Tombstone. Moreover, he seems to have finally made up his mind to make an honest woman out of Chihuahua; much to her giddy excitement and personal satisfaction. But he’ll be moving to Arizona; Chihuahua hurrying to pack. Alas, the sight of Wyatt and Clementine enjoying themselves is enough to sour Doc on delaying his trip any longer. He leaves Tombstone with only the stagecoach driver (Robert Adler); Chihuahua bitterly disappointed as she watches her man vanish in a cloud of dust on the horizon. Confronting Wyatt with her spite and disappointment, he takes notice of the pendant hanging around her neck – the same one his late brother, James intended to give his beloved before he was murdered in the desert.
Forcing Chihuahua to divulge who gave her this jewelry, Wyatt is told it was Doc and immediately, he sets off for the stage to apprehend Doc and bring him to justice. After some aggressive riding, Wyatt is successful at stalling the coach, ordering Doc to accompany him back to Tombstone. Alas, Doc doesn’t know anything about the pendant, but is forced to return to town to straighten out the situation with Chihuahua. Both Wyatt and Doc confront Chihuahua upon their return to the hotel; she stalling them from entering her room while she urges Billy Clanton (John Ireland) to leave out the window. Presumably, Billy is another lover Chihuahua has acquired to make Doc jealous. Told by Wyatt the pendant is evidence against Doc in an investigation of murder, Chihuahua confesses Billy - not Doc - gave it to her. She is shot by Billy through the open window; Billy escaping on horseback as Wyatt instructs Virgil to bring him back to town.
In their race across the desert, Virgil manages to mortally wound Billy; his horse instinctively bringing the body back to the Clanton’s homestead. Unaware he has killed Billy, Virgil bursts in on the Clantons. Pa invites him into Billy’s bedroom where Virgil discovers the body already laid out. Believing his badge protects him from any reprisals, Virgil tells Pa he is sorry things had to turn out this way. As he turns to leave, Virgil is ruthlessly shot in the back by Pa Clanton, who now orders his motley brood of ruffian sons, Ike, Phin (Fred Libby) and Sam (Mickey Simpson) to saddle up their horses for the penultimate showdown at the O.K. Corral.
Back in Tombstone, Wyatt encourages Doc – who, in this movie, at least, was once a practicing physician – to operate on Chihuahua to remove the bullet and save her life. Clementine, also a trained nurse, prepares tables in the saloon for the surgery; Wyatt observing as Doc diligently goes to work, applying his skills. There is no chloroform for the operation; the dowager, Kate Nelson (Jane Darwell) telling Chihuahua to bite hard on a stick of wood as Doc proceeds to cut out the metal lodged in her stomach. In the aftermath, Kate promises to look after Chihuahua during her recovery; a short-lived commitment when Chihuahua expires from septic shock; Doc, now brutally invested in seeing the Clantons are brought to justice.
Arriving in Tombstone, Pa Clanton tosses Virgil’s corpse off his saddle at the foot of the hotel, shouting to Wyatt he will be waiting for him at the corral. Doc arrives at the sheriff’s office, prepared to stand tall with Morgan and Wyatt; the three men waiting until early dawn to confront the Clantons. Making his inquiries first as to which Clanton is responsible for Virgil’s death – and told by Pa he committed the murder of both Virgil and James – Wyatt, Doc and Morgan proceed to thin out the Clanton clan in a hailstorm of bullets; dispatching with the sons in short order, but regrettably, not until Ike has shot Doc dead in the stables. Wyatt corners Pa Clanton and disarms him, taking unexpected pity on the old codger and ordering him out of town. In reply, Pa draws a concealed weapon from his saddle holster and Virgil unapologetically avenges his brothers’ murders by killing the spiteful old man.
A short while later, we see Wyatt and Morgan packed and ready to leave Tombstone – to what future, this remains unclear. John Ford’s western milieu usually concludes on such ambiguous finales; no fanfare or grand finale – just a simple and understated statement on the fragility of life and one’s own destiny in it. Ford, however, does not leave our hero wanting for purpose, possibly to return to Tombstone in the distant future. As such, the final moments of My Darling Clementine are committed to bittersweet understanding between Wyatt and Clementine Carter. Having surrendered her romantic ideals and considerably matured in her outlook since arriving in Tombstone, Clementine has decided to remain behind and establish the town’s first school. Wyatt is pleased to discover this, offering this woman who may have become something finer in his eyes, but certainly no less impacting on his heart, a tender kiss on the cheek as he rides off for the distant horizon.
Like all of John Ford’s westerns, My Darling Clementine is imbued with the director’s vivid command for the lay of this land; the dessert and mesas, the adobe village and corral, all characters in our story; lived-in places that speak of a nameless – even godless – history, but also offer the fertile promise of better things to come. Ford doesn’t ‘pretty’ these locations for the audience’s benefit. These are not, or rather never appear to be, Hollywood sets; but dusty/lusty, thriving and writhingly enclaves of humanity carving its niches into the inhospitable clay.
Apart from John Wayne, Henry Fonda is the only other actor to become John Ford’s personal favorite; a perennially renewable repository for Ford’s vision of the old west’s everyman. Unlike Ford’s caustic and confrontational ‘friendship’ with ‘Duke’ Wayne, his working alliance with Henry Fonda was predicated on a deeper admiration and respect. While Ford would always consider himself as chiefly responsible for molding the persona we think of today as John Wayne – in later years, frequently reminding the actor he owed his start to him - Henry Fonda came to Ford already fully formed; an actor of considerable stature when Ford cast him in the lead of two of his major contributions from 1939: Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. 1939 was also the year of Ford’s Stagecoach with Wayne, whose reputation as a star was, in fact, cemented on the success of that picture; Wayne’s lengthy and indentured tenure as the king of the serialized B’s at Monogram come to an end.
The other performance of outstanding merit in My Darling Clementine belongs to Victor Mature; an actor, who by his own account, never took acting seriously and enjoyed the perks and on set camaraderie as opposed to the work itself. Indeed, while making Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952, Esther Williams was to refer to her costar as Victor ‘Im-mature’. And yet, in My Darling Clementine, Mature is every inch the embodiment of this embittered card shark of ill repute but professional courtesy. The real Doc Holliday was far more anemic in stature; a lanky rogue, cultivating a very thin veneer of gentile southern charm that could just as easily turn toward callousness and violence. The movie retains Holliday’s battle with consumption, also something of his offhanded way with the ladies, but jettisons just about every other aspect of his personal life and character. Mature gives us a brawny, sullen brute with doleful/soulful eyes that can twinkle with larceny but just as easily wound and penetrate in sharp and penetrating glances.
In retrospect, the narrative structure of My Darling Clementine is a tad wonky; chiefly because the movie’s title suggests a focus on Cathy Downs’ Clementine Carter. But Ford isn’t particularly interested in this character, nor in Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua. Each is merely representational in our story; Downs’ polite young Miss virginal and forthright, destined to become spinsterish and harsh after Wyatt’s departure; Darnell’s unapologetic viper already gone through her trial by fire, yet seemingly ripened rather than robbed by its experience. Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller’s screenplay becomes a character study of the company of men, embodied in the Clanton/Earp familial relationships – each void of a feminine influence.
Ford is fascinated by these adult male figures, also intuitively compelled to investigate their interactions with each other, placing them within his western milieu like temperamental rams, itching to butt heads and mark their territory with a distinct scent of their own masculinity and manhood. The fact neither the Earps nor the Clantons succeeds in keeping what started out to be theirs for the asking is, again, one of Ford’s unfailingly renewable themes, and not only in his westerns. In this context, women have no decisive stake in the evolution of the American west except to pick up the pieces of its fragmented past and shattered present; their positions as wives, lovers or benevolent dowagers, always remarkably present to pitch in while their menfolk are off taming the land and each other.
Regardless of what feminist film scholarship has often decried as Ford’s own male machismo run amuck, My Darling Clementine remains riveting entertainment; truly among that rarest upper echelon of movie classics. Those seeking a tale of love or even romance should seek it elsewhere. My Darling Clementine is the story of a harsh and unrelenting life, briefly challenged, though never conquerable, even by the fortitude of these stouthearted men. Ford makes a statement about man’s futility to create a civilization. He gives us a life well-lived, rather than one lived well; the penultimate farewell between Wyatt and Clementine, speaking to America’s crossroads during WWII and the ambiguous nature of its own solitary future as a burgeoning superpower.
In the era of the studio system, even a director as emboldened by previous successes as John Ford was not immune to the tinkering of a well-intentioned studio mogul. 2oth Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck was, of course, one of the most ambitious and hands-on of his ilk; his previous tenure as a scriptwriter and producer at Warner Bros. giving Zanuck not merely clout, but also considerable cache and hindsight to know when a movie was in trouble. Upon screening Ford’s rough cut, Zanuck felt the story lacked tempo in a few spots and, together with director Lloyd Bacon, elected to shoot some new footage. Some 30 minutes of Ford’s own footage wound up on the cutting room floor before the public ever saw My Darling Clementine at a sneak preview; the Ford version remaining unseen for decades until it was rediscovered in 1982 and thereafter remastered at UCLA under the supervision of film preservationist extraordinaire, Robert Gitt.
Nevertheless, it is John Ford’s name above the title and ultimately, Ford’s vision that persists throughout the picture. As Variety’s review of My Darling Clementine in 1946 attested, Ford’s brand of the American west is “clearly stamped…with shadowy lights, softly contrasted moods and measured pace…(and) a tendency discernible towards stylization for the sake of stylization.” Arguably, no other western is as praiseworthy in Ford’s cannon as My Darling Clementine. For it achieves a seamless reconstruction of the truth – as truth – its ritualized history for cinema art’s sake never degenerating into rank sentimentality or the appearance of being anything less than engrossingly factual. We can believe in Ford, Fonda, Mature and the rest of it because of Ford’s clever and unapologetic manipulations; the perverse way he turns a blind eye to personal history, giving us his own substitution instead. My Darling Clementine is therefore undeniably and genuinely a John Ford classic.
In their infinite wisdom, Fox Home Video has yet to make My Darling Clementine available on Blu-ray in North America. Mercifully, their German release is Region Free, meaning it can be played anywhere in the world. Apart from the outer German packaging, the disc menus are in English. Regrettably, unlike Fox’s defunct Studio Classics DVD release, this Blu-ray only includes the theatrical cut of the movie. The DVD also contained Ford’s pre-release edit. Not to worry, however. Most film scholars agree the version included herein is the preferred one. Better still, the remastering effort put forth on My Darling Clementine has yielded a rich and vibrant 1080p image, with extraordinary clarity, superbly rendered contrast and an attractive amount of film grain accurately reproduced. The image is decidedly darker than the previously issued DVD. This is as it should be. Occasionally, we do get thickness and a hint of softness too, but these brief inconsistencies are inherited from the original surviving film elements and are NOT a flaw of this hi-def transfer. Age-related artifacts have been eradicated. This is a very clean, exceptionally film-like presentation and should surely please.
The DTS audio is mono as original recorded. The DVD included a rechanneled faux stereo. The Blu-ray retains the audio commentary from Wyatt Earp III, but ditches the original behind-the-scenes featurette. We also get the original theatrical trailer. The German disc of My Darling Clementine can be imported via Amazon, which incorrectly has it listed as Region B locked. Again, this disc is Region Free and clearly marked as such on the back packaging of the actual disc. It will play ANYWHERE in the world. So, wherever you are, buy with confidence and prepare to enjoy one of the truly great masterpieces in cinema history, expertly preserved in hi-def. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)