My Darling Clementine (1946)
“She was everything the West was – young, fiery, exciting!”
Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Synopsis: A Western retelling the tale of the Shoot-out at the OK Corral.
The gunfight at the OK corral has provided the source for countless Westerns, but John Ford’s My Darling Clementine stands as one of the most memorable, even though it’s probably so historically inaccurate that to call it an account of the real shootout is really stretching things. After all, any movie that changes an historical character’s profession from dentist to doctor so that it can have him operate on the slutty saloon girl who loves him deserves no tolerance for any claims of historical accuracy it might have. Although to be fair to John Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller, they based their screenplay on a supposedly factual book by Stuart N. Lake that was later found to be largely fictionalised.
It’s the early 1880s, and Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda — Fail Safe, 12 Angry Men) and his brothers are herding cattle near to the town of Tombstone, Arizona when they come across the Clantons, led by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan — The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again). Earp politely refuses to sell the cattle to Clanton, and after an eventful night in Tombstone in which Earp is offered the position of sheriff after dealing with an armed and drunken Indian, he and two brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond — It’s a Wonderful Life, 3 Godfathers) and Virgil (Tim Holt — Stagecoach, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) return to their camp to find their cattle missing and youngest brother dead. Earp decides to accept the role of sheriff that he’d previously declined so that he can hunt down the men who killed his kid brother, and recruits his surviving brothers as deputies.
Soon after taking on the job of sheriff, Earp meets Doc Halliday (Victor Mature), a professional gambler and gunfighter who nevertheless has both principles and a taste for culture. Holliday is embittered by the knowledge that he’s slowly dying of tuberculosis, which makes his relationship with Earp something of a prickly one. Matters aren’t improved by the arrival of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), the former sweetheart of Holliday’s with whom he’s trying to sever all ties since learning of his condition. Earp also takes a shine to Clementine, and it’s entirely possible that his feelings might be reciprocated.
There’s a lot to appreciate about My Darling Clementine despite the fact that it devotes too much of its time focusing on Earp’s relationship with Holliday and feelings for Clementine, while the situation regarding the Clantons which will lead to the infamous gunfight receives the status of minor sub-plot until the final couple of reels. For a start, Ford creates an almost Noir-like atmosphere, particularly in the scenes featuring Holliday who seems to live in a world of shadows; the darkness that surrounds him is emphasised by the contrast of harsh light: it streams through the narrow black corridor outside his room and around the bat-wing doors of the bar in which much of the story takes place. Joe Macdonald’s stark photography illustrates Holliday’s isolation from the world around him, while Ford’s beloved Monument Valley serves as a constant reminder of the Spartan nature of life in the Old West.
It’s a shame that Ford chose to relegate the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons to the backburner, because that’s where the real grit of the story lies. Much of this is thanks to Walter Brennan’s superb performance as the elder Clanton (who actually died before the events leading up to the gunfight took place). Most of us probably remember Brennan for the countless times Hollywood cast him as a cheery, toothless old man, which just goes to show how Hollywood could sometimes misuse the talent available to it. In My Darling Clementine, Old Man Clanton seethes with this unwavering loathing for those around him, even when he disguises it behind a veneer of civility as when we and Earp first meet him. There’s a calculating coldness in his eyes that is truly chilling, and it’s just a shame it wasn’t better capitalised on in this movie and by Hollywood in general. Henry Fonda also gives a polished performance as Earp, a man who, like Clanton, conceals his true feelings behind a carefully constructed mask — although for entirely opposing reasons. Victor Mature, always an under-rated actor due to his association with cheesy, overblown sword-and-sandal epics, gives probably a career-best performance as the doomed Doc Holliday. Only Cathy Downs, who by the 1950s would be appearing in cheap SF movies, fails to register as the title character. To be fair to Downs, the role is under-written, and is further damaged by comparison to Linda Darnell’s showier part as he fiery saloon girl, Chihuahua.
Although My Darling Clementine suffers from its fictional melodramatics — a late improvised surgery sequence is spectacularly ill-conceived and troubled by Ford’s tendency for sentimentalism — it still provides both the kind of solid entertainment and iconic imagery which vintage Hollywood somehow seemed capable of producing at will.
(Reviewed 29th March 2014)