My Darling Clementine

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2013

My Darling Clementine—Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Cathy Downs, Tim Holt, Ward Bond (1946; Dir:  John Ford)

Of all the cinematic versions of the Wyatt Earp story, this is the least accurate historically.  (Well, with the exception of 1939’s Frontier Marshal, which is a pretty good movie, too.)  But this elegant black and white retelling, with Henry Fonda as a mythic Wyatt, has a visual spareness and beauty that remain unmatched more than sixty years later.  If you know much about the historical events in Tombstone, maybe the best way to watch this classic is to just enjoy the story John Ford tells here for what it is without weighing it against the actual history.  Bear in mind the line from another Ford western (Liberty Valance) about legends becoming fact.  Ford was helping that process along for the Earps.

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Filmed in Ford’s favorite western location (Monument Valley, where he made nine movies), there are images from this movie that linger long after it’s over:  Fonda sitting in a chair on the boardwalk, tipped back on the rear legs with his leg propped against a post as he watches the town’s comings and goings; Fonda and Downs at a church social, dancing outdoors on the newly-built floor of what will be the church; Fonda and his brothers finding the body of the youngest brother in the pouring rain; a hack actor getting help from Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in finishing Hamlet’s soliloquy; a badly shot Mature calmly looking through the poles of a corral, his hand holding a white handkerchief near his head as he selects and shoots his next target.

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Bruce Willis in a visual Fonda reference (Last Man Standing, a gangster-era remake of Yojimbo directed by western aficionado Walter Hill).  Even the chair is the same.

The most eye-catching female role here is not the Clementine Carter of the title, played by Cathy Downs, but smoldering Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl and prostitute in love with Doc Holliday. 

At the movie’s start, Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are driving a herd of cattle to California when they arrive outside Tombstone in Arizona.  Leaving young James to watch the herd, they go into town for a shave and a drink.  They return in the driving rain to find the herd stolen and James dead.  It’s obvious to us that it’s the work of Old Man Clanton (an unusually malevolent Walter Brennan) and his four sons, who were coveting the herd earlier and tried to buy it.  The surviving brothers return to town, where Wyatt, already known as a peace officer from a stint in Dodge City, accepts a job as the town marshal with his brothers as deputies.

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Walter Brennan as a malevolent Old Man Clanton.

One of his first actions is to meet and establish some kind of relationship with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who owns the local saloon where Chihuahua sings.  Doc is volatile and used to having his way, but he and Wyatt arrive at a wary accommodation.  There is a sense of impending doom over Doc, due to bouts of wracking coughs that indicate he has consumption (tuberculosis).  The stage brings Clementine Carter to town, a figure from Doc’s past with whom Wyatt is immediately taken.  Doc is less thrilled to see her, and he tells Clementine to leave town or he will.  The jealous Chihuahua thinks Doc will now go to Mexico with her and marry her.  Meanwhile, Wyatt discovers Chihuahua with an elaborate silver cross that James had bought for his own girl, and she tells him she got it from Doc.  Wyatt chases down the stage for Tucson and retrieves Doc.  He doesn’t come easily; the two finally face off, and Wyatt wins.

On their return to Tombstone, they confront Chihuahua, since Doc knows he didn’t give her the cross.  She finally confesses that she got it from Billy Clanton (John Ireland), and Clanton, who has been lurking outside the window, shoots her and flees on horseback.  Wyatt takes three shots at Clanton to little apparent effect and Virgil pursues him toward the Clanton ranch.  At the ranch, Billy falls dead on the porch from wounds, and Old Man Clanton shoots Virgil in the back with a shotgun. 

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Wyatt delivers an ultimatum to the Clantons at the OK Corral.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday exercises his now-quite-rusty surgical skills on the badly wounded Chihuahua, using saloon tables for the operation with the assistance of trained nurse Clementine.  It’s apparently successful, and for a time Doc is the skilled surgeon of old.  However, the Clantons return with Virgil’s body to Tombstone, setting up the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Chihuahua dies, and Holliday joins the Earps against the Clantons.  In the extended shootout, all four of the remaining Clantons are killed, with Old Man Clanton as the final member of the family to go down.  Wyatt and surviving brother Morgan (Ward Bond) head for California to tell their father what has happened, and Clementine becomes the schoolmarm in Tombstone.  Wyatt departs, leaving the sense that he’ll be back to resume the relationship.

Tim Holt and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Wyatt and Clementine say goodbye for a while.

Fonda couldn’t be better as Wyatt Earp in his first movie role after returning from service in the navy during World War II.  As it is used in this movie, even Fonda’s hat almost becomes a character itself; both its shape and Fonda’s use of it seem authentic.  Victor Mature, whose most obvious characteristic was his physical size and robustness, is a strange choice to play the slight, tubercular Holliday, but it works well enough in the end.  Walter Brennan is excellent as Old Man Clanton, setting up a similar role for him in the parody Support Your Local Sheriff more than twenty years later.  The Clanton sons never become differentiated and don’t matter much.  There’s something of a Mexican stereotype in Darnell’s Chihuahua, but she doesn’t go so far as to attempt a Mexican accent and after enough fiery close-ups she’s effective.  Cathy Downs is beautiful as Clementine, and she doesn’t actually have to do much.  The character actors such as Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hack Granville Thorndyke, Jane Darwell’s townswoman Kate Nelson, and J. Farrell Macdonald as Mac the barman are excellent.  Wyatt to Mac:  “Mac, you ever been in love?”  Mac:  “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

This was also John Ford’s first postwar movie, and it began another amazing run for him.  Over the next ten years, he’d make a string of some of the most remarkable westerns ever filmed.  Ford was said to have known Wyatt Earp as an old man (Earp died in 1929, spending a few of those last years in Hollywood), and this film was loosely based on Stuart Lake’s biography written soon after the old lawman’s death.  Ford claimed that the version of the famous gunfight that he shot was based what Earp personally told him, including a diagram and the passage of a dust-raising stagecoach during the shooting.  But as usual he was “printing the legend”–telling his story the way he thought it should be.  After Ford submitted his film, studio head Darryl Zanuck notoriously took some liberties with it, resulting in some new footage and a shorter cut.  (See Lost Masterpieces.)

The black-and-white cinematography by James MacDonald is remarkable, especially in low shots that bring in the sky; in rain at night; in its use of shadows and light in interior shots; and in long shots that end up in the distance on a feature of Monument Valley geography.  As the surviving Earps and Doc Holliday walk down the dirt street at dawn toward the OK Corral, they’re barely visible in long shots that emphasize the looming sky.  The movie in general has an almost palpable sense of bygone Americana.

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The mortally wounded Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) does not go gently.

If you want a more historical recounting of the Tombstone saga, and in particular the famous gunfight, try Tombstone or Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.  So what’s incorrect in Clementine?  There was no Clementine historically, and Wyatt’s relations with women were less fastidious than this movie depicts.  James was the oldest of the Earp brothers, not the youngest, and the positions of Morgan and Virgil were switched in this film.  It was older brother Virgil, not Wyatt, who took on the job of marshal in Tombstone.  The Earps did not come to Tombstone driving cattle; they came to a booming mining town looking for gambling opportunities and maybe a quick mining strike.  The country around Tombstone isn’t much like Monument Valley.  Wyatt didn’t meet Doc Holliday in Tombstone; they’d previously met in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had been friends for some years.  Doc came to Tombstone after the Earps were already there.  Doc was a dentist, not a surgeon, and he was from Georgia, not Boston, although he was trained in Philadelphia.  He was not killed at the OK Corral, but died in a Colorado sanitarium six years later.  His mistress was not Mexican, but a Hungarian prostitute, Big Nose Kate Elder, and she outlived Doc by more than 50 years.  The Earps’ opponents at the shootout were not Old Man Clanton and three of his four sons—he had only three and he was dead months before the shootout.  Ike and Billy Clanton were in the fight; Ike ran and survived, and Billy was killed, along with the two McLaury brothers.  The gunfight itself was a more stand-up and shoot-it-out affair than depicted in the movie with less moving around, and it was over much quicker.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the real-life story happen during Wyatt’s vendetta ride after the shootout at the corral, and that aftermath is not depicted at all in this film.  And that’s for starters.

Some of these less-than-historical elements have their roots in earlier cinematic versions of the story.  For example, for a Clementine figure re-entering Doc’s life in Tombstone, Doc as a surgeon rather than a dentist, a dramatic operation on a saloon table and Doc being killed in Tombstone, see Frontier Marshal from 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc.

For historical reading on the actual Tombstone and the Earps, try Paula Marks’ To Live and Die in the West or recent biographies of Wyatt by Allen Barra or Casey Tefertiller. 

Note:  As of Oct. 2014, this classic was released on a Criterion Collection DVD, complete with commentary, extras, a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, and even a 103-minute pre-release cut.  It’s the best way to see the film.  However, the earlier 2004 DVD has an excellent commentary by film historian and Ford biographer Scott Eyman that is worth listening to.

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