Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Darling Clementine: An American Classic

One of the truly classic movies in American cinema, My Darling Clementine (1946), is a thinking man's western. Although there's plenty of liquor, card playing and rootin' tootin' shootin', director John Ford's masterpiece offers up the gripping action as secondary to its powerful and nuanced characterizations and atmospheric depiction of the Old West legend. Though a romanticized and somewhat fictionalized account of the infamous gunfight at the OK corral, it is nonetheless a stunning piece of storytelling on film.

The movie stars Henry Fonda as legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who, with his brothers, is herding cattle through the Arizona Territory, from Mexico to California. They meet up with a passel of scraggly looking cowpokes who introduce themselves as the Clantons. Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan, in an uncharacteristically villainous role) offers to buy the Earps' herd for less than they paid for it in Mexico. When the offer is refused, the brothers are directed to the nearby town of Tombstone, to refresh themselves with "a shave and a beer." While in town, their cattle is stolen and the youngest brother, left to guard the herd, murdered. Though the Clanton gang is the natural suspect, nothing can be proved. Wyatt takes on the job of marshal of Tombstone, which has been offered to him by the local gentry.

Upon acceptance as marshal, Wyatt meets the other residents of town who's lives intertwine to create the rich fabric of the film. Chihauhau (Linda Darnell) is an exotic half breed floozy who sings at the local saloon. It's never really established what her native background is though its inferred by her physical appearance and some scant phrases that she's Mexican, yet at one point when Earp is chastising her for trying to cheat at a card game, he threatens to run her "back to the Apache reservation." She is also the lover of John "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature), an alcoholic gambler suffering from tuberculosis, who more or less runs the town and has an established reputation for killing. He and Earp form a kind of odd camaraderie, with traces of animosity on the part of Holliday and suspicion from the marshal.

The film's title, strangely enough, has very little to do with the central storyline. It refers to Clementine Carter, the well bred eastern lady friend of Doc Holliday, who comes west in search of the tortured consumptive gun slinger. She is played by Cathy Downs, a little known actress who was a contract player at 20th Century-Fox, where the film was made. The contrast between her quiet meekness and Darnell's fiery wild cat, delineate the difference between Holliday's happier, more civilized past and his tempestuous and melancholy present. The story culminates with the legendary gunfight between the Earps, with Holliday at their side, and the lawless Clanton gang.

Joseph MacDonald's cinematography is shot in deep focus black and white with gorgeous outdoor photography of the desert plains at various hours of the day. As well, the interior scenes are masterfully choreographed, each shot framed for both artistic and dramatic effect. Ford carefully paces the film, its never rushed but by the same token, its not slow moving by a long shot. His use of folk music and hymns lend to the feel of Americana so prevalent in his work. Henry Fonda, as Wyatt Earp, has quiet strength, as he so often does in roles played before and after this. With the arrival of Clementine Carter, Fonda's Wyatt, smitten with the refined easterner, evolves from scruffy cowhand cum lawman into a groomed, perfumed attendant, ready to protect or escort the young lady whichever may be required of him.

As the emotionally tortured Doc Holliday, Victor Mature gives what is arguably his finest performance. When a traveling ham actor (Alan Mowbray) can't finish reciting Hamlet's suicide soliloquy due to his drunkenness, Mature, as the educated Holliday, finishes the scene, giving an admirable rendition of Shakespeare. Ward Bond, always a Ford favorite, plays Wyatt's brother, Morgan. Interestingly, Bond was in the two previous filmizations of the Earp story. Gorgeous Linda Darnell, with her 1940's hairdo and make-up, does fine as the loose and luscious Chihuahua. Most likely her ranking of second billing in the film, after Fonda and before Mature, had more to do with studio politics and star potential than of her characters importance to the story. Chihauhau was one of a slew of sluts and wanton women Darnell was cast as in the mid and late Forties.

The story of My Darling Clementine has been documented to film numerous times, most notably as Frontier Marshal (1939), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), but none have the superior poetic quality that Ford's film emanates. A master of the genre, the director captivates and entertains, something that few westerns, from any era, can profess to do.


  1. One of the very best westerns ever made, and Linda Darnell is a bonus. John Ford is the master and Fonda is at ome in the west on any level from Grapes of Wrath to the Oxbow Incident. And yes, this is Vic's best ever role too. Terrific stuff and a good choice Rupe!!!

  2. What a lovely tribute. You hit on the common thread that binds all of Ford's work together whether it's Westerns or not--great storytelling and characterization.. I've never been a fan of Westerns or war movies---except those by Ford. This essay reminds me so much of the Ford's talent and his remarkably diverse career.

  3. Rupert, "Clementine" is my very second favorite Western of all time, behind Ford's "Stagecoach." Your excellent post hit just about all the high points of the film, including Mature's great performance, Brennan's very effective turn in an unexpectedly villainous role, and especially Joe MacDonald's fantastic photography. The contrast between the airy, light-saturated outdoor scenes (with Ford's characteristic eye for archetypal Western scenery) and the dark, almost claustrophobic interior scenes is quite striking. I've recently seen several impressively photographed Fox movies shot by him. He did a lot of routine work but really rose to the challenge when something special was called for. I wish you'd written a bit more about Fonda, though. What a wonderful actor, and this is one of his best performances. I can't imagine the movie with anyone else in the lead. His strength, intelligence, and sense of honor really hold the movie together. Having recently discovered your site, I want to tell you how much I've been enjoying it and especially your excellent choice of subjects.

  4. Rupert, your post was fantastic. Ford's westerns I like watching and this is one that I love. If I haven't seen this movie numerous times I would be out looking for the dvd right this second after reading your post! Mature is fantastic in this movie. I was waiting for you to do this movie because I knew you really liked it and you keep amazing me. Thanks for the great post. Someone who hasn't seen a ford western might actually see one after this review!

  5. Don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed "MY DARLING CLEMENTINE". But I prefer the 1993 movie, "TOMBSTONE".

  6. Great film. I just watched it a couple of weeks ago for the first time after watching all the contemporary and earlier versions of the gunfight at the ok. corral films. This was really good. I had also come off 'The oxbow incident' and 'Tin star' so my Henry Fonda western instincts were in full swing. Really good film.

  7. Rupert: For a fascinating look at this film, check out Michael F. Blake's book on the Earp films, Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals ofthe Gunfight and Wyatt Earp.



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