Friday, 17 June 2011

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Country: USA

The gunfight at the OK Corral and the events surrounding it have become one of the most enduring of Hollywood myths. The traditional Hollywood western is particularly suited to the propagation of myths and legends, the efficiency of the genre lies in its attitude too its own mythology and symbolism, so recognisably iconographic, it is no surprise that film theorists most often turn to the western when discussing genre. It now seems an entirely logical step for the filmmaker most associated with the western to tackle the story of Wyatt Earp. Although John Ford went on to make a number of revisionist westerns in his later career - most notably Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his treatment of the Earp legend is very different to what we might expect. The screenplay by Samuel G. Engel, Winston Miller and Sam Hellman was based on the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake. A book which was allegedly written with the collaboration of Earp himself. So we might expect some historical verisimilitude, but the screenplay takes a number of liberties with the real events as Ford indulges in the themes for which he has become well known. In dramatic terms this is a peculiar film. The film does not build to the predictable showdown. It meanders along and concerns itself with very small and intimate details. The gunfight itself is farcically downplayed, and totally lacks any sense of tension or catharsis.

In addition to indulging his love of character, Ford also indulges in his favourite filming location of Monument Valley. But seeing it shot in black and white somehow divests the image of its symbolic magnitude. However the salient point of the location which is to show man dwarfed by the awesome and sublime spectacle of the natural landscape remains undiminished. Ford uses this landscape sparingly on this occasion, the majority of the action taking place in the frontier town of Tombstone. The Earp’s initially at least are peaceable cattle owners, but the death of their youngest sibling at the hand of cattle rustlers (the discovery of the body comes with a torrential downpour of rain) leads Wyatt to take on the role of Sheriff in a town which is ruled not by law, but by anarchy. The motivation of Earp is entirely vengeful, but we see him softening to the forces of civilisation that come his way. In the films early moments we are struck by the Earp’s wildness, unkempt and unshaved, they care not for their appearance. But throughout their stay in Tombstone Wyatt dresses immaculately, and even accepts the barbers perfume. This becomes an amusing running joke, but one which illustrates efficiently the extent to which Wyatt has become civilised. Of course this is partly in order to attract Doc Holliday’s ex Clementine, who brings her own brand of civility to the wild town by virtue of being a school teacher.

The casting of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp might well have raised eyebrows at the time. The role seems custom made for Ford's other on screen muse John Wayne. But as Fonda illustrated in Young Mr Lincoln (1939) he brings a casual laconic brand of heroism, one which in this case works excellently as a counterpoint to the lawlessness and chaos of Tombstone. Perhaps more controversial is the depiction of Doc Holliday as interpreted by Victor Mature. Mature effectively conveys the tortured nature of Holliday, but the macho sparring between he and Earp seems ill at ease with the rest of the film. Mature should be the charismatic centre of the movie, and although the film lavishes a great deal of attention on Doc’s story and his interaction with Clementine (Cathy Downs) and Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) it remains rather uninteresting. All the while tensions between the Earp’s (Wyatt’s brothers are not seen nearly enough) and The Clanton’s (who are also not visible enough) takes place largely off screen. It simmers, but the predictable encounters leading to the fateful gunfight do not occur. A long episode involving a Shakespearean theatrical type adds another layer of civilisation to Tombstone, and almost as an afterthought brings about a brief encounter between Wyatt and the Clanton’s.

This sense of the Earp/Clanton feud being an afterthought to Ford’s principal themes continues throughout the movie. In many ways the narrative of Doc Holliday is also used as a distraction from what the audience might expect. In places My Darling Clementine has the feel of a soap opera, but one which is more interested in anti-climaxes. The death of Chihuahua for example occurs off screen and the fabled gunfight is over before we know it. This final sequence is especially problematic, but at least the film doesn’t build to it and then disappoint. It just doesn’t built toward anything at all. In essence this is a remarkably good natured, quiet and unobtrusive film. It is a romanticised and elegiac interpretation of the Earp narrative more concerned with the ever closing relationship between wilderness and civilisation.

Other films dealing with the narrative of Wyatt Earp include;
Law and Order (1932), Frontier Marshal (1934), Frontier Marshal (1939), Tombstone: The Town too Tough to Die (1942), Wichita (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Hour of the Gun (1967), Doc (1971), Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994).

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Greg Stuart Smith15 July 2011 at 08:15

    It's been awhile since I've seen this one, Shaun, but I remember really being taken with Fonda as Earp. He has such an awshucks, earnest way about him, as an actor in general, that it forces you to see the legendary lawman in a different -- not softer per say, but a much less complicated -- light. I also remember thinking: that Fonda had to have been the most likable actor to ever fill the silver screen.

    That's why it is so shocking, almost fundamentally wrong, when he first shows up in "Once Upon A Time In The West." That CLOSE UP shot of his dead, blue eyes; his almost nonexistent smirk, as you realize with horror: Christ, he's going to kill that poor redheaded kid just for the fun of it! Because it's Fonda, and because there's all that celluloid history out there, it hits you in the gut on a primal level. Or at least it did for me.

    It's the most deconstructive moment in all of Leone's Westerns in my estimation, based in no small part, to this particular film. Leone sure knew what he was doing. So did Ford.

    Long live Westerns!

  2. Beautifully put Greg! One of the most shocking close up's in cinematic history. Leone is so aware of this, that his camera tracks up the body of Fonda with agonising drawn out slowness. It reiterates how fundamentally important to genres that certain actors are. It also tells you a lot about Henry Fonda and his willingness at the time to subvert his iconic screen image. John Wayne for example would never have agreed to such an act. He still had problems during the film of THE SHOOTIST with the idea of shooting villains in the back.

    I like Fonda a lot, and although I think ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a wonderful film, my favourite Fonda Euro Western is MY NAME IS NOBODY. Brilliant chemistry with Terence Hill, a superb Morricone soundtrack, and the comedy works.

    Thanks for the comment :-)

  3. Another very thoughtful review, Shaun - and one I disagree with wholeheartedly!

    I find the film beautifully paced, the various positioning of the archetypes engaging (albeit predictable in this contemporary moment), and Fonda's laconic Earp a wonderful creation - a character who projects complete authority without the cliched physicality so often informing the White Hats of the classical Western.

    I find the final gunfight to be fascinating - almost tranquil in its silence and mood, and lacking the brawny mythologizing that typically underwrites depictions of the OK Corral showdown.

    It's also interesting to see Victor Mature tackle roles with more substance (his role in 'Clementine' and the noir 'Kiss of Death' are probably his best performances), and Linda Darnell is nice to watch (apparently, she was cast at Zanuck's request, and not the choice of Ford). It's interesting to contrast her performance here with her part in 'Drums Along The Mohawk' from '39.

  4. Fascinating as always to read your thoughts Johnny, and it does my heart good that we can disagree wholeheartedly and approach the film from different but equally valid positions. I rather like Fonda's portrayal of Earp here, but I do have reservations about Mature's handling of Holiday. I can understand Ford's de-mythologising of a story that had become a legend by this point. I might be a stick in a mud but I wanted an all guns blazing kick ass finale for the OK Corral. It feels almost like a revisionist western, but decades before that term was introduced to genre criticism. Thanks as ever for stopping by.

  5. God bless that meddling Darryl Zanuck - by far my favorite of the old moguls.


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