Classic Film Talk: ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946)

Today we reminisce about

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Directed by John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs, Walter Brennan

Synopsis

The year is 1882. Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers are moving cattle through the unforgiving, arid Arizona desert. On their way to California from Mexico, the men decide stop in Tombstone to rest and allow their already fragile herd of cattle to recuperate. Wyatt briefly speaks with an older gentleman by the name of Clanton (Brennan) who also raises cattle on a farm with his four sons. Clanton falsely tells Wyatt that Tombstone is a nice, calm town where he can get everything he needs. Later that evening, Wyatt and his brothers Virgil and Morgan ride into Tombstone while the youngest brother, James, stays behind. When the brothers Earp arrive in town, they discover that it is essentially lawless and that it is difficult to get any services without facing gunfire. Returning back to their camp, the brothers find that their cattle is gone and that James has been killed. Instead of pressing on westward, the brothers decide to stay in town with Wyatt accepting an offer to become Tombstone’s deputy. Wyatt is determined to prove that Clanton and his sons are responsible for the crimes.

Along the way, they get to know Chihuahua (Darnell), a Mexican singer who is also the love interest to Doc Holliday (Mature), a town fixture who acts as an unofficial enforcer of the law. His world becomes more complicated with the arrival of his former sweetheart from Boston, Clementine Carter (Downs), who has long been searching for Doc. Conflict arises between her and Doc as well as between the two women. The only person who shows any empathy towards Clementine is Wyatt, who becomes enamoured with her.

All of the events lead up to a final showdown at the O.K. Corral.

 

Background

Author Stuart N. Lake penned two novels based on the Earp brothers and the events at the O.K. Corral. The first was published in 1931 under the title Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal and became the leading resource on the Earps during their time in Tombstone. It proved to be an extremely popular read, allowing a Depression-struck population the ability to celebrate a real-life superhero and to temporarily forget their sorrows. Scholars were less enthusiastic about the book, which they criticised for being largely fictionalised. In reality, Lake’s work was indeed fiction though he never professed to it being as such. His second novel, My Darling Clementine, was published 15 years later in 1946 and was also heavily panned by scholars. The rights were purchased by director John Ford who had no immediate plans to turn it into a film. He was likely emotionally attached to the novel’s subject matter due to the fact that he had known the real Wyatt Earp during the 1920’s. According to Ford, Earp would often speak about his adventures and had apparently told the director the truth about the events at the O.K. Corral. As a result, Ford attempted to remain as faithful as he could to both Lake’s novel and Earp’s recollections when commissioned to make the film, seemingly turning a blind eye to historical evidence. Ford’s film managed to win over audiences and critics alike despite being regarded as grossly inaccurate. His talents at storytelling and film direction counted for more than rigor.

The Earp brothers: Morgan, Wyatt & Virgil

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that My Darling Clementine is one of the most celebrated films from John Ford’s career and has been named by many as being one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Ford had a solid reputation as a skilled filmmaker who produced high quality, award-winning pictures like The Informer, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. He worked with the best actors and actresses in the business and was granted many requests by studio executives. Fox President Darryl Zanuck detailed these allotments in a memo to Ford dated 25 June 1946. He writes:

I authorized the expenditure of more than two million dollars and I sat in on many of the story conferences. I authorized giving to you the number of shooting days that you requested and I am sure that you will be the first to admit that I gave you every actor that you asked for regardless of whether it was a bit or an important role.”*

Zanuck used this almost as leverage to get the changes he wanted in the story without deceiving and belittling Ford. (In reality, Zanuck did not need Ford’s permission to edit a film to his liking, as he had done so on his own accord for both The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.) When filming was complete, Ford’s director cut was at a little over two hours. Zanuck decided to reduce the film’s run-time by 30 minutes and made further alterations based on the reactions of test audiences. The filmed turn out to be a grand critical success as well as a moderate commercial hit though box-office profits were off-set by the very high production costs.

Old Man Clanton and his four sons harassing a Tombstone citizen.

Over the years, Ford directed quite a few films that were set in the Old West, all of which were praised for their authenticity of the time period. This specific characteristic is omnipresent in My Darling Clementine from the costumes to the décor and people’s mannerisms. Even the set was specifically constructed and set-up to act as a working town. The cast and crew lived together as a community during the 45-day shoot, enjoying the calm of the evenings and taking to amusing themselves in simple, old-fashioned ways like playing instruments, singing songs, playing cards, and sitting around having long talks. Even notoriously ill-tempered Ford was rather laid-back on the set, allowing himself to joke around and be more easy-going with the film’s players. A notable exception to this is Walter Brennan, a decorated veteran of the screen who was offended by some of Ford’s off-handed remarks. Aside from this, the behind-the-scenes dynamic translated into fine individual performances as well as an admirable group effort.

 

Casting Magic

A grand film on many levels, My Darling Clementine’s stronghold is undoubtedly its cast.

Henry Fonda was no stranger to working with John Ford, whom he considered a friend and did some of his best early career work. In addition to being Fonda’s first film since returning from having fought in World War II, it was also the first time he was starring in a Ford Western. The studio had not wanted Fonda for the role but the director insisted on his casting as he felt that Fonda represented the qualities of the real-life Wyatt Earp he had known. Fonda’s Earp is a peace-loving, moral man with a quiet demeanour. He was once an upholder of the law in famed Dodge City, Kansas, who has since decided to live as a lawful citizen. What is most striking about Fonda’s portrayal is how calm and composed he remains, even in the most demanding of times. After young James is killed, one would expect him to be enraged and want to immediately avenge his brother’s honour. Instead, Fonda’s Earp accepts to become Tombstone’s marshal so that he can legally bring in the culprit(s). Even when he comes face-to-face with the would-be killer(s), he remains collected and focused on his task at hand. As a viewer, I was almost impatient in my wait for him to get his revenge but I learned that this version of Wyatt Earp was going to act any way but predictably.

Fonda’s Wyatt proves to be frustrating to Darnell’s Chihuahua

Linda Darnell was an established Fox leading star who had experienced a rocky pattern in her career since her 1939 screen debut. She had started out playing mostly naïve, good-mannered young women until 1944 when she was able to break out of the good girl mould. Darryl Zanuck, who had a very odd relationship with Darnell, did not believe her to be the right choice for Chihuahua but she was ultimately cast in the role. Darnell had the right dark looks and happened to be fluent in Spanish though most importantly she had the capacity to convincingly play a feisty, hot-tempered woman. Personally, I feel that Darnell did her best work when playing characters of this nature. Chihuahua is very sceptical of outsiders, trying to manipulate Wyatt’s poker games and sticking her claws out when Clementine comes into town. She often thinks with her heart and reacts from her emotions which can get her into trouble, even when she does not mean to hurt anyone in the process. Her love for Doc is so pure that a life without him would be like having no life at all. There is one scene that makes me laugh in the film because it is very much a mark of John Ford: After Wyatt catches Chihuahua trying to spoil his hand of cards, he takes her outside and ends up dumping her in the water of a horse trough. This is almost exactly like what happens to Maureen O’Hara in Ford’s 1963 film McLintock! when she falls into a water-filled trough.

Victor Mature as Doc Holliday

Victor Mature, though third billed, really deserves co-star credit alongside Henry Fonda. His role as Doc Holliday is vital to the overall storyline as he and Wyatt Earp become involuntary partners in the fight to keep Tombstone at bay. Before Wyatt’s arrival, Doc was the man to talk to in case problems arose and he made the tough decisions, like deciding who stayed and got out of town. His attitude frustrates Wyatt from the get-go because Doc does not want to give up some of his old habits such as not letting Indians (who are armed and cannot hold their liquor) into the saloon and ordering decent folk to get out of town, including Clementine. Upon their first meeting, it is unsure whether Doc is friend or foe and for a moment, you fear that there may be gunplay involved. Luckily the two men stay cordial with one another although they do not always agree and at times, you think that they have the potential to be the greatest of friends. It is unclear why Doc came to hate his hometown or why he ran away from a future with Clementine, not to mention why he does not want to be associated with his medical background. What I can say is that Doc is an educated man who has an appreciation for artistic freedom, being able to recite Shakespeare and considering theatre troupes to deliver more than just cheap entertainment. Mature was a perfect choice to play Doc Holliday because he brings depth to the character, seemingly outwardly tough and impenetrable all the while being capable of demonstrating tenderness. The most touching scene is when Doc operates on Chihuahua in an attempt to save her life. Doc speaks to her gently before the procedure and when it is finished, they both look at each other for a moment without saying a word. Chihuahua looks so angelically peaceful, almost appearing like a different person because her guard is broken down. She offers Doc a beautiful smile to thank him for saving her life and really, for loving her. When you look at Doc, you feel the warmness behind his stare and feel like she could not have been in better hands.

Wyatt’s Darling Clementine

Newcomer Cathy Downs did not leave a huge impression on me and I felt that her Clementine was a bit too tepid. She demonstrated great persistence when trying to find Doc, going all over the country by herself on a trip that had already lasted many months. However, she was ready to turn on her heels nearly the moment she arrived in Tombstone. Perhaps this was done out of respect for Doc’s wishes but at least she could have tried to reason with him a little. I believe an actress like Vera Miles would be been a great choice to fill Clementine’s shoes although this would have been an impossibility since Miles did not make her screen debut until 1950. (It could be that I am too keen on her performances in Ford’s films The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) However, Downs’ Clementine is a perfect fit for Wyatt Earp as they are both low-key individuals who generally mind their own business and respect the civil code. If Clementine and Wyatt had a future together, this might make perfect sense but it is unsure what Ford’s true feelings were on the subject. His original cut had the two saying goodbye with a chaste handshake whereas Zanuck forced him to include a scene of Wyatt giving Clementine a kiss on the cheek.

 

My Thoughts

It is easy to become fond of John Ford’s films because they often focused on simple stories and characters with whom you could relate. He gave great detail to dressing sets and also to filming on-location in the wilderness. There was nothing easy about filming a movie, whether it was in regards to his personal expectations, the demands he put on cast and crew, or the limits imposed by studios. The end results were well-received and made it so that Ford is considered one the greatest directors in the history of motion pictures.

I consider myself a fan of John Ford’s films though, admittedly, the man himself intimidates me to no end, even when it comes to writing about his work. Not being a trained film scholar, I am not always able to see or appreciate certain camera shots or to understand how a film gets considered the “greatest” in one’s filmography. When it comes to My Darling Clementine, I truly believe that I would have an even higher opinion of the film had I been shown Ford’s director’s cut. It does feel like parts of the film are missing, such as Chihuahua not being seen much during the middle portion of the film or steady shots without any dialogue that would provide more of a drawn-out transition which would complement the remote setting. Zanuck’s cut is perfectly fine on its own and has garnered the film much praise and distinction but I feel it is only proper to allow the director to have his say.

The fact that this story is mostly fiction with the exception of several characters’ names does not bother me in the least. Having visited the actual town of Tombstone in southern Arizona, I also was not offended at seeing Ford use Utah’s Monument Valley as a backdrop. I did not come in with the expectation of this being historically accurate and frankly, very few films have come close to being exact. Ford’s version of this film is a love letter to the Wild West and to a man whom he considered to be a veritable American hero.

 

Director John Ford on the set of ‘My Darling Clementine’.

 

*Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck by Rudy Behlmer, pg. 103