An American classic, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the few westerns cherished by both camps: those who rightly regard the Western as the richest and most important of all Hollywood genres; those who (for whatever foolish or pathological reasons) don’t like westerns. Although it did little more than break-even business, the film was highly regarded in its own day, winning the best foreign-film accolade from Italy’s film journalists; and, of course, it’s even more highly regarded today, now that, courtesy of the University of California at Los Angeles film department, we have at our disposal a preview version of the film that’s largely untouched by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s heavy hand—meddling that includes the deletion of frames necessary for the mere comprehension of the film and its method or procedure, the substitution of emphatic music for Ford’s silences, natural sounds and discreet music, and, most egregious, the changed ending, to which Zanuck’s hack, Lloyd Bacon, blighted the film with the single worst shot in the entire Ford œuvre. It’s a blessing to know, as we now do, that Ford had nothing to do with it.
By this time, Ford had won three directorial Oscars, for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). (He would win a fourth for The Quiet Man, 1952.) Imagine, then, the degree of studio meddling with which less firmly established Hollywood filmmakers than Ford routinely had to contend—at least if they felt compelled to go off in unconventional directions. Preview audiences insisted on a farewell kiss between Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter that never would have happened, that makes nonsense of what the film has socially and psychologically disclosed about the two characters; so Zanuck the Hypocrite, while admitting that he thought Ford’s own ending perfect, complied and had the kiss tackily inserted. (Earp wouldn’t have given it; Clementine wouldn’t have accepted it.) Nor can the moment be reconciled with Henry Fonda’s otherwise superlative performance as the legendary lawman. (Fonda becomes hysterically goonish when he plants the roadside kiss on the new schoolmarm’s face before leaving Tombstone.*) And the shot is the worst lit thing I’ve ever seen, with the camera bewilderingly close, as is typical of Bacon’s “contributions.” If he had had a soul (or a brain), Zanuck would have cut the Bacon and kept the Ford undented. As it is, the “preview version” is actually a hybrid; its opening movement includes, graveside, one of Zanuck & Bacon’s too-close, too-sentimental post-preview “improvements.” Nevertheless, the Fox DVD, which includes both versions of the film, allows us to appreciate, on the one hand, the depth of commercial depravity in Hollywood, and, on the other, the almost inconceivable beauty of one of Ford’s most poetic and transcendent achievements.
My Darling Clementine is the film that, along with his later Wagon Master (1950), best captures Ford’s dual sense of the fullness and the transience of human life. It is, among his westerns, the one that most closely approximates the elegiac emotion of his tremendous work knitting together sea plays by Eugene O’Neill, The Long Voyage Home (1940). It’s Ford’s first postwar western—his first western since Stagecoach (1939); and, rather than follow a story, it famously loses the thread of its narrative, risking to seem haphazard and diffuse, in order to concentrate on mood, feeling and character, and to express the tentative, drifting sense of life that his war service had made all the keener for Ford. My Darling Clementine is perhaps his most poignant western.
The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) are the best measures of the complexity of Ford’s vision of America; along with Wagon Master, My Darling Clementine is the best measure of Ford’s indefatigable embrace of humanity.
Just outside Tombstone, Arizona, the Earp brothers—Wyatt, who is famous for having been Dodge City’s lawman, Morgan, Virgil and James—are running cattle to California when they come across their dark mirror-image: Old Man Clanton and his sons. The Earps, peaceable, turn to violence only when necessary and always reluctantly; Clanton disciplines his grown sons with a whip. (A sample of his fatherly advice: “When you draw a gun on a man, make sure you kill him.”) Clanton offers to buy the Earps’ cattle; Wyatt politely declines. Clanton lures the older Earps to Tombstone for a night of carousing; James, who is a teenager, remains behind, guarding the cattle. The Clantons murder James and steal the cattle. Wyatt, who declined the marshal’s badge offered to him in Tombstone, a town as rough as its name, now accepts it so that he and his deputized brothers can track down James’s killers.
A plot and the theme of revenge are thus launched, and if this were a film by Fritz Lang both would be lit into and unswervingly pursued. But Ford’s larger theme is the flow of life that continues despite, and adding ache to, the losses of life we all suffer. Life goes on, ironically compounding our sense of loss and of life’s frailty. Later, when a character who has been shot is precariously operated on, we hear outdoors men hootin’ and hollerin’. Soon after, the patient dies. Ford releases the narrative thread of revenge—we watch the Earps become a part of the fabric of life in Tombstone, and they are eventually returned to their original mission only by a chance discovery—and creates a portrait of loose-endedness and open-endedness. The formal nature of his film correlates to this thematic portrait.
Lang would have made a film that seems to tighten like a noose; Ford’s film, on the other hand, seems episodic, “loose.” Its communal scenes especially—for instance, when a clamorous crowd is gathered in a theater to watch a visiting actor who is in fact off getting drunk at a bar, or the procession of wagons heading to a church consecration that quickly turns into an outdoor dance—seem to be passing before our eyes. The wild America of romance is passing into a civilized America that somehow seems fragile for the robustness it’s endeavoring to hold in check and translate into a manageable form of life. Everything in this film is splendidly sculpted into light and darkness, fixing it in our eye; yet, at the same time, everything seems to be “unfixed” and in flux. The film is timeless in its rich visual poetry, but at the same time it captures the paradox of Ford’s feelings as an American home from war: everything is at once more stable now and yet open, uncertain, fleeting, not least of all because everything now is imbued with the transience of life that war has taught. Ford’s America, which he deeply, dearly loved, always had been a thing of reality interacting with myth, each settling and unsettling the other. Now this is truer than ever.
My Darling Clementine’s night scenes—shot exquisitely, using day for night, by black-and-white cinematographer Joseph MacDonald—are among the darkest ever devised. The first long-shot of Tombstone as the Earps approach it on horseback is amazing. The sky couldn’t seem more voluminous and dark, and yet we can somehow make out the town’s outline and contours, and the distant interior lamp lights create a haunting specter of evanescence. The town could be either emerging from the pitch darkness or disappearing into it, that is, being swallowed up by a vast void. Either way, the town seems, simultaneously, sturdy and delicate, solid and fragile. This is the way matter—buildings both inside and out, as well as people—in the surrounding darkness appears throughout; Ford’s visual principle, whether implied or explicit, is to have matter at once real and dreamlike, settled-in and dissolving. Moving like clouds, sheets of tobacco smoke inside the saloon and the theater seem correlative to this; ironically, the clouds outdoors appear too heavy to move. The visual effect—and it’s a gorgeous one—is also ironic; one feels at times that the clouds alone, with their immense fullness and weight, are holding down Tombstone, keeping it in place, keeping it from vanishing before our eyes. Ford devises a wonderful moment that humanizes this effect before we see Tombstone. It occurs when his older brothers leave James Earp with the cattle before they depart for a night’s entertainment in town. Ford holds the camera on the innocent boy as he bids each of his three brothers farewell. Ford holds the shot and holds the shot as if, knowing that James will be killed that night, he doesn’t want to let the boy go. He wants to keep James alive as long as possible. However, the emotionally powerful shot also conveys, later, the Earps’ desire to hold onto that last image they had of their younger brother. (This mental elongation of time predates by nearly a decade Satyajit Ray’s extraordinary manipulations of time, including elongation, in Pather Panchali, 1955.**) In context, in retrospect, James becomes like the diaphanous, fleeting tobacco smoke; in our mind’s eye, or upon a subsequent viewing of the film, that long held-onto final image of James ironically translates into his passing into death’s dust before our eyes. What a filmmaking genius Ford is!
As the night scenes are more deeply dark than one can imagine, so it is that several of the daylight scenes are extremely and very softly bright. Sometimes there seem to be auras of light flashing upwards from characters on horseback. Technical shoddiness? I don’t think so, because Ford’s use of too-bright daylight carries the same thematic weight as does his use of darkness. Before our eyes, substantial human beings appear to be dissolving into sunlight, as elsewhere they may seem to be dissolving into darkness.
The relationship between Wyatt Earp and John—“Doc”—Holliday is another element that contributes to the film’s thematic development. After a strained beginning it solidifies, with Ford devising perhaps cinema’s single greatest shot of male-male nonsexual intimacy as the men, side by side, await the lead actor’s arrival in the theater, only to dissolve into Earp’s erroneous suspicion that Holliday killed James. Once this is straightened out, Holliday joins the Earps for the shootout with the Clantons at the O.K. Corral. Holliday, mortally shot, leaves the world saving the life of an Earp by shooting to death the last Clanton. Indeed, throughout the film Holliday’s bad health—he has tuberculosis—poises him for mortal departure. Moreover, the itinerant acting troupe provides a humorous instance of Ford’s theme of transience, although not so funny is how the lead actor’s loneliness and unhappiness provide an ironic index of the motives behind his audience’s—the townsfolk’s—hopes for a communal existence.
Ford’s film is indeed full of humor, and it, too, is thematically relevant. At the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor, the town barber has difficulty managing his new chair, and thus, with blade in hand, he endangers his customers, one of whom, Holliday, gets grazed. (This happens offscreen; we see the result.) The barber also imposes an artistic haircut on Wyatt, and sprays him with cologne besides, providing us with a comical image of American hardiness passing into the civilized state of domestication bordering on dandyism. In an indelible scene that resonates, however humorously, with precariousness, Marshal Earp, seated outside, keeps the chair tilted back and, for balance, quickly alternates between placing left boot and right on the post in front of him. Earp is in control of himself and the town, but at any moment all may come falling down. (Wyatt’s fancy footwork here, incidentally, releases a piercing charge of danger because it recalls that the murdered James, lying on the wet ground, still had one foot in the stirrup.) There is also character humor that helps enrich the film’s portraits. Wyatt asks a bartender at one point if he has ever been really in love. “No,” the man answers, “I’ve been a bartender all my life”—a line that Ford himself added to the script. (The screenplay, based on a story by Sam Hellman and the book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake, is by Winston Miller, but the film’s producer, Samuel G. Engel, bullied his way into the lead credit.)
The lively complexity of Ford’s mise-en-scène in both the saloon and the theater translates as a human defense against the vast darkness right outside.
Many of the characters in this film are marvelously acted. Fonda is the quintessential Wyatt Earp, a man not given to jabbering but always shrewdly, and often sympathetically, taking things in. By a stroke of luck Victor Mature had bronchial pneumonia while enacting the tubercular Doc Holliday; even apart from his convincing coughing jags, this is the performance of his career. And what a contrast with Fonda!—monolithic Mature, in his usual dour Joan Crawford-vein, vis-à-vis the intricately deft Fonda whose acting, subtle and natural, remains largely invisible. Ward Bond and Tim Holt are Morgan and Virgil Earp; how I love Holt the two times Ford directed him—here, and in Stagecoach. Walter Brennan is frightening as Old Man Clanton, and it’s easily one of his best performances, but Ford didn’t succeed in realizing what I presume he was after: that we should feel over Clanton’s loss of his sons, however rotten they and their father were, at least some of what we feel for the Earps’ father’s loss of sons, to which surviving brothers refer on at least two occasions. (Clanton murders both James and, later, Virgil, the next youngest.) Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for her weak Ma Joad in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, now redeems herself, giving her most interesting and touching performance as the town madam—not that the character is at all realistically conceived. (I doubt prostitutes ever were so lucky as to be shepherded by anyone this nice.) Beauteous Linda Darnell—the Virgin Mary that b[r]atty Jennifer Jones “saw” in The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943)—plays Chihuahua, the saloon singer who, Ford hints, was once part of the madam’s gaggle of professionals. Chihuahua loves Doc Holliday to distraction. Jealous, pouty and spiteful, she is the film’s most conventional character, and Ford applies purely conventional filmmaking to her that wittily stands out amidst the film’s freshness. Like the madam and her whores, moreover, Chihuahua is almost exclusively shown indoors; she is the captive of her tempestuous but small emotions. Still, before and after the operation to remove a Clanton bullet, Ford gives her the Madonna-treatment that he once applied to Katharine Hepburn’s Catholic Queen in Mary of Scotland (1936), probably to underscore Chihuahua’s redemption through courage in the face of awesome pain—Holliday has nothing with which to put her to sleep—and likely imminent death. Darnell is often a terrible actress, but not here; she meets the small demands of an emotionally limited part. Cathy Downs also is perfectly adequate as Chihuahua’s nemesis, Clementine Carter, Holliday’s respectable girlfriend from a past from which he has severed himself in every detail. She is the bland sort that would seem heavenly to Wyatt Earp. Finally, Alan Mowbray is terrific as Granville Thorndyke, the itinerant ham actor for whom Ford has such immense affection that he would bring him back, as A. Locksley Hall (Tennysonians, take note!), in Wagon Master (1950), Ford’s favorite among his westerns, from his own original story. Ford is typically fond of his characters, but somehow his embrace of this one provides an especially joyous index of his generosity. It’s with real panache that Thorndyke skips out of town without paying his bill.
In addition to both versions of the film, the DVD includes a feature noting each instance where they differ and applies generally excellent commentary to the version that the studio, 20th Century-Fox, released.
* I am reminded of the ill-advised Astaire-Rogers kiss in George Stevens’s Swing Time (1936)—one of two lapses in an otherwise well judged film. (The other: “Bojangles of Harlem”—a gaudy, overproduced ensemble number meant to honor dancer Bill Robinson.) Stevens doesn’t even show the kiss, only its mark and its aftermath, and still the regrettable event drops the magical film, however temporarily, into a vat of conventional ooze.
** In his unfinished masterpiece, ¡Qué viva México! (1931-32; 1979), Sergei M. Eisenstein elongated time memorably by keeping the sunlight consistently intense by not applying to his camera the usual filters, as though each moment had been shot at the same time of day.
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