This is the West, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.
After the war, John Ford and his partner Meriam Cooper in their company Argosy Productions planned a talkie remake of Ford’s silent Western The Last Outlaw, to be released by Universal, and they signed up Harry Carey and John Wayne to star in it. But the project never came to fruition for a variety of reasons and instead Ford’s first post-war picture was to be a treatment of the Wyatt Earp legend, starring Henry Fonda. My Darling Clementine, one of the finest Earp films, if not the finest, (see the post Wyatt Earp in fact and fiction: part 2/2, the fiction) was a version of the legend of Wyatt Earp, not the fact. Ford made it to complete his contract with Fox which had been interrupted by his navy service.
This was Ford’s first Western since Stagecoach (if you exclude the rather clunky American Revolution yarn Drums Along The Mohawk) and it certainly moves on from Stagecoach in subtlety and power. Still, like all Ford Westerns, Clementine deals with the images and ideas of American myth.
John Ford, back in Monument Valley
It’s a marvelous tale of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the truth. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim (exaggeration and lies were part of Ford’s stock in trade). He recounted how, as a young man, he had met Wyatt Earp who “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” As Old Man Clanton was killed in Ford’s version of the fight and so was Doc Holliday, it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter… As I have said before, I don’t mind Hollywood presenting an historically inaccurate picture; they are not producing documentaries but entertaining dramas. It’s only when they claim factual accuracy that I object.
Several scenes of My Darling Clementine derive from earlier treatments – for example the opening, with a drunken Indian terrorizing the town which came from Fox’s 1939 Randolph Scott/Cesar Romero picture Frontier Marshal. Ford even hired the same actor, Charlie Stevens. But the majority is Ford’s creation and bears his stamp.
John Ford and photographer Joe MacDonald shot it in Tombstone, UT, as it were - that is by building a Tombstone in Monument Valley, at a cost of $250,000. The spare, almost lunar landscape makes the town small, precarious, isolated, on the edge of civilization only. The black & white photography is very beautiful. OK, there are a lot of interiors (location shooting was still expensive and difficult) but Ford knew that Westerns belong out of doors and whenever he can, he has stages rolling across the screen leaving dust clouds behind them, and sun and skies. The scene of the gunfight at the OK Corral is particularly well done, with a huge background and instead of blaring or tense music, the sound of wind and boots scuffing.
Henry Fonda is majestic as Wyatt Earp. Picking up his career after serving in the Navy, Fonda didn’t miss a beat. Still under contract at Fox, Hank was in the right place at the right time. Fonda and Ford had a prickly relationship. Fonda had started as a buddy, gambling and drinking aboard Ford’s yacht the Araner, but Ford was too much of a tyrant for that to last. Fonda had been magnificent for Ford as Young Mr. Lincoln, then in the frontier drama Drums Along the Mohawk and especially, of course, as Tom Joad. “Fonda quietly imbues the Earp character with stunning power.” (Brian Garfield). He is the classic Western hero: laconic, moral, tough, with a hidden soft heart.
Laconic, moral, tough
In his excellent biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman perceptively writes that
Ford’s Earp is one of the last times he would draw a man of the West without a character conflict; Earp has no particular nostalgia for the past, and, except for the scene at his brother’s grave – an add-on not directed by Ford – never expresses any interest in the future. The Wyatt Earp created by Ford and Henry Fonda is a self-possessed, pragmatic man, interested in a clean shave and a quiet town. If nobody else will get him those things, he’ll have to get them himself.
Victor Mature, in his first Western, was a surprising choice (although Vincent Price, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were all considered by Ford, which would have been interesting!) and was a remarkably powerful Doc Holliday, from his storming entrance onwards. Dramatically, he had to die at the end and duly does so at the exciting OK Corral shoot-out. Mature, Zanuck’s choice, was an unlikely Western actor but in fact put in some very good performances – in Fury at Furnace Creek in 1948, for Anthony Mann in The Last Frontier in 1955, and in Escort West in 1958. His Chief Crazy Horse in 1955, however, is probably best glossed over.
Mature very good
Walter Brennan is also splendid as the desert rattlesnake Old Man Clanton, though his sons (John Ireland, Grant Withers, Mickey Simpson) are not developed at all, which is a pity. Brennan and Ford had a mutual dislike and it seems that Clanton’s cold loathing of Earp stood in for Brennan’s for Ford. Brennan finished the picture in a professional way but refused to work for Ford ever again.
Brennan didn't get on with Ford
Ward Bond makes a very good Morgan Earp, too, even though Tim Holt is unmemorable as Virgil. James Earp (Don Garner, uncredited) has become the youngest brother and is killed off in the first reel in order to give Fonda a reason to become marshal. James was often portrayed in movies as the younger brother, which is odd. He was in fact seven years older than Wyatt and fought in the Civil War. There is often a temptation to under-write the parts of Wyatt’s brothers and/or use weaker actors because this heightens the dramatic power of the Wyatt role. Ford didn’t fall into that trap with Ward Bond, who was always powerful even in small parts, but there is an element of that in the Winston Miller script. Miller, by the way, had as a boy played the young George O’Brien in The Iron Horse.
Ward Bond strong as Morgan
Ford was less good with the women. Linda Darnell looked frankly ridiculous in her 1940s hair and make-up as Chihuahua, Doc’s woman (no sign of Big Nose Kate). Perhaps she and Ford were trying for a watered down and bowdlerized Jane Russell from The Outlaw. Cathy Downs as the saccharine Clementine Carter (the darling of the title) is far too saintly. Ford had wanted feistier Anne Baxter but had to settle for Downs.
Of the smaller parts, Alan Mowbray has a lovely little cameo as the Shakespearean actor Granville Thorndyke (who gives Doc an opportunity to spout some lines of the Bard too). Ford would use the idea again four years later in Wagonmaster. Good old Russell Simpson plays John Simpson, and Mae Marsh is his sister. Ford’s brother Francis Ford has a rare speaking part as ‘Dad – old soldier’, though uncredited.
Ford managed in this film to contain the sentimental side and limit the slapstick humor that he was prone to and which disfigured so many of his Westerns. The tone of the picture is quiet and contemplative. And this heightens the explosions of violence when they come.
Zanuck was a skillful editor and he made considerable changes to produce the final cut. The cuts tend to reinforce the narrative, making it easier for the audience to grasp the story. It didn’t please Ford, understandably. He refused a huge offer of $600,000 a year to make more pictures for Fox.
My Darling Clementine opened to good reviews but only average box-office takings. It grossed about $2.8m, little more than a break-even.
It is a flawed picture in a (very) few ways but My Darling Clementine is a fine, fine Western and should be on anyone’s list.