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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

My Darling Clementine (Fox, 1946)

Print the legend



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I’ve decided to come back to John Ford, and in particular to My Darling Clementine, because I have just seen it again, and have been reading more about it too, which has caused me to think some more about the picture. Sorry the post is rather long. You don't have to read it all!
Interesting how Mature is highlighted more than Fonda in the publicity material
and Cathy Downs isn't there at all, despite having the title role

After the war, 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 (who had appeared together for the first time in The Shepherd of the Hills in 1941) 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 myth, starring one of the director’s preferred actors, 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. But he was happy to get back to the oater. He often used to introduce himself: “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” He was happy to go back to the genre.

Ford in Monument Valley

For Clementine was Ford’s first Western since Stagecoach (if you exclude the rather clunky American Revolution yarn Drums Along the Mohawk) and Stagecoach itself (1939) had been Ford’s first Western since the silent 3 Bad Men back in 1926. Clementine certainly moves on from Stagecoach in subtlety and artistry, as well as budget and scale. And of course it brought Ford back to the form big time with the cavalry trilogy in the late 1940s and on to even greater things.

Like all Ford Westerns, Clementine deals with the images and ideas of American myth. 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 false claims 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.” He also said in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier that his Westerns “always” followed the historical facts. Baloney. As Old Man Clanton (who actually died well before the OK Corral fight) was killed in Ford’s version and so was Doc Holliday (who actually died in a Colorado sanatorium in 1887), it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter. Ford couldn’t even be bothered to get the year right: his story is set in 1882. 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. But then so many of Ford’s claims should be dismissed as falsehood and make-believe. He was an inveterate liar.

Ford said he got it straight from the horse's mouth - 
the eldely Wyatt Earp didn't die until 1929, in LA

Several scenes of My Darling Clementine derive from earlier treatments of the myth – for example the opening, with Earp dealing 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, to play the Indian. And in fact the basic structure is the same – the quartet of cool Westerner (Wyatt) and wild Easterner (Doc), and ‘bad’ saloon girl (Chihuahua) and ‘good’ Eastern one (Clementine). Doc’s resuscitation of his surgical skills, the traveling actor, other scenes too, came from earlier movies. Perhaps these references and repetitions cemented the continuity of the myth: repeat a story often enough and the legend becomes fact – and as Ford knew very well, “This is the West, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”

The story 1939 style

Stuart Lake, author of the mildly entertaining but totally discredited and over-sensational Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal of 1931, was at the origin of both Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine. In fact he was on the set of the first as technical adviser. In spite of this, or because of it, both movies were historical absurdities.

Fun, but don't expect history

Nevertheless, My Darling Clementine, a far finer film than Frontier Marshal, is Ford’s creation and bears his stamp. And historically accurate or not (in fact, not) it’s a truly wonderful example of American myth-making.

John Ford and highly talented photographer Joseph MacDonald shot it in Tombstone, UT, as it were - that is by building a town of Tombstone in Monument Valley, at a cost of $250,000. The spare, almost lunar landscape makes the settlement small, precarious, isolated, on the edge of civilization only.

DP Joe MacDonald
On the set

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 could, he had 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. Actually Ford rarely used ‘background music’, though he was fond (over-fond, possibly) of music produced by characters in the movie, especially rather sentimental ‘folk’ tunes.

Fine photography, with Utah standing in for Arizona

Henry Fonda was majestic as Wyatt Earp, one of his finest ever roles (and that’s saying a lot). 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 – and a fellow Navy man for Ford – and Victor Mature was too, almost, having just got out of the Coastguard. True, 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. Still, friends or not, Ford knew what power Fonda could bring to a role. He had been magnificent for Ford as Young Mr. Lincoln, then the best thing about the frontier drama Drums Along the Mohawk, and was especially fine, 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.

Fonda majestic

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.

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 low-key but powerful OK Corral shoot-out. Mature, studio boss Darryl F 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 the Leo Gordon-written Escort West in 1958. His performance as Chief Crazy Horse, also in 1955, however, is probably best glossed over.
Surprisingly good Western actor

Ford heightens the unlikeliness of the friendship between Wyatt and Doc by making them opposites in so many ways. Doc is theatrical and flamboyant, and ruled by his emotions, whereas Wyatt is measured, calm and controlled. Take the way they both deal with an unwanted gambler: Doc sweeps the hat off the man’s head and runs him out of town by shouting and blustering, silencing the saloon. Wyatt deals with an ‘undesirable’ gambler who gets off the stage by quietly telling him to be on the next stage out; he remains seated in the shadow and no one else hears. Or compare Wyatt walking sedately down the street with Clementine to the church social with Doc flying wildly down the same street after Chihuahua.

Compare and contrast

As Robert Lyons points out in a 1984 essay on the film, My Darling Clementine as History and Romance, all Doc’s ‘good’ qualities – his erudition, doctoring skills, courtly language – are Eastern, and left behind, while his bad ones – drinking, gambling, violence, impetuousness, flouting of the law – are of the West. Wyatt, on the other hand, is a classic laconic Westerner (Ford cut out many of the self-justifications and wisecracks that the original shooting script gave him) and what could be more Western than a cattleman turned lawman?, but he is drawn to the Eastern Clementine, the church social, barbering, a black suit, law and order – the East, in fact – and is reluctant to use his gun unless it is absolutely necessary. Ford has him try to serve a warrant on the Clantons before having to resort to shooting. Wyatt is a Westerner who wants the East.

It’s very well done.

That church social dance was specially written in by Winston Miller for Ford to reference Fonda’s earlier one in Young Mr. Lincoln. Miller said, “[Ford] did a picture called Young Mr. Lincoln with Fonda, in which there was a dance in which Fonda did his funny knee-high waltz. Well, Ford loved that, so we had that in Clementine. We wrote that church social scene so that Fonda could do his dance.”

The high-stepping dance

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. The real Clanton villain of the piece, Ike (Withers), who ran away from the OK Corral fight, is just a nonentity. Ford subtly suggests that the Clantons are lowlifes. They are not based in Tombstone, so not part of the civilized community, but outside. They are a united family, yes, but unlike the Earps, who are closely bonded through affection, the Clantons are literally whipped into line by the old man. The saloon they frequent is not the posh Oriental but a low dive for Mexicans, and Ford was enough of an unreconstructed racialist to be happy to use that to suggest baseness – though to be fair to him, he sometimes championed ethnic or religious minorities in other pictures (especially if they were Irish). Brennan and Ford disliked each other 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 (he was a fine actor) but refused to work for Ford ever again.

Brennan splendid as the desert rattlesnake Old Man Clanton

Ward Bond makes a very good Morgan Earp, too, even though Tim Holt is disappointingly unmemorable and bland 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. The graveyard scene where he ‘talks’ to James and promises him to create a new world where young men would not die by the gun, once more harks back to a similar one when Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln addresses his late sweetheart, also committing himself to a better future. And Ford would use the idea again in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, three years later, with Duke talking to his dead wife.

Wyatt makes the brothers wait

Actually, 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. He was a tough cookie who had kept a brothel in Abilene, but of course that wouldn't do for a sentimental vision of the West. 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 for Ford in The Iron Horse in 1924. He would write again for Mature, Fury at Furnace Creek.

James Earp (the real one) not quite the tender flower

Samuel Engel was also credited as writer but it was one of those Hollywood matters. Zanuck had brought him on as producer, but Engel reckoned that being a producer on a John Ford picture was worth nothing (probably true) and so because he had been on the set (Miller had gone off to other work) and rewritten a few lines here and there on the hoof, he claimed a credit as writer. Miller contested it but in the end shrugged and put up with it, but he always insisted that he and Ford cooked the whole story up way before Engel tinkered with it at the edges.


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 Miss Carter (the darling of the title) is far too saintly. Ford had wanted feistier Anne Baxter but had to settle for the rather tame Downs.

Darnell was Chihuahua…
...and Downs was Clementine
Of the smaller parts, good old Russell Simpson plays John Simpson (though his long sermon was another casualty of Ford’s red pencil through the script, probably rightly), and Mae Marsh is his sister. Both were regular members of the Ford stock company. John Ford’s brother Francis has a rare speaking part as ‘Dad – old soldier’, though uncredited. John had a curious relationship with Francis, the elder brother who had given him a start in the business and who had been a leading actor and director in the silent days. John seemed to resent Francis’s success and almost gloat at his come-down. Still, a brother is a brother, and John often gave Francis small parts in his pictures, to help pay the bills. It’s also good to see Ford oldie J Farrell MacDonald is Mac the barman.

Francis Ford had a bit part

Alan Mowbray has a lovely little cameo as the Shakespearean actor Granville Thorndyke, a whisky-sodden ham who is trying to be Booth or Irving, and who by conveniently forgetting his lines gives Doc an opportunity to spout some of the Bard too.

Hamlet in Tombstone

It’s Hamlet, of course, and I’d never really thought much before about this but Scott Simmon, in a 1996 essay, makes the point that there is something of the Hamlet about this Wyatt Earp – vaguely. At least in Wyatt’s reluctance to act. One might imagine, having seen a Western or two, that once the Clantons had killed young James, Wyatt and his brothers would be all for going in guns a-blazin’ to exact revenge. But Wyatt doesn’t. He wants justice, not vengeance. He takes the marshal’s star, gets a warrant, bides his time. He is often seen sitting, at the poker table or leaning back, tipping in his chair on the sidewalk in that famous image, or, if standing, leaning against a post and watching the world go by. Morgan urges him to act but he waits.

It is indeed 'John Ford's My Darling Clementine'. Writer Winston Miller said, "He was the boss. This was a John Ford production, no question about that."

In the shooting script Wyatt makes some quite Hamletic remarks but Ford (or possibly Zanuck; more likely Ford) cut these out, so it’s implied, not stated, and is all the more potent for that. Finally, though, Wyatt does act, deciding to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them, to coin a phrase, and the OK Corral looks a bit like the stage in Act V of Hamlet, littered with bodies. This idea seems to me perfectly acceptable, and not too hi-falutin’. After all, Shakespeare was frequently performed in the West, though what many of the uneducated miners, teamsters and cowpokes made of it can only be imagined. In The Arizonian, an RKO Western of 1935, the audience is so bored that they run Hamlet’s father’s ghost off the stage with their six-guns. And indeed, when Thorndyke is reciting on a table in the cantina, the Clantons are far from impressed. “Look, Yorick, can’t you give us nothin’ but them poems?”

Wyatt as Hamlet? Doubtful

Of course you can overdo this. I can’t see Walter Brennan as Claudius, somehow, or Victor Mature as Laertes. Many writers read too much into what is, after all, only an old cowboy movie, and ‘film studies’ persons especially tend to do so. It’s an occupational hazard. Writer Winston Miller said, in an interesting interview with Robert Lyons, “If anyone tried to read motivations into [Ford’s] work he’d just say, ‘No kidding! Is that so?’” Miller added, “I have read things about My Darling Clementine where people read things into it that weren’t there. I know because I wrote it.”

And Miller said that the reason that Wyatt did so little about avenging James for most of the middle of the film was very unHamletic. It “was because we couldn’t think of anything for him to do.” The interviewer prompted, “Or you would be ending the picture,” and Miller added, “The picture would have been over in two reels.” So that’s a rather more prosaic explanation.

Another classic Western trope is observed when Ford has Wyatt not walk down to the showdown at the corral in line abreast of his brothers and Doc, as in other versions (and quoted by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch) but instead has the others break off and skirt round while he, hero Wyatt Earp, strides purposefully and alone down the dusty street. It’s more heroic when a Western hero is alone, as we were discussing the other day, here, and soon Gary Cooper would provide the definitive example of this in High Noon.

Wyatt walks alone

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. For example, the original script contained a Destry-style ‘catfight’ between Clementine and Chihuahua, a scene which Ford axed – it would have been disastrous. The simplicity of the plot allows Ford to take his time, and the tone of the picture is quiet and contemplative. This helps in my view to make it one of Ford’s very greatest Westerns. And the contemplativeness heightens the explosions of violence when they come. This measured pace combined with the lyrical photography led one critic, Robert Warshow, to dismiss the picture as “too soft” but I think he thus wrote off what was a deliberate and high-quality feature of the film.

Zanuck was a skillful editor and, uncredited (the editing is listed as by Dorothy Spencer), he made considerable changes to produce the final cut. The editing tends 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, and when asked later which had been his best Westerns he never mentioned Clementine. He seemed to think it no longer belonged to him. It is unclear exactly what Ford eliminated from the shooting script as he went along (and his instinct was usually right) and what was left on the cutting-room floor by Zanuck. There was a whole comic sub-plot of a bawdy house run by Jane Darwell that went – Darwell’s part was reduced to little more than a cameo.

Zanuck was hands-on
As the title screen made clear
My Darling Clementine opened, surprisingly, to mixed reviews and only average box-office takings. It grossed about $2.8m, little more than a break-even. Curious, really, for such a splendid film, the first big Ford picture after the war and with such a superb cast.

Bosley Crowther (left) in The New York Times thought the picture close to Stagecoach in merit but “not quite”. He praised the pictorial quality, saying “every scene, every shot is the product of a keen and sensitive eye” but he also commented that “Too obvious a definition of heroes and villains is observed” – which was a bit harsh given the complexity of the character of Doc Holliday. Manny Farber found Clementine a “slowpoke cowboy epic” ruined by Ford’s pictorializing, and Robert Warshow claimed that Ford’s “unhappy preoccupation with style” reduced his material to a “sentimental legend of rural America.” Variety expressed the opinion that the “Trademark of John Ford’s direction is clearly stamped on the film with its shadowy lights, softly contrasted moods and measured pace, but a tendency is discernible towards stylization for stylization’s sake. At several points, the pic comes to a dead stop to let Ford go gunning for some arty effect.” Another critic spoke slightingly of it as “horse opera”. Ford (talking to Bill Libby) resented that. “The people who coined that awful term horse opera are snobs. The critics are snobs.”

Even writer Miller himself wasn’t that fulsome in his praise. “It wasn’t treated as any classic or anything, because basically it was still just a Western, although it happened to be done in Ford’s style, which made it a step up. … Reviewers who expected to see more depth in things from Ford probably were disappointed. But it was a commitment he had had with Fox left over from before the war.”

Richard Griffith, in New Movies Review, was more positive, writing, “On the surface, and to millions of its audiences, it will appear as no more than a jimdandy Western. It’s all of that. It is also a sustained and complex work of the imagination.” He added, rather perceptively, I think, “Undoubtedly its qualities derive from Mr. Ford’s affection for the portrait he is drawing – the portrait of the Old West. It is a mixed portrait, half-truth, half folk lore, but fact or fancy, it is the West as Americans still feel it in their bones.”

More recently, Alan Lovell in 1976 called My Darling Clementine “the perfect example of the classic Western” and in 1997 the late great Roger Ebert, pictured right, said, “My Darling Clementine must be one of the sweetest and most good-hearted of all Westerns. The giveaway is the title, which is not about Wyatt or Doc or the gunfight, but about Clementine, certainly the most important thing to happen to Marshal Earp during the story.” Ebert knew a good movie when he saw one.

It is a flawed picture in a very few ways - all Ford pictures were - but My Darling Clementine is a fine, fine film. For me, it could be the very best of all of Ford’s Westerns, certainly ranking with, if not surpassing The Searchers and the cavalry trilogy. In any case it is an absolutely essential part of the canon (Webster’s on canon: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture).

You're probably saying about time too




  1. John Boessenecker has a book coming out this month about the Earp-Cowboy conflict (Ride the Devil's Herd), which is supposed to utilize previously unpublished records. Different writers can't seem to agree on how dangerous the Cowboys really were or how much of a role Wyatt played in stopping them.


  2. That's interesting.
    But I think all the writers can agree that Old Man Clanton wasn't at the OK Corral and Doc Holiday wasn't killed there…

  3. Wow, Jeff! I am going to have to get a coffee and really set time aside to read this. It looks already like a terrific piece AND have I ever seen a film get the full 5 revolvers from you before??
    Will want to comment further, I feel sure.....

  4. The 5 revolvers award is scarce but not unusual, especially with Ford for Jeff... Thank you Jeff for this new essay of a true masterpiece even with its typical fordian flaws. Vic Mature - even if Ford kills him - why lying on such an evidence when saying his film is historically accurate, maybe his irish blood !? - is an excellent original Doc - Regarding the classification of the best John Ford's westerns it would deserve an other essay. We do not agree on Liberty Valance which says fundamental things on the West, the western, the myth etc Clementine is much more concise than the Searchers which is an other of your 5 revolvers as well as the trilogy. Stagecoach has made so much to relaunch the genre that - I quote a world famous blog "the best B western ever made" -, to me it deserves the 5. I would suggest you to add your rating beside of the titles but don't know if it is technically feasible? I am sure it will be much appreciated by your fans ! JM

  5. Well, I had the coffee and got deep into what you had to say, Jeff, and my original thought that it looked like a "terrific piece" was borne out.

    It is very interesting to me that a number of scenes were ditched that would have marred the film in many ways. Ford didn't always show the necessary restraint in his films (overly sentimental at times and the Irish/drink thing)but happily the balance was about perfect here.

    Do we know exactly when the knowledge came to the fore that the legend was indeed not at all accurate? I mean was it much known, for instance, when Stuart N. Lake's book came out in 1931 or even when "FRONTIER MARSHAL" or even even when this film was made?? It is an interesting question to me.

    Personally, I find it one of Ford's finest too, certainly right up there with "THE SEARCHERS" and "SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON".
    Victor Mature has always been underrated as an actor, I feel, always being portrayed as 'beefcake' rather than as a serious actor but I think he was excellent, especially given the right role.

    Yup, I'd give it 5 revolvers too!

    1. Lake's book was an enormous success and it established the heroic Earp myth deeply in the American psyche. So did the 50s TV series with Hugh O'Brian and Sturges's movie GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL. But a lot of serious historical research has been done and many corrections made since then. I recommend especially Casey Tefertiller's book on the subject.
      The real Wyatt Earp (inasmuch as he can be defined) is also a fascinating character.

  6. In the light of what you say, Jeff, it occurs to me that even Ford and others believed the legend at that time and projected the view in that way. Certainly, I don't remember hearing rebuttals of the Earp story until the 1960s myself.

  7. How could Ford believe anything relative to the legend when he not only got the dates, wrong but James Earp lived until 1926. Just Ford bull shitting. A crazy old drunk with an eye for composition.