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John Ford's last gasp of conservatism in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was to proclaim that 'When the legend conflicts with the facts, print the legend'. That idea is unfortunately still very much alive (The Last Samurai) but it's hard to argue with Ford's 'legendary' version of the showdown at the O.K. Corral - his myth of a noble Wyatt Earp in a gloriously hopeful new West contains all of what was great in 1946 about both the western and America. Previously a liberal icon, Henry Fonda here became one of the greatest western legends ever, a natural hero shy with women, rough on minorities and murder on bad men: all of the inconsistent 'virtues' Americans admire.
Fox's Studio Classics presentation will have some surprises for fans who have only seen the film on television: the flipper disc contains the release version of the 1946 classic and a partial preview version that expands and improves on the film.
Anybody who thinks Once Upon a Time in the West is cool needs to see My Darling Clementine: without this context it's impossible to appreciate the absolute depravity of Henry Fonda's character in the Sergio Leone film. It's a shame nobody recorded Ford's reaction to the Leone film (or Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, for that matter), even though the cantankerous old director would probably not have given his real reaction anyway.
We judge the 'real' West by the most convicingly realistic westerns available, and John Sturges' 1967 Hour of the Gun is still the most persuasive version of the 1881 shootout between the Earps and the Clantons. Tombstone was a political battleground between various factions, with the influential and untrustworthy Clantons buying law on one side and the ambitious Earps abusing appointed law positions on the other. When they finally did battle at the O.K. Corral (described in some quarters as a literal Earp drive-by) it's been reported that each faction's pockets were full of conflicting arrest warrants for men on the other side. Law needs consensus, and when the most powerful players are at loggerheads real law tends to get left behind. You know, like Democrat-Republican rivalries ... why couldn't Arnold Schwartzenegger and Gray Davis just shoot it out on the fifty yard line at the Super Bowl and resolve these differences cleanly?
Ford reportedly used the real Wyatt Earp to consult on a silent film, but that doesn't keep My Darling Clementine from being a total fiction. Yet the legend is wonderful both as entertainment and for teaching us about the limitations of our own myths. Fonda's Earp isn't just a good guy, he's intrinsically noble, fair, playful and presumably adorable to women. His notion of justice doesn't apply to Indians - his crimefighting instincts are first roused by the need to kick a drunken 'buck' out of town with the admonition, "What kinda town is this anyway, sellin' liquor to Indians?!" It gets a big laugh even as we know that basic law and order in most American towns has always been based on keeping the various 'troublesome' minorities from breaking out of their designated neighborhoods.
Once in his job, Wyatt occupies the laconic caretaker role that Ford endorsed until his awkward 1960s westerns. Fonda balances in his chair, playing bored games with his heels on the porch support. It's an image that Ford would use as shorthand for corruption through James Stewart in Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn. 1 Enter the wholesome, clear-eyed Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs, later of several notable Z-grade Sci-Fi pictures) and Wyatt turns into a tongue-tied kid with his heart in his throat. This was the vision of clean-cut masculinity for which America pined in 1946, when many of its men were war veterans harboring bitter memories or cynical new attitudes.
The Eastern, cultivated, whitebread virgin Clementine contrasts strongly with Tombstone's 'red-hot chili pepper' Chihuaha, one of the purest examples of the 'dark woman' in American fantasies. In this dramatic model the hero's allegiance is split between the good girl and the bad girl. Invariably, the bad girl dies or sacrifices herself without winning the love of the hero. The good girl stays aloof but virginally optimistic, unaware of her competition or the fact that her high-toned breeding and correct racial background make her a shoo-in. Poor Chihuaha doesn't even rate the time of day from straight-arrow Wyatt.
My Darling Clementine was a gift to 70s feminists needing proof of the rampaging sexism in American films, as if it were harder to find than sprocket holes. Dark-skinned native maidens have been sacrificing themselves for handsome white heroes forever (Bird of Paradise, etc.) in the same way that 'noble savages' always seem to throw their lives away to save charismatic whites, in everything from Trader Horn to The Alamo to The Last Samurai. Darryl Zanuck's pet starlet Linda Darnell is given big coverage on the Clementine poster, but her character gets no respect in the film proper; she's Doc Holliday's anytime girl and Wyatt has no trouble dunking her in a horse trough while threatening to 'send her back to the reservation, where she belongs.' Given an insulting pet name instead of a real name or background, it doesn't seem to matter if she's Mexican or Apache in origin.
Instead of serving as Wyatt's conscience, in this film Doc Holliday is his darker half. Together they form a classic binary character of the kind favored by Sam Peckinpah, with each trying to understand the other's contrary idea of chivalry. Holliday is promoted to surgeon status, up from the dentist he really was - in the 1880s, much dentistry was akin to legalized mutilation. Poor Chihuahua takes a bullet for her loyalty to the binary hero, and is afforded sympathy only when she's safely at the point of dying. 2
Victor Mature's Doc is cleverly used as a red herring for Wyatt's suspicion of Who Done Him Wrong. It's one of Mature's better roles and he rises to the occasion, although he never really reaches the level of aristocratic Black Sheep that John Carradine achieves in a few deft strokes in Stagecoach. But his crude domination of Tombstone makes him a formidable opponent for Wyatt.
Along the way My Darling Clementine has enough charming scenes to fill a dozen westerns. Fonda is all gangly appeal with that same deliberate but graceful walk later put to such menacing effect in his Leone film. Normally the silent type, Ward Bond's Morgan whoops it up with a horse laugh when amused by Chihuahua. Brother Virgil (Tim Holt) remarks that he can almost smell the honeysuckle, to which Wyatt laconically replies, "Nope. It's me. Barber." 6
Tombstone is a potential frontier Utopia, with the sweet ladies of the Mansion House hotel coming out to ring breakfast for the travelers, Harvey Girls -style. The thirst for Eastern comforts is seen in the luxuries of the Bon Ton Tonsorial parlor where the barber has a newfangled chair and is trying to popularize dandified haircuts. The need for entertainment is shown through one of Ford's perennial clown actors, Alan Mowbray (Wagonmaster), an interesting Shakespearian ham afforded a measure of nobility. When his troupe compliments the female audience, including respect-hungry old birds like madam Jane Darwell, they're truly charming. Of course, top honors for essential wisdom fall with J. Farrell MacDonald's bartender, Mac:
Mac: "No, I've been a bartender all my life."
My Darling Clementine's place in western lore is assured by the West As Garden theme first proposed by film critics in the late 1960s. Fordian Western heroes are often painfully aware of their place in the creation of a new society that will grow a garden in the desert, free of Eastern corruption and the indigenous violence blamed on Indians and scalawags like Liberty Valance. "Someday Texas will be a fine place, even if it takes our bones in the ground to make it happen," is a paraphrase of the sentiment as expressed in The Searchers.
Clementine has Ford's purest and most evocative statement of the theme. Freshly poofed up at the Bon Ton, Wyatt's path just happens to cross Clementine's on Sunday morning. A square dance will take place at the partially built church. Wyatt takes Clementine's arm and they walk to the bare platform. A shadow moves across the Earth, indicating the presence of God watching over them all. The charming intro by fiddler Russell Simpson - "Make room for our new Marshall and his Lady Fair" - finishes a scene of western nirvana: an American knight and his damsel in perfect harmony and peace. Small wonder that the embittered Sam Peckinpah eclectically usurped this situation as a cruel parody for the opening of The Wild Bunch. 3
My Darling Clementine has a socko gunfight ending preceded by a lot of equally direct violence atypical for John Ford. The usually lovable Walter Brennan is an unredeemable villain and his silent sons a group of sullen louts, even John Ireland's oversexed Billy Clanton. Brennan shoots people point blank in the back. His key advice to his sons, delivered with a horse whip, is "When you pull a gun, kill a man!" To go further with savage families, one has to jump into The Hills Have Eyes territory. 4
Fox's DVD of My Darling Clementine is a sparkling presentation with two good transfers of the film on a flipper disc. The flip side has the standard release we've all seen in a print of shimmering quality, accompanied by a terrific commentary. Only Wyatt Earp III is credited on the back cover, but 99% of the commentary is an excellently prepared and often scene-specific discourse by Scott Eyman. His knowledge of the film, John Ford and Tombstone history is encyclopedic and his presentation masterful. I listened to the whole thing and it all felt fresh. Eyman even knows what the O.K. in O.K. Corral means!
The front side of the disc has an alternate cut of My Darling Clementine that turns out to be the same one we saw many times at UCLA. It was the studio print filed with the Fox collection that helped found the UCLA Film Archive. The Archive's first head Bob Epstein explained to us that it was different than the print shown on televison. In a separate extra, dry-but-thorough Bob Gitt does a Big Sleep -like comparison of the two versions.
The long cut is a preview version described as being part-way between Ford's rejected cut (a half-hour longer) and Zanuck's final release version. It has a number of interesting extra bits. Zanuck dropped several humorous observations from Wyatt, a scene showing John Ireland visiting Chihuahua, and bits of business around town. He added dramatic scoring to scenes that play much better silent in the preview version. 5
But the main difference is one we noticed in 1973, although Gitt says his archivists only compared prints in the 1990s. For the standard cut, Wyatt kisses Clementine in an awkward studio reshoot. People seeing the studio print often wonder where the kiss went, as Ford's original concept was a painfully chaste handshake farewell. At UCLA we had the opposite reaction. Seeing the film later on television, the kiss leapt out as some kind of weird revision, a gross cheapening. Thanks to this presentation, we get both versions to compare.
Both versions are given excellent transfers, with the Zanuck release version having the quality edge. There are some frames missing on the UCLA print, and as Gitt explains, a couple of missing shots that he covers with a borrowed, altered shot from later in the picture.
My Darling Clementine is a great and important western. I hope I can interest my kids in it when they come home for the holidays.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Darling Clementine rates:
1. And pulp writer Jim
Thompson definitely had an agenda of his own vis a vis the noble image of the American marshall in his
acidic crime novels. They often feature rural sheriffs who are outwardly respected lawmen imitating Fonda's
unassuming style, yet inwardly are ravening psychopaths.
2. As with his about-face on the Indian issue, Ford would later romanticize
(Mogambo) and lampoon
(Donovan's Reef) the 'bad girl.' Finally in
Seven Women he clumsily addresses female heroism, scoring points with
the wonderfully 'masculine' character played by Anne Bancroft, while making lesbian Margaret Leighton into a
rigid martinet of the type critiqued in Fort Apache and in Peckinpah's Major Dundee.
3. In a quaint chivalric gesture, Wyatt takes Clementine's shawl before
offering her his arm for their walk. At the start of The Wild Bunch William Holden offers his arm
to a lady crossing the street. She's wearing a shawl as well. Peckinpah's church presence is represented by the
hypocritical West Texas Temperance Union. Later, in the midst of the gun battle, Holden's horse
tramples another woman. On his way out of town, he finds this woman's shawl snagged in his spur, and throws
it down roughly. The appropriation of the moment from Clementine is like Peckinpah's thrown gauntlet,
his claim for possession of the western genre.
4. One question for gun-savvy Savant readers: when prepping to go out and
do battle, Wyatt hands mayor Roy Roberts a shotgun, first shucking the shells from its double barrels.
What's he doing, handing his ally an unloaded gun? Or is he removing some kind of plugs from the barrels?
Inquiring but ignorant gun nuts want to know. 7
5. The preview version is sparsely scored; the location shots in Monument
valley have the silent, clean-air feeling of the peaceful desert. One cue sampled for a barroom scene recycles
the cute Sombrero Blanco song from
The Mark of Zorro - we expect Tyrone
Power to cruise in, pitty-patting the latest Madrid dance step.
6. In the early 70s, I remember friend and film writer Robert Birchard
remarking that Tim Holt and Janet Leigh were the unassuming non-superstar actor and
actress with the most classic 'auteur' films to their credit. Holt: The Magnificent
Ambersons, My Darling Clementine, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Leigh: Jet Pilot,
Touch of Evil, Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate. Don't forget The Monster that Challenged
the World and Night of the Lepus!
7. Note from Hank Graham, 12.14.03: