Patience, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) from Criterion

When I think of John Ford, an artist if there ever was one, what I find most fascinating is his gruff persona, which is evidenced in every single image you see of the man and that comes across in most interviews, in contrast to the sensitivity and tenderness infused in his films.  That dichotomy is what makes masterpieces of Ford films, particularly his Westerns, which are often personal tales set against cold and lonely, if majestically presented backdrops.

Fonda
Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine

In the case of My Darling Clementine the backdrop is as familiar as his actors and just as important to the story.  That is, of course, Monument Valley, which John Ford used as a setting in nine films.  Monument Valley was so associated with Ford movies, in fact, that people used to say “if anybody else made a picture there they’d be accused of plagiarism.”

Backdrop
Wyatt Earp at his brother’s grave sight with Monument Valley as the backdrop in My Darling Clementine.

Even more fascinating than the stories depicted in Ford films, however, is how he chose to tell them – methodically allowing a tapestry of images to take precedence and through them bring forth the action and characterization.  John Wayne, who enjoyed both a friendship and professional collaboration with the director that spanned five decades, described Ford movie rules in the 1971 documentary, “The American West of John Ford,” rules that include: 1.  Don’t pack too many ideas in a scene and 2.  Don’t talk too much.  Given that every single one of John Ford’s movies serves numerous, visually iconic scenes that are sans dialogue it seems the director stayed true to these rules throughout his career.  Perhaps the best example of this is My Darling Clementine, a poetic telling of the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the movie that caused me to think that watching a Ford movie on a big screen is a religious experience after watching it at the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF).

Clem poster

My Darling Clementine is based on Stuart N. Lake’s 1931 fictional biography “Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal,” which had been previously made twice as Frontier Marshal – in 1934 directed by Lewis Seiler starring George O’Brien and again in 1939 starring Randolph Scott and helmed by Allan Dwan. 1957 also saw the release of John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral starring mega stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, but Ford’s treatment of the Wyatt Earp story is not only the best version, but one of the best Westerns Ford ever made.  In fact, Peter Fonda who introduced the film along with Keith Carradine at the TCMFF considers Clementine Ford’s greatest Western and said so without hesitation.  Given the magnitude of Ford’s other films in the genre that’s a mind-blowing opinion, but one I happen to agree with.

My Darling Clementine stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday and Linda Darnell as Chihuahua with…

Title

The movie opens as the Earp brothers – Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and James – are driving cattle to California.  Wyatt rides up to a wagon that approaches and meets Old Man Clanton and his oldest boy, Ike.  Clanton quickly makes Earp an offer for his cattle, which is immediately refused. But the meeting serves to introduce the Earps to the nearby town of Tombstone where they can freshen up before continuing with their journey west.

Leaving younger brother James to look after the cattle for the night the three older Earps go into Tombstone only to find a lawless place in need of a Marshall.  Before long Wyatt Earp makes his presence known and is offered the Marshall position, which he refuses at first, but changes his mind after he and his brothers find the cattle rustled and James murdered.

With his brothers Morgan and Virgil as his deputies, the newly named Marshall seeks to find justice for James in Tombstone and soon meets up and befriends a troubled Doc Holliday.  Much of the drama in Clementine comes by way of the Holliday character with whom several of the others have a history.  It makes for a compelling story that’s well worth your time, adding nicely to the developing rivalry between Wyatt Earp and the Clantons as the film progresses.  In the end Doc joins forces with the Earps against the Clanton gang who by then are responsible for two Earp brother deaths and a wagonload of other crimes.  The final battle takes place at the legendary O.K. Corral, which is given the same Ford treatment as the rest of My Darling Clementine, but doesn’t stand as the kind of momentous scene most other westerns would allow it.  What matters in My Darling Clementine, what is given meticulous attention is the journey to the O.K. Corral, the film doesn’t feel like a build-up to the greatest battle ever seen.  Yet another reason why this Western is a standout.

Wyatt Earp along with his brother Morgan, Doc Holliday and two men who've won Earp's favor head to the showdown at the O.K. Corral
Wyatt Earp along with his brother Morgan, Doc Holliday and two men who’ve won Earp’s favor head to the showdown at the O.K. Corral

Much has been written about the historical accuracy of Ford’s depiction of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in My Darling Clementine, mostly due to the fact that John Ford loved telling the story of how it was filmed exactly as the gunfight had taken place as told to him by Wyatt Earp himself.  I think it’s been proved to be false that the gunfight actually took place as depicted in Clementine, but it hardly matters.  The sequence is shot beautifully and leads to a satisfying end – a downfall for the Clantons.

OK

My Darling Clementine is the fourth of seven films Henry Fonda made with Ford and the actor’s first Western.  It’s a hell of a breakthrough in a genre Fonda would excel at.  Aside from playing Wyatt Earp in the movie Fonda’s contribution to the piece goes well beyond his performance as his pacing guides that of the entire movie.  This is probably best illustrated in the movie’s most famous scene where Earp does the balancing act against the post on the porch, an unscripted moment that goes a long way in showing both the inner workings of the character and the way John Ford approached filmmaking – with artistry and patience.

Porch
Chihuahua (Darnell) looks on as Earp does a balancing act

My favorite tidbit shard by Peter Fonda at TCMFF was that (reportedly) John Ford cut dialogue related to character and theme, because he knew Henry Fonda’s silences were more eloquent than any dialogue.  If one considers Ford’s rules as noted above this makes the director’s association with Fonda a match made in heaven.  Discussed in Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman is the fact that Ford also liked the way Henry Fonda walked.  Both facts – Fonda’s slow, but deliberate gait and his cinema silences are gifts to behold and they are exhibited beautifully throughout My Darling Clementine.  So needless to say Henry Fonda is terrific as Wyatt Earp with a memorable cast in support. Victor Mature turns in an affecting performance as Doc Holliday and I enjoy the physical contrast between Fonda and Mature, the lanky, deliberate Earp versus the stocky, volatile Holliday.  Despite being miscast, as far as I’m concerned, Linda Darnell also does a fine job as Chihuahua, the woman who’s in love with Doc Holliday and a tragic figure in her own right.

Doc
Darnell as Chihuahua and Mature as Doc Holliday

Aside from Fonda and as good as Mature is it’s Walter Brennan who steals almost every Clementine scene he’s in.  Reportedly Brennan and John Ford didn’t get along and maybe the actor used the bad blood between them to fuel his depiction of the despicable Old Man Clanton, who’s as cold-hearted and hateful as they come.  During the aforementioned documentary Henry Fonda explains how John Ford knew how to get everything there was out of a scene and how to put a period on it.  When I heard that I immediately thought of the Brennan scene in My Darling Clementine during which the old man whips his sons for threatening Wyatt Earp with a gun, but not acting on it.  Disgusted Clayton marches out of the bar saying, “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.”  It’s a chilling scene – the sudden violence by an old man under which strong, grown men cower.  It’s a definitive period.  Cut. Next scene.  And we are left with a bad taste in our mouths.

Whip
A chilling Brennan as Old Man Clayton with whip in hand.

I should mention Cathy Downs who plays Clementine Carter in a rather stiff manner I’m afraid, but the character is an important one as she comes to Tombstone as Holliday’s ex and adds charming moments during which we note that Wyatt Earp is smitten.  Then there are John Ford acting staples Ward Bond and Jane Darwell.  Neither of their roles are huge in Clementine, but the scenes in which they appear are gems that enhance the movie.  Bond plays Earp brother, Morgan and Darwell plays Tombstone resident Kate Nelson who helps Chihuahua after her surgery.  Other actors of note are Tim Holt who plays Virgil Earp, John Ireland is Billy Clanton and Alan Mowbray is Granville Thorndyke, the Shakespearean actor who visits Tombstone and kicks off the Clanton whipping scene I described above.  There are more, of course, as Ford films are usually replete with memorable townsfolk so be sure to take a look at the complete Clementine cast and crew list here.

Memorable performances, a pace that both settles and excites expressed by grandiose shots that are each more breathtaking than the last are all part of the John Ford legacy.  And all part of what makes My Darling Clementine a grand artistic endeavor from its memorable title sequence on forward.  Such artistry deserves an awe-infused treatment such as Criterion has devoted to its release of the 4K restoration of this film. Patience – quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence is how I’d describe the release, which ensures this masterpiece will be enjoyed as originally intended.  I’ve had the Criterion Clementine bluray for several months, but only just watched it this week in preparation for The Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues… Speakeasy and Silver Screenings and it quickly moved up My Criterion list as a favorite.

My Darling

Aside from the gorgeous visuals the Criterion Clementine also offers a host of terrific extra features including:

  • New audio commentary featuring John Ford biographer and film historian Joseph McBride
  • A new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp
  • A video essay by John Ford scholar Tag Gallagher
  • Bandit’s Wager, a 1916 silent western short co-starring Ford and directed by his brother, Francis Ford, featuring new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin
  • NBC television reports from 1963 and 1975 about the history of Tombstone and Monument Valley
  • And the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Clementine from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs

 

It is due to both the theater experience I had at TCMFF and thanks to the care given by Criterion that I can attribute the appreciation I now have for My Darling Clementine.  In both instances the thought came to mind that Clementine alone serves to quell any disagreement as to whether film constitutes art.  Film as art is My Darling Clementine – and like all art it requires patience – quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence – a quality possessed by John Ford, Henry Fonda and their admirers.

Behind the scenes
Ford’s art in the making.

Be sure to visit The Criterion Blogathon, which promises an impressive collection of participants commenting on their favorite releases.  This is gonna be good!

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53 thoughts

  1. This is great! I’ve only seen this once and wasn’t really feeling it, but your post makes me super excited to re-watch. Your point on the silences paired with Fonda’s acting is something I’ll definitely keep a better eye out for upon next viewing!

    1. It’s funny because as great a film as I think this is I can see someone not getting into it at first. It doesn’t follow the standard Western formula, which to me evokes the immediate thought of a shoot ’em scene at the end. I’d love to hear your thoughts if/when you get to watch it again.

      Aurora

  2. Wonderful, like you said, seeing this on the big screen was indeed a religious experience! Seen it so many times and it never gets old, you only gain MORE appreciation for its beauty and the fine acting. Thanks so much for being part of this event with such a classic 🙂 Best

  3. My Darling Clementine is one of my five favorites for all the reasons you state. On a humorous note, to this day that tune is something that pops into my head rather frequently. My mother used to sing it all the time. Wonderful blog post! Thank you.

  4. Great point re: Henry Fonda’s eloquent silences. John Ford was right to capitalize on those. You’re right when you talk about Ford’s patience in filmmaking.

    Loved your review and the research you’ve shared with us. I didn’t know Walter Brennan and John Ford didn’t get along… I’m going to keep that in mind the next time I watch this.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for bringing My Darling Clementine to the party!

  5. I agree with you and Peter Fonda that this is Ford’s greatest western. In my opinion, the others don’t even come close. You did a fine job on your review here. I also enjoyed your piece on The Wild Bunch, and agree with your views on violence in films. I really hate those death for death’s sake pictures where people are killed just to thrill the audience. In Peckinpah’s films, when someone is killed, we really feel their loss. For me, that final shootout is just a prelude to the greatest death scene ever filmed, that of Bishop Pike.I disagree, however, with your idea that there is a lack of moral distinction between the characters. An important element of the film is the moral heirarchy that Peckinpah establishes, into which each character is placed.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments and am glad you liked this commentary. You make a great point about the moral hierarchy in The Wild Bunch! Now you’re making me want to watch it YET AGAIN! 🙂

      Aurora

  6. Terrific post. This is an all-time favorite. I must have known that it was Fonda’s first western, but it is among my favorite of his performances (fave is Grapes of Wrath.) I also agree that Ford had the pacing down, and the film is enthralling without seeming to be formulaic. That makes the OK Corral that much more of a payoff. And historical accuracy or not, there is a reason this story continues to be re-told.

    I wish I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen, but the Criterion edition is pretty sweet.

    Thanks so much for participating!

    1. Thanks so much for your comments AND for co-hosting this! I’ll likely be unable to get through all the submissions for a few days, but I plan to make a list of all the Criterions I’m missing that I NEED!

      Aurora

  7. Congratulations on winning today’s Crterion Award for best portrait of an artist, John Ford. Reading your essay in tandem with having seen “Clementine” during last night’s TCM night with Victor Mature makes both the reading and the watching a rich experience. Congrats, Aurora!

  8. I’m a huge Ford fan, and though this is not my favorite of his films, you make a fantastic argument for why it should be! Great post, well deserved award for the Blogathon.

  9. You know… this is a film that has been on my list of ‘classics I have to see’ After reading your interesting piece on Ford’s western masterpiece, I plan on watching it tonight! I was going to watch Day of the Locust, but Linda Darnell and Jane Darwell bumped the 70s to the side for a bit! I love the images too! This is a fantastic addition to the #CriterionBlogathon!

  10. Henry Fonda was such an internal actor. He always looks like he is holding a lot in. Doesn’t matter whether its this film or The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry Men or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly he conveys more by doing less than any other actor I can think of. The film is poetic, meaning historically inaccurate, but really who cares, it’s the legend that counts. Ford was always about the legend and never about history That said, my favorite Ford western is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with probably Fort Apache at number two and then this film.

    1. I have to rematch Fort Apache again soon. It’s been years. But I do love Liberty Valance. I’m not ashamed to say my mind as to Ford’s best tends to waiver after I watch his movies. So many greats. But this one’s special to me as far as Westerns go. Thanks for stopping in, John!

  11. Lovely.

    My daughter is studying animation at school. During her first year she came home from a class excited to tell me that the teacher that day had discussed the importance of framing, and in particular urged students to study John Ford in that regard. She was already well ahead of the game having been raised in a Fordian household. Art indeed.

  12. John Ford’s is a bit of a stumbling block for me. I’ve always enjoyed them but have issues understanding why they were great, at least compared to films like Grapes of Wrath. That being said, I love the clarity put into this essay. It makes me want to watch this film and re-watch his other westerns with fresh eyes.

    1. Well, I understand how you feel as I’m still likely to say I’m not a Westerns fan. But man the way Ford shoots just goes beyond the genre in a way no one else has ever done. Phew! I get all verklempt just thinking about it. Thanks for your comment and if you ever rematch and reconsider be sure to let me know. 🙂

  13. I only recently watched Ford’s last silent film (Hangman’s House), and I was struck by how atmospheric it was. Granted, it was an Irish castle rather than Monument Valley, but it certainly was a hint to what he would do later. Great review.

    1. Thanks, Kelly. I’ve seen only the silent Ford film that’s included in the Criterion bluray, but I’m certainly interested in seeing more of them. Thanks for stopping in.

      Aurora

  14. Wonderful post. I too, loved seeing it at the TCMFF this year. It was so beautiful in black and white. Did you mean that My Darling Clementine was Fonda’s first western with Ford? Fonda made westerns ten years earlier with Jesse James and The Return of Frank James. As usual, a good piece of film writing. Thanks for participating in the blogathon of the century!

  15. I agree, watching My Darling Clementine is really akin to a religious experience- I think it’s the most rapturously beautiful of all of Ford’s westerns. Your mention of Fonda’s walk is apt; it contains stillness and a heightened wariness, while also quietly graceful, which is very like the film. I also think that Ford’s original ending, of Clementine leaving in silence, is much better than Zanuk’s imposed ending of Earp’s bestowal of a kiss, which jars the film’s unspoken eloquence. Thanks for your terrific review!

    1. Thank YOU for stopping in and commenting. You may well be right about the ending. No doubt I trust Ford a hell of a lot more than Zanuk as a filmmaker. But the final shot of the movie is so beautiful that it hardly matters. I sigh and any and all misjudgments are forgotten. 🙂

  16. As a Baby Boomer who grew up watching Huckleberry Hound cartoons, it took a while to not hear Huck’s version of My Darling Clementine in my head during the opening credits, but over the years it became my favorite western and favorite John Ford movie.

    It always amazed me how the lovable (on screen, anyway) Walter Brennan could be so thoroughly mean and sadistic through the first 90 minutes or so, but towards the end when Pa Clanton is calling out for his sons, darned if you don’t feel a bit of sympathy for him. Thanks for this review.

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