Print the legend
We’ve been looking lately on this blog at some of the truly great Westerns. We’ve reviewed superb ones such as Stagecoach, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande and Shane, to name but a few (click the links for those). Well, today, another one.
After the war, says Michael Coyne in his book The Crowded Prairie, “the Western could conceivably have become – like the screwball comedy – a relic of a simpler, more innocent past.” Happily, it did not. “Instead, it became a vital medium for reflecting and articulating crucial issues of modern American society.”
Well, I’m not sure about that. But certainly entertainment was back on, and going to the movies. Coyne says that in 1946 America had 18,700 four-wall movie theaters, 900 more than in 1939, and 82 million Americans attended per week. Takings totaled an amazing $1.69 bn, a billion up on ’39. And people loved Westerns. 88 were released in that calendar year (oh happy day), 29 of which may be said to have been A-pictures, with all the Western stars back in the saddle, even if they’d been off to war. Pictures like Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, MGM’s The Yearling, even RKO’s Badman’s Territory made serious money.
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 Sr 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 of all Earp films, if not the finest, was a poetic 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 still famous for Stagecoach. He was ready to go back to the genre.
For Clementine was Ford’s first Western since then (if you exclude the rather clunky early-frontier 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 in reality 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.
Several scenes of My Darling Clementine derive from earlier treatments of the myth – for example the early moment with Wyatt 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 Holliday’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, to paraphrase a well-known line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…” (you can finish it as you will).
Stuart Lake, author of the mildly entertaining but now 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.
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.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.
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 so-called 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.
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 (though that didn’t stop Ford insulting Mature as a “greaseball”). True, Fonda and Ford had an increasingly 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 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,” said Brian Garfield. He is the classic Western hero: laconic, moral, tough, with a hidden soft heart.
Of course it’s the story of Wyatt Earp. The opening of the film immediately establishes the hierarchy: each brother is introduced with a low-angle medium shot typical of Ford, alone on his horse driving the cattle. Wyatt is last. It is he who gives the orders. Yes, he is a fittingly considerate, almost democratic leader, and he is contrasted with the cruel and autocratic patriarch Old Man Clanton. Wyatt is the more ‘American’ and the new-world figure; Clanton is from the old world, and doomed.
In reality, we know, James and Virgil Earp were more senior than Wyatt, with Morgan and Warren (the latter does not appear in this movie) younger. Virgil was Marshal of Tombstone for a time; Wyatt was never marshal of any town. But this does not suit the mythmakers. All movies concentrate on Wyatt as hero. In this story it is Wyatt who takes the marshal’s job when ‘baby brother’ James is killed. Virgil is played by young Tim Holt, 14 years Fonda’s junior and looking it, Morgan by Ward Bond, two years older than Fonda.
Bond makes a good Morgan Earp but Tim Holt is disappointingly unmemorable and bland as Virgil. Not that his few lines of script helped. 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 addressed 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.
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 Wichita, 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.)
When Wyatt meets the Clantons in town and tells them he’s taking the job as marshal, they laugh at the very idea of law in Tombstone and as an afterthought they ask his name. He answers, “Earp. Wyatt Earp.” And the camera focuses in on the Clantons and the sheer shock in their faces. As if Wyatt was a world-famous lawman with a powerful reputation. In fact he’d been a constable of a town in Missouri and a deputy for a time in Wichita and Dodge but that was pretty well it. But that won’t do for the mythical Wyatt Earp.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 – a later addition – 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.
Doing so, he ‘cleans up the town’ in an almost standard way. Under Wyatt’s benevolent rule the lawless sink of Tombstone, first seen at night and rather like the lowdown Lordsburg in Stagecoach, whose denizens are the likes of Indian Charlie and the Clantons, becomes a place of schools and churches and the community dances which Ford so loved. The BFI Companion to the Western says the high-stepping church dance is “the secret heart of the film” because it “hesitantly inaugurates the new era.” In this way Clementine is a classic ‘progressive Western’. The hero brings civilization to the wild frontier.
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.”
It is, though, curious in a way that whereas for much of Ford’s career, going right back to the silent days, the heroes were society’s outcasts, this story is far more socially conservative. As recently as Stagecoach, the good guys who saved the day were not society’s pillars such as the banker or the army wife, or even the lawman, but an ex-convict (Wayne) and a whore (Trevor), and they go off to married bliss together in the last reel.
In Clementine, though, Doc and Chihuahua, social outcasts if ever there were, must both die. They have committed the sin of ‘miscegenation’, a word hardly used today (many people would have to look it up) but commonplace then. Chihuahua (and remember, Western women with place names, like Dallas, were usually disreputable) not only dresses lewdly and dances likewise, she is a Mexican or, even, an Apache. Heavens, she might even be a half-caste of both! Wyatt is utterly contemptuous of her, dunking her in a horse trough and threatening to “run you back to the Apache reservation where you belong.” On his arrival in Tombstone he had also shouted at Indian Charlie, “Indian, get out of town and stay out!” He wasn’t exactly the enlightened non-racist or proto-feminist that many after the war had become. The goody woman is the educated Eastern, the white and submissive one. Ford made Clementine a nurse and a schoolma’am (rather over-egging the pudding there) and she will thrive and prosper in the new civilized Tombstone, whereas Chihuahua will molder in her grave there. The idea of mixed-race relationships, even marriage, was beginning to come in. We think of Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (made 1949) and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (1950), in both of which such a romance flowers. But in both one of the couple must perish – the Apache maiden in Arrow, the Shoshone hero in Doorway. I mean, romance is all very well, my dear, but think of the children! In Ford’s picture they both die.
Similarly, where in Stagecoach disgraced drunk Doc Boone had found redemption with a medical intervention, an operation does not save Doc Holliday. Chihuahua dies, and so must he.
Mature as Doc, 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, as I say, he had to die at the end and duly does so at the low-key but powerful OK Corral shoot-out. Sword-and-sandal expert 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.
Ford heightens the unlikelihood 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 – and Fonda was supremely good at characters with some reserve. 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 steps 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.
Samuel Engel was also credited as writer but it was one of those Hollywood politics 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). I think it possible that 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.
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 Frank small parts in his pictures, to help pay the bills. It’s also good to see Ford oldie J Farrell MacDonald as Mac the barman.
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.
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. In the shooting script Wyatt made 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?”
Of course you can overdo this. I can’t see Walter Brennan as Claudius, somehow, or Victor Mature as Laertes. Come to think of it, if anyone is Hamlet maybe it’s Doc. After all, it is he who finishes the soliloquy when the actor forgets the words. 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 fits because Wyatt is always isolated, in a way, even from his brothers. They visit James’s grave together; he goes alone. 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.
This lone-ness is heightened by the ending. We might assume at the end that Wyatt will stay, marry Clementine, who is now the schoolma’am, and settle down to a community life as a respected member of society. But he doesn’t. Or we might assume he will return to do that one day, but it ain’t necessarily so. As JA Place says, in his 1974 assessment The Western Films of John Ford, Wyatt’s stature as mythical hero means perhaps that he is destined to remain separate. I think his departure is almost Lone Ranger-ish, or, slightly grander, Shane-ish: he has righted wrongs in a noble fashion and now rides off into the sunset.
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.
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. It was also completely ignored at the following Academy Awards. 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.” The New Republic was really quite rude: “A dazzling example of how to ruin some wonderful Western history with pompous movie-making.” TIME magazine called it “horse opera for the carriage trade”. 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 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. William Everson calls the film “superlative – easily one of Ford’s best Westerns … and quite certainly the best of all the Wyatt Earp films.” Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, wrote, “Of all the Wyatt Earp movies, Ford’s graceful, lyrical, deeply romantic interpretation of the legend is the quintessential, most low-key and most affecting version of the story.”
My Darling Clementine is a flawed picture in a very few ways – all Ford pictures were – but it is a fine, fine film. For me, it could be the very best of all of Ford’s Westerns, for sure ranking with, if not surpassing The Searchers and the cavalry trilogy. It is certainly his most poetic. 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).
Sorry this post has been rather long.
No need to apologize for the length of the post Jeff, it was excellent as usual. I agree with you that this may be Ford’s best Western, although I give the slight edge to Stagecoach. It also has one of the funniest lines in a Ford picture –
Wyatt (Fonda) “Have you ever been in love, Mac?”
Mac (J. Farrell Macdonald) ” No, I’ve been a bartender all me life.”
Glad you think so.
Yes, that’s a good line!