Directed by John Ford
Screenplay By Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller, screen story by Sam Hellman, based upon the novel “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marhsal” by Stuart N. Lake
Starring Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Water Brennan, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs and Tim Holt
Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), and his three brothers (Ward Bond, Tim Holt, and Don Garner) are driving cattle west. When they stop for a night in Tombstone, Arizona, the youngest brother winds up shot in the back and the cattle rustled. Now, there’s no doubt this was the work of Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his sons, but there’s also no real proof. Determined to hold the killers accountable, Earp sticks around and becomes sheriff of Tombstone, to give him time to get proof. Along the way he becomes sort-of frenemies with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and imposes some law and order on things. In the end, Earp finds the proof he needs about his brother’s killer, and gets his revenge on the Clantons.
How Was It?
My Darling Clementine is not what you’d call a ‘plot driven’ film. In fact, the only thing driving this movie is the urge to meander, which is why Earp doesn’t so much ‘investigate’ as sit around in iconic poses in wooden chairs while waiting for information to fall into his lap. And when the movie does take an interest in anything it spends it’s time going over Doc Holliday and his various love affairs, at least until the proof of the younger Earp’s murderer falls into one of their laps. Which is to say, the movie takes the long way around to go the shortest distance possible.
But just because it’s not plot-driven, and meanders, does not mean My Darling Clementine wastes our time, because it’s clearly got a lot to say for itself, even as it seems to say not much. But when it does speak it has very definite ideas about the way the modern world brushes up against more old-word notions, and how law and order tend to conflict with the old-word ideas of freedom. Specifically, it’s as much about the death of the wild west as anything else.
In service of that, the film is loaded with moody cinematography from Joseph MacDonald. He might not have been one of those marquee cinematographers in black and white films like Gregg Toland, but here he does impressive work. In many other westerns the daytime visuals are striking, while the nighttime visuals are serviceable. Specifically, the day-for-night visuals being barely day-for-night, with no real attempt made to hide the shadows of the performers. MacDonald, though, does his day-for-night in the best way possible, really playing up the shadows and contrasts in the lighting, and doing his damndest to hide the fact his actors were walking around in bright daylight. And it works. It literally took me more than half the movie before I realized it even was day-for-night.
Interestingly, because this is a John Ford picture, filmed in Monument Valley, aka, John Ford’s backlot, there is the fear that he’d start repeating himself and showing you the same landscapes he’s shown you before, or would soon show you in other films. But here it doesn’t feel like repetition because Ford was obviously motivated in showing us the full variety of the landscape, pointing the camera in other directions than what we’ve come to expect. In this way, he shows us Monument Valley is not the one-trick-pony.
So, meandering and moody and well-shot are one thing, but the acting is what puts it all across. Sure, Fonda, Bond, Mature and Holt are all fine, as are the ladies who play Doc Holliday’s love interests – Linda Darnell and Cathy Downs – but the real standout for me was Walter Brennan. No, he doesn’t necessarily give a stand-out performance as some sort of villain for the ages. Rather, what stood out is I always perceived him playing a sort of homespun, folksy type, usually cast to give the picture color. More often than not, he was one click short of being comic relief. Or, he was something to be sympathized with. In this series that played out in The Far Country, where he played Jimmy Stewart’s aged, forgetful partner.
Bluntly, he plays a coot.
Except, he doesn’t play that here. Rather, here he’s the villain. A dead eyed, coldblooded villain. And while he doesn’t get a ton of screen time, and doesn’t get the chance to chew any scenery, he makes the most of the time he’s got, moseying in casually and whipping his own men, or shooting other men in the back with a shotgun without a second thought. After his prior screen performances one would have to believe he was cast for this role specifically because he was so well-known for his folksy charm – after all, how much more shocking could it get than him pulling a bead on a man?
The John Ford Cinematic Universe?
With all the talk these days about the various shared universes – particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the DC Extended Universe – I couldn’t help but wonder if John Ford also played in the same sort of thing, even if unknowingly. After all, a small part of this film involves an actor putting on some small entertainment for the town of Tombstone and being harassed by the Clanton boys.
In an earlier film in this series, Wagon Master, we see the travelling party in that film run across a travelling actor, caught between towns and engagements.
What both film has in common – Wagon Master and My Darling Clementine – is the same actor, Alan Mowbray, played both characters and played them both in virtually the same way. The only difference was they had different names in each movie. Obviously, since I named this little section the John Ford Cinematic Universe it shouldn’t surprise anybody that it occurred to me that with just a little rejiggering he could have played the same man in both films.
Is This When America Was Great?
I’ve talked before in this series about John Ford being a bit revisionist when it comes to treatment of Indians and ‘others’ in his Westerns. Specifically, how Wagon Master, and a related film, Cheyenne Autumn, felt particularly ‘woke’ for ‘unwoke’ times. It figures then that just when I was giving Ford credit I watch My Darling Clementine, which contains the pretty glaring line, “What kind of town is this? Selling liquor to Indians?” That the line is said with derision says one thing, and I suppose it could be forgiven if the speaker were immediately upbraided for his racism. Except, the line has literally no bearing on the plot at all, is wholly extraneous to the story, and is completely allowed to pass without comment, which makes it land all-the-worse, and seem like the sort of line the movie endorses. So, as with anything else, two steps forward, one step back.
It’s A Wonderful Life
Hey, this film is also something of an It’s A Wonderful Life reunion. Ward Bond plays one of the Earp brothers here, and also played Burt the cop in the other film. He was also in Gone With The Wind and a whole host of other John Ford films.
Joining him here is J. Farrell McDonald. In this film he plays Mac the barman – “Ever been in love, Mac?” “Nope, I’ve been a barman all my life.” – and also played the man in It’s A Wonderful Life whose tree is run into by a drunken George Bailey.
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