Review: My Darling Clementine
The story of the feud between the Earps and the Clantons, mostly set in Tombstone where things are set in motion when young James Earp (Don Garner) is killed and their cattle stolen. His elder brother and town marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) swears to bring the killer (s) to justice. His brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) also become his deputies. Said killer is Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) the nasty head of the Clanton family, whose sons include Ike (Grant Withers) and Billy (John Ireland). Victor Mature plays ‘Doc’ Holliday, a moody gambler with tuberculosis and a severe case of self-pity. Doc is currently running with hot-tempered, trashy saloon singer Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), who in turn is having an affair with Billy Clanton. Things get even more complicated for Doc when a girlfriend from out of town named Clementine (Cathy Downs- whose career only lasted ten films) arrives, looking for him. His rejection of her proves to by Wyatt’s gain, though. Background characters include Shakespearean actor Granville Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray) and Jane Darwell as a local elderly woman who has to assist Doc (who in real-life was supposed to be a dentist, not a surgeon) in some rather makeshift surgery.
Although I think this story has been far more entertainingly told in films like “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, “Tombstone”, and “Hour of the Gun”, this 1946 John Ford (“Stagecoach”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Searchers”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) western has some strong elements. Chief among these is the film’s look. Ford and B&W cinematographer Joe MacDonald (“The Young Lions”, “Warlock”, “Niagara”, “Mirage”) give the film a dark, shadowy, noir look that is starkly beautiful and fascinating. It’s probably the best-looking Ford film I’ve seen, and unlike any other western I’ve ever seen from a cinematography point of view. I’m shocked MacDonald wasn’t nominated for an Oscar
The performances are also rock-solid. Henry Fonda is an interesting choice for Wyatt Earp. As played by Fonda, the character is not quite as forceful a presence than say, Burt Lancaster made him, but Fonda is easy to take as a figure of righteousness and sympathy nonetheless. Victor Mature has one of his rare commendable outings as Doc Holliday, as well, at least this film’s interpretation of the character. I’ve heard Vincent Price was considered for the part, and whilst Mature is fine, that would’ve been incredible. Ward Bond, a veteran of many a John Wayne picture, is also rock solid as Morgan Earp.
The one who stole it for me was veteran character actor Walter Brennan as mean Old Man Clanton. I know Brennan had played villains several times, but he’s especially nasty here. It’s a bit of a shame, then that the characters themselves just don’t ‘pop’ the way they do in other versions of this tale. The Earps and Clantons, besides Wyatt and the Old Man, are all frankly a bit interchangeable, except that you’ll recognise Ward Bond, Tim Holt, and John Ireland (who later played gunslinger Johnny Ringo in “Gunfight at the OK Corral”). I suppose that was true of “Gunfight at the OK Corral” too, but I preferred that film’s Wyatt and Doc much more than this film. More scenes with the lovely Jane Darwell would’ve been greatly appreciated, too. Scripted by Samuel G. Engel (the excellent “Night and the City”) and Winston Miller (“Gone With the Wind”, “Lucy Gallant”), the characters just aren’t as iconic or interesting this time around.
The film is also a tad too romantic in its portrayal of ‘Doc’ Holiday for my liking. He was given much more of an edge when played by Kirk Douglas in “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and Val Kilmer in “Tombstone”. I also didn’t much take to the title character, who isn’t historically accurate, as she was a mere bit player in the real story. I don’t recall Wyatt and Doc having shared a female love interest, and we all know Wyatt left his wife for an actress named Josephine, right? Ford, who actually met Earp, claims his version of the actual gunfight is pretty accurate, but this isn’t entirely so, and he plays fast and fancy with the truth at other times throughout (We all know Doc had a different ending than the one depicted here, and I’m pretty sure Morgan was an actual living participant at the gunfight, Mr. Ford!). Some might not be bothered by historical accuracy, and the facts may not have been as well-known back then, I dunno. But it bothered me nonetheless (and historical inaccuracy doesn’t always bother me), and when stacked up against other films about these events, this one isn’t the best of the lot.
Still, this is a solid, if low-key film and an exceptionally well-photographed one. It’s entertaining, just not as entertaining as other versions of the same story and seriously overrated. You certainly won’t be able to get the title tune out of your head, though.