My Darling Clementine (1946)

Review

John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine is finally on DVD — and it’s the next best thing to watching a restored print on the big-screen. Ford, who died in 1973, began his career as a stuntman in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and went on to make Hollywood history as a world- renowned, movie-director icon. Everybody wanted to make movies as good as his. They still do.

He’s also remembered as a patch-eyed, hard-drinking sentimentalist. He regularly chewed his handkerchief and, depressed from his binges, needed long recovery periods before being able to work. But his genius with moving images made his movies a part of our collective cinema psyches. This DVD gives us a chance to join Ford at his own level, where the sharp blacks and whites are as he originally intended, dialogue and plot are minor, and image means everything.

On the surface Clementine is the story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) joining forces to shoot it out with Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his sons at the OK Corral in 1881. Ford liked to claim his story was historically accurate. That’s a cover. Like the common but popular song on which the title is based, My Darling Clementine is about how a town lives, how normal people and their everyday lives are creating a rite of passage and changing an era in America.

It’s a grand theme that Ford has the talent to condense and simplify. In a beautiful yet movingly straightforward sequence, Wyatt Earp escorts Clementine (Cathy Downs), a newly-arrived-from-the-East-schoolteacher, to the Sunday church service. We watch as the couple walks through the half-built town of Tombstone, a stretch of sun-baked, wooden planks on the edge of nowhere. They arrive at a roofless church, all floorboards and two-by-fours, with American flags flying in the breeze. The ‘townfolk’ are gathered, a fiddle band is playing, and, after a hesitant flirtation, Earp asks Clementine to dance. He can’t of course; he’s stiff elbows and knees to Clementine’s smooth poise and grace. But it’s a striking image. Fate is imposing on the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the people who are setting up communities and living in towns, like the very ones throwing this dance, are holding the future.

In most westerns, bad guys or Indians try to take over the settlers and peaceful townfolk while our cowboy-hero pulls guns to save the cause of civilization. My Darling Clementine spins that cliché on its head. Here, it’s civilization that’s constantly imposing on the cowboys and they’re powerless to do anything about it. The Clantons can’t drink and carouse in a saloon without some Shakespeare being read to them (by a hammy traveling actor with the fabulous name of Granville Thorndyke; a scene-stealing role for Alan Mowbray). Doc Holliday, drinker and gunfighter, has college degrees on his wall. My favorite is the final gunfight. Ford has a stagecoach drive right through the middle of the OK Corral as shots are being fired. There’s more people arriving from the East, and they don’t give a damn about the Earps, the Clantons, and their adolescent anarchy and violence. The responsible grown-ups are coming in, they’re saying, and you should be moving on.

The reason My Darling Clementine never seems to stray or lose focus is Henry Fonda. He holds it all together, not so much with his acting as his reacting. His close-ups clue us in on everything going on around him, and those often wordless reactions center the movie. To get an idea of just how good Fonda is, watch his close-ups in Once Upon a Time in the West and you won’t believe it’s the same person.

The extras on this DVD are simple. Two versions of the film: the feature release and a half-hour longer pre-release cut. You can compare and see why the feature is better. The jacket also says there’s a commentary by Wyatt Earp III, but he barely says a word. The running commentary is actually by film scholar and Ford biographer Scott Eyman, which, like most ‘scholar’ commentaries, sounds like a guy reading a graduate school textbook?