My Darling Clementine (1946)

Dir. John Ford. Starring Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan

Frank Capra returned to Hollywood from military service and made It’s a Wonderful Life, a story about a man who is certain that his life, overflowing with instances of quiet sacrifice, has come to nothing. William Wyler returned to Hollywood from military service and made The Best Years of Our Lives, a story about three men whose military service has scarred them, and the three women who devote themselves to their healing. John Ford returned from military service and made They Were Expendable, a movie about the dirty, essential work done by PT boats. Capra and Wyler peaked with their first postwar movies; They Were Expendable is a good movie, but never a great one. All three of them worked out a picture concerning World War II somehow—although It’s a Wonderful Life is not obviously a part of the genre, one recalls that George’s bad ear is the reason he never goes to Europe or the Pacific—and then after doing so went back to the themes they had set down at the outset of war. Capra dove right into his same apple pie subjects with State of the Union, a Hepburn-Tracy movie in which he plays an aspiring politician entirely without convictions and Angela Lansbury practices her Manchurian Candidate role. Wyler kept on adapting previously published stories about women in tight spots, although it’s Olivia De Havilland and not Bette Davis in The Heiress. Ford went back to the western and made My Darling Clementine. There’s a good case to be made that it was a new high for Ford, which is saying something for a guy who already had Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath under his belt, and in hindsight it feels like the movie that set him back on track.

Stagecoach is a glossary of the myth of the West; My Darling Clementine is an essential chapter in this mythic text, filled in with real-life figures like Wyatt Earp (Fonda), Doc Holliday (Mature), and Old Man Clanton (Brennan) to anchor it. That the events of the movie are basically fiction with historical names stapled on somehow makes the whole thing even more effective. The real Doc Holliday was a dentist, and yet the movie establishes him as a tragic figure of the old (if not qutie Greek) style. Here is a man who could have been a pillar of the community somewhere in New England. In My Darling Clementine, a drunken actor (Earl Mowbray) giving an impromptu rendition of “To be or not to be”in a bar loses his place. Would you continue it? he asks Doc, who has been enraptured by the performance. He picks it up at “the undiscovered country,” which is just where he should have picked it up. Doc has been eating bunches of death by the bushel for years; there is a softness in Mature’s voice when he completes the monologue that gives the old words something of their great sheen again. As much as the West is Biblical for Ford most of the time, My Darling Clementine is much more Shakespearean in that it is actively and knowingly intended to be high drama. Thus Doc Holliday the dentist is made Doc Holliday the surgeon. Believe me, kids, there is no such thing as “tragic dentist.”

The movie’s most essential sequence belongs to Fonda and Cathy Downs, who plays an old flame of Doc Holliday’s from back East. She’s come to Tombstone to find Doc (“John” to her, but to nobody else); he emphatically tells her to go back to Boston. The mythology is strong here: the West is no place for a nice, refined woman from the East, for the women of the West are either wizened churchgoing wives or barfly tramps. For a woman like Clementine there can be no belonging. Doc is emotionally speaking a little rough with Clementine, who has traveled long and searched deeply for him; not only is she wrong for the West, but even if he were still worthy of her he knows he hasn’t got much time left. Holliday, the most dangerous man in Tombstone, is dying of tuberculosis. Wyatt Earp, the latest marshal in Tombstone and every bit as quick as Holliday, knew Clementine had come into town; the look in his eyes is unmistakably that of a man who has fallen in love at first sight. When we first met Wyatt and his brothers, they were driving cattle in the opposite direction; Kansas is not so far east as Boston, but his intentions were clear. He was headed for civilization, for the safety of a good business, and for the respectability that bestows. Clementine is all of these things and young, and beautiful, and if Wyatt can wait a couple months for Doc to cough himself to death, entirely available. “The air is so clean and clear,” she says to Wyatt about Tombstone; perhaps she’s thinking of how desert air was thought to be a potential cure for tuberculosis once upon a time. Without having to say Doc’s name, she has kept him like a shield against matrimony between herself and Wyatt.

It’s a Sunday morning and a chastened Clementine has packed. Wyatt has taken to sitting in a chair on the wooden veranda, such as it is, of the hotel. (One of Wyatt’s favorite things to do is to push his legs against the post in front of him just enough so his chair leans back but not so much that he’ll fall over. It’s dexterous, sure, but it is also an incredibly nerdy pastime.) He leans back, watching the world go by. On this Sunday morning he has gone to the barber’s (“Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor”) and been gussied up with some cologne and a fresh hairdo, although he’s hiding the latter under his hat. (The former, in a very good running gag, has a distinctly floral scent that confuses everyone who gets a whiff of it.) The local church is going up; droves of people are headed there for a dance to commemorate the occasion. “You are going to the services, aren’t you?” Clementine asks, and Wyatt, who had no such plans, assents. She takes his arm. They walk across the wooden boards which keep innocent feet from the burning sand. They are dressed as well as they can be; the strands of “Shall We Gather at the River?” are sung in the distance. If not for the sand and for the rough-hewn skeleton of a new church, it could be Boston or Philadelphia or Atlanta or any of the respectable, prosperous cities of the East. In the East, they might be married and promenading to church; in the West, where civilization must be fought for, no such joy can be consummated. There is a reminder of what must be brought to the West when the moving camera goes away from our would-be couple and looks at the church:

God and Country. Neither one has made their way in full to the West, but they will, and they must, and the ones to bring those civilizing forces must be people like the ones walking arm in arm, who silently understand each other. Clementine hasn’t searched for Doc all across the West to fall into Wyatt Earp’s arms; Wyatt is too much of a gentleman to insinuate any sort of desire to such a lady, and so he keeps a painful distance despite her friendliness. Man and wife will someday conquer the Garden, Ford suggests. It will not be these two, who are so right and so wrong for each other, but it will be the ones like them who have internalized the grace and strength that those two have brought with them to the dedication. Some of them are there already, less photogenic but much happier; as a church elder (the inevitable Russell Simpson) begins fiddling a tune, the square dance begins. Ford would reuse the communal dance as a way to signify the coherence of a small citizenry in Wagon Master a few years later; Michael Cimino used it to dazzling effect with his old-fashioned roller skating scene in Heaven’s Gate. Wyatt and Clementine look on, although Clementine does all the things women do in movies when they’re giving hints. She looks at Wyatt several times, claps her hands softly with the music, and when she sees the fashionable and uncharacteristic swoosh in Wyatt’s hair, one of those knowing smiles comes across her face.

Wyatt, for his part, is as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. He takes his hat off partly out of a sense of appropriate veneration for the space and mostly so he can have something to do with his hands. Eventually he asks Clementine to dance, which she accepts. The two of them are stopped en route to the dance floor by that elder with the fiddle, who clears the floor so they may dance unimpeded. She is as smooth as we’d expect, and he as clunky and high-steppin’ as a colt. It is another sign: these two, for all their virtue, will never belong to the community. The sequence only takes a few minutes, but it is probably the clearest thesis of Ford’s postwar films as you could hope to see, and it is nothing short of masterful. There’s legitimate laugh-out-loud humor crossed up with practically teenage pining and, of course, the intoxicating myth of the West. Wyatt and Clementine see it from a distance as Moses saw Canaan from Mount Nebo: people will turn the wilderness into home.

Of course, the reason this is the myth of the West is because it’s factually vacant, and Ford himself shows why as well as anybody, although I’m sure his interpretation of those events would probably be more positive than how I read them. Wyatt Earp’s first night in Tombstone is punctuated badly with the sounds of gunshots and panicked people. It turns out “Indian Charlie” has gotten hammered and is making himself a public nuisance. Wyatt makes himself noticed in Tombstone by conking Indian Charlie out and taking him to the actual marshal to be put in the clink. “What kind of a town is this, anyway?” Wyatt says disgustedly as he walks out into the street. “Selling liquor to Indians.” Indian Charlie, having served his role as drunk and disorderly stereotype, is never seen again, and for that matter no Native Americans show up in the rest of the movie. Nor does it appear there will be much room in Canaan for the likes of Chihuahua. Linda Darnell, who got thrown at Latin American roles in the dryer spells of her career the way Myrna Loy was thrown at Asian roles in the earlier stages of hers, never really does find her footing in the movie, and the movie doesn’t give her much space to dig into. She is what the boys would have called “easy,” but the movie still wants to use her as emotional leverage. Doc operates on her after she’s shot by the Clantons; although the initial prognosis is good, she does not survive the surgery.

There’s some really magnificent camerawork all the way through My Darling Clementine. Among American movies of its decade, its only competition is Citizen Kane. Monument Valley is an unfair advantage, maybe, but in shots like this we get an understanding why any frame from My Darling Clementine looks like it escaped from an art gallery.

Interestingly, the majority of the wide shots in this movie are connected to the Clantons, and especially Old Man Clanton. Brennan plays the pugnacious patriarch brilliantly; who would have guessed that that cute old man could make himself so sinister? In one scene, he disciplines his sons for brandishing a weapon in front of the marshal. “When you pull a gun, kill a man,” he says, and while that’s probably good advice in the Wild West, it is also one heck of a recommendation. He personally kills two of Wyatt’s brothers over the course of the movie. And the above shot is from his perspective, just as some of the initial looks at Monument Valley are.

Nor is it accidental that the sunrise over Tombstone on the day that the Earps and the Clantons will have it out for good rises on Old Man Clanton. That old West, that shambling and crooked region where cowpunchers are preyed upon by rustlers, where the sun lights hundreds of miles with no shadow taller than a saguaro’s, is falling. That is Clanton’s world, and the sun will only rise on it, and on him, one last time.

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