Saturday, February 13, 2021

My Darling Clementine




John Ford on the set with Henry Fonda (left) and Cathy Downs


MY DARLING CLEMENTINE           B+                                                                                   USA  (97 mi)  1946  d:  John Ford

What kind of a town is this, anyway?  A man can't get a shave without getting his head blowed off.      —Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda)

Coming immediately after the end of WWII, Ford chose an avenging angel picture to mirror the sacrifices made during the war, using Henry Fonda as the moral conscience of Wyatt Earp, a stranger just passing through, an ex-marshal come in out of the cold to bring civilization to the lawless town of Tombstone, using unorthodox and perhaps even lawless methods to accomplish the task, but when he leaves just a few days later, the town is a much better place, representing hope and optimism for the future.  This is a conquest of the wilderness film, revealing how the American frontier was founded by overcoming the corruptions of the past, and laying in its place the foundations of civilization and individual liberty.  Americans in the 1940’s lived through a period of great uncertainty, having already survived the tragic economic effects of the Great Depression, now having to survive the trauma of WWII, along with it the horror of atomic bombs and the nightmarish revelations of the Holocaust.  America had not yet developed into the superpower it would become, where there were plenty of fears and anxieties about the future, including an underlying belief that we would have to re-navigate our political traditions and redefine a new road to progress, fueled by the promise of the American Dream.  After experiencing so much devastation and death during the war, Ford wanted to help rebuild America’s belief and confidence in itself and its own history, returning to Hollywood after his stint as a naval officer to make a film about a living legend.  To Ford, who actually met the real Wyatt Earp in his youth, Earp was a frontier figure that helped transform the West, believing progress lay in establishing outposts of civilization that could stand the test of time.  Earp’s authority as a lawman is unprecedented, yet he doesn’t wear a gun, as he mixes easily in the company of the fastest guns, part of the mythical lore of the West, while also enjoying the game of poker, often associated with shady dealers and shifty characters, where villainy rules when it comes to stealing the pot.  To travel so frequently in criminal subcultures makes him the ideal lawman when it comes to instilling moral values and administering justice, though like Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956), he still lives outside the boundaries of civilized life.  The general consensus is that Ford made few films in his career that actually lived up to his own aspirations, with this being one of them, working closely in developing the script with Winston Miller and Samuel G. Engel, adapting the popular 1931 novel Wyatt Earp:  Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake, which offered a historical glimpse of early cattle towns on the Great Plains that helped build the legendary status associated with his name, with Ford claiming this film represents Earp’s version of the gunfight at the OK Corral, the climactic moment of the film.  While it remains among the most critically acclaimed of all Ford’s films, listed as one of the first 75 films ever entered into the National Film Registry, it is firmly rooted in myth, however, suggesting the appearance of these towns popping up across the American West brought civilization and democracy to the American West, pushing aside the amoral primitivism of the lawless frontier, accentuated by an argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 Frontier Thesis, which was massively accepted in its time and for more than 100 years after, still not totally discredited, popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt’s celebration of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and artists like Frederick Remington.  Problematically, underneath Turner’s optimism lay racist condescending references to Indian land as a savage frontier, implying Indians are “savages,” yet from an Indian point of view that land didn’t get savage until the arrival of whites.  To the extent that Ford helped perpetuate this racist myth is well documented, as the more developed central characters in his films are always whites, while Indians, Mexicans, or other non-whites are always viewed as a negative counterpoint to the “civilized” white values, using the vast emptiness of Monument Valley, where he shot nine westerns, as a natural backdrop for his untamed frontier. 

There is a natural ease about this film that sets it apart, never in a hurry, quietly contemplative with dark and melancholic themes, and a brooding sadness with the tubercular Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) sensing his own demise, yet its nostalgic, easy going approach makes heavily romanticized jingoistic propaganda feel overly conventional and mainstream, which is precisely Ford’s intent, the template for his future westerns, though it lacks the true urgency and real originality of another Henry Fonda film, William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), or Ford’s self-reflective film essay The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  The title, however, makes no mention of frontier violence, instead making reference to a familiar 19th century folk ballad, running as a background score throughout the movie, while also identifying the name of a secondary character who takes on some importance as the film progresses, becoming linked with the town’s future.  Ironically, it’s another song playing in what may be the most beautifully devised and profoundly affecting scene of the film, with a devout rendering of Shall We Gather at the River? playing to the sound of church bells, as Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and Clementine (Cathy Downs) take a long quiet walk to a dance at a church dedication, My Darling Clementine 1946 - a scene from the film ... - YouTube (4:52), with the church becoming a building block for the future, a sign that Tombstone is finally becoming civilized, with this scene representing the heart of a newly established community.  While Ford and his legion of followers like to think of him as a chronicler of authentic Western history, other than the gunfight itself, which did happen (though significantly differently than portrayed), the rest of the film is mythologized and is entirely fictional.  Earp and his brothers were never cattle drivers, as shown in the opening scenes, where a chance encounter on the open plains shows Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan, who ruthlessly beats his sons with a whip, while imposing his will, “When ya pull a gun, kill a man,” suggesting otherwise is cowardice) making an offer on the herd, which Wyatt politely refuses, revealing his intentions to herd them from Mexico all the way to California, while also revealing his intentions to head into the nearby town of Tombstone that evening.  The Clantons take advantage, rustling some of their cattle after murdering the youngest brother James (Don Garner) who was left behind to keep watch, as he was too young and innocent to drink in town.  Unaware of what was transpiring, Wyatt heads into a barbershop for a shave, but gunshots ring out, with the barber running for safety, as a drunken Indian is apparently taking potshots from inside the saloon.  No one from town moves a muscle, so Wyatt takes matters into his own hands, sneaking up from behind and knocking out the perpetrator with a rock, hauling him out of the saloon feet first, railing against anyone who would serve alcohol to an Indian, then kicking the Indian out of town, basically eradicating the threat.  It should be noted that the Indian is played by Charles Stevens, a real-life grandson of Geronimo.  Treating an Indian with contempt is standard operating procedure in John Ford’s Manifest Destiny films, so this is par for the course.  Indians also appear silently, sitting outside the jailhouse or waiting for the stage, hanging around outside the saloon or working at a stagecoach station, while a couple Indians on horseback can be seen riding through the streets during one of Wyatt’s barber visits, all used as props.  Mexicans aren’t treated much differently, viewed as docile and tacitly submissive, with the exception of a firebrand saloon girl who works as a prostitute, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell, who signed a studio contract at the age of 15).  Offered the job as town marshal, Wyatt refuses, heading back to camp where he finds his brother dead (James was actually the eldest brother and lived to the ripe old age of 84), returning the next morning to take the job, deputizing his brothers, hellbent on avenging the death of their brother, with Tim Holt as Virgil and Ward Bond as Morgan Earp.   

The lay of the land reveals two competing forces, the Clanton family, which controls the cattle interest, illegally rustling cattle and then selling them over the border in Mexico, and Doc Holliday, a renowned gunslinger (and dentist, not a physician) who controls the gambling and saloon business in Tombstone, where Wyatt’s relationship to the Clantons is a frosty one, while he attempts to befriend Holliday, but he’s an ornery character who typically goes his own way.  But the dual threats continually operate under the threat of violence, without community input or consent, representing greed and self-interest, neither one figuring into any concept of communal good that Wyatt is trying to achieve.  Part of the overt message of the film comes from a visit by Wyatt to the gravesite of James, just an 18-year old kid who never had the chance to grow up, hell, probably never even had a first kiss.  Wyatt vows to make this a better place in his honor, “When we leave this country, kids like you will be able to grow up and live free.”  Taking on that onus of responsibility turns Ford’s mythical lawman into a legendary cultural hero, which may explain why this is the first film Ford shot entirely in Monument Valley, though it was partially utilized before in STAGECOACH (1939), located on the northern Arizona/Utah border, nowhere near Tombstone, Arizona which is closer to the southern Mexican border.  Laying it on rather thick, Ford introduces a Shakespearean actor (Alan Mowbray as Granville Thorndyke, a traveling actor from the East) to Tombstone, a reference to the highest level of sophisticated culture, but he’s hijacked from the theater and is instead holed up in a saloon where’s he’s plied with drinks and expected to perform for the exclusive barroom entertainment of the gun-toting Clantons, who quickly grow bored with him.  When Earp and Holliday rescue him, Holliday completes the infamous Hamlet soliloquy that the actor is too scared to remember, adding an extra dimension of poignancy, with Thorndyke concuding “Shakespeare was not meant for tavern louts.”  Mirroring his visit is an appearance by a young, attractive woman from the East, Clementine, who’s been searching for Holliday.  Despite her best efforts, he orders her out of town, having made his bed with the hysterically jealous Chihuahua, and while there’s forced pressure on her to leave, the church social suggests other options, like becoming the town schoolteacher.  More trouble develops between the Earps and the Clantons, each viewing their personal disagreements as strictly a family affair, allowing no other outside interference, leading to the ultimate showdown.  Removing his marshal’s badge, what transpires is completely outside the law, regressing to the primitive side of the West where a man handles his own business with a gun.  The sequence, shot by Joseph MacDonald, is given a realistic expression, slow to develop, with no intrusive musical score, yet remains decisive in its conclusion, with Wyatt carrying out his mythical destiny, allowing him to wander the ends of the earth afterwards, riding off into the sunset.  Ford has done what he set out to accomplish, which was to provide a heroic savior for a grieving nation, resuscitating valor from the trash heaps of history, but he’d be damned if it had to be true. 

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