#566) My Darling Clementine (1946)

#566) My Darling Clementine (1946)

OR “What’s Up, Doc?”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller. Based on the book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal” by Stuart N. Lake.

Class of 1991 

The Plot: Cattleman and former marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) arrives in Tombstone, Arizona Territory with his brothers (Ward Bond, Don Garner, Tim Holt!) for a quick rest, unaware of the town’s lawless reputation. Following the murder of brother James, Wyatt reluctantly agrees to become the town’s new marshal. During his tenure, Wyatt befriends gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), gets in a feud with local cattleman Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), and starts to develop feelings for Doc’s ex-lover Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). As things with the Clanton family escalate, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday find themselves in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “traditional Western action” and Ford’s skill with character development, though they admit the film is “lacking in historical accuracy”.

But Does It Really?: Sorry everyone, I just couldn’t get into this movie. I tried twice to watch “My Darling Clementine”, hoping that I missed something the first time, but ultimately I just didn’t care for this movie. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch, but it’s helps to have a love for the genre, as well as some prior knowledge of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral. I’m willing to give “My Darling Clementine” a minor classic designation: not the quintessential John Ford western, but serviceable and mentioned enough times with other Ford movies to warrant NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Cathy Downs was a model and contract player with Fox when she got the title role of Clementine. Shortly after this film’s release, Fox dropped Downs from the studio, and the rest of her career was spent solely in television and B-movies (including “The Amazing Colossal Man“). Leading man Victor Mature had a string of successful roles at Fox and RKO in the ’40s, but is perhaps best remembered for the “swords and sandals” epics he appeared in throughout the ’50s, most notably as Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah“.

Wow, That’s Dated: White actor Linda Darnell plays Mexican saloon girl Chihuahua. She doesn’t attempt an accent, and I can’t decide if that’s more offensive than if she had.

Title Track: Like many a classic folk song, no one knows for sure the origin of “Oh My Darling, Clementine“, though we know the melody comes from an earlier song called “Down by the River Liv’d a Maiden”, which has the same chorus. Unsurprisingly, the song appears several times throughout the film’s underscore.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “My Darling Clementine”, though the National Board of Review did name it one of the top 10 films of 1946.

Other notes 

  • While the real Wyatt Earp was a revered law enforcement officer in his time, his reputation as one of the Wild West’s most notorious gunfighters is a bit of an exaggeration. After Earp’s death in 1929, writer Stuart N. Lake wrote the biography “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal”, a flattering, if highly embellished, retelling of Earp’s life. The book was a hit, and spawned several movies, including 1939’s “Frontier Marshal” with Randolph Scott. “My Darling Clementine” was also based on the book, as well as John Ford’s own recollections of meeting Wyatt Earp in the 1920s when Ford was a prop boy and Earp was retired in Los Angeles.
  • It’s not a John Ford movie until there’s an unnecessary slam on Native Americans. In this case, the first person Wyatt Earp fights with in Tombstone is “Indian Charlie”. Please, it’s “Native American Charles”.
  • John Ford staple Monument Valley appears prominently in this film, even though Monument Valley is about 500 miles north of Tombstone, Arizona. Ford had a replica of Tombstone built near Monument Valley at a price tag of $250,000.
  • Most of the beginning of this film is the revelation of the big names in this story: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Tombstone. None of these reveals packed the intended punch for me. Up until watching this movie these people and places were all just pieces of the vague tapestry that is Wild West culture. I couldn’t even have told you they were connected. Is that just me? Or does anyone remember the O.K. Corral?
  • “My Darling Clementine” is notable for being the first movie for both John Ford and Henry Fonda following their return from service in WWII. With “Clementine”, Fonda begins his transition from optimistic leading man to morally just elder statesman. Meanwhile, Ford’s post-war westerns became more meditative, their rugged backdrop serving to comment on larger ethical issues.
  • You would think that after winning an Oscar for “Grapes of Wrath”, Jane Darwell would have gotten better roles, but her time at Fox saw her getting more bit parts like here and in “The Ox-Bow Incident“. You wouldn’t see that happening to Youn Yuh-jung nowadays, that’s for sure.
  • The distance between 1946 and 1882 is the same as 2021 and 1957. We think of the Western as a genre based in mythos, but for so many early filmmakers, it was steeped in nostalgia.
  • I’m just not getting into this movie and I don’t know why. Is it the lack of a soundtrack? Is it how leisurely paced everything is? This is certainly one of the quieter westerns on this list. Even the silent ones made more noise.
  • It’s always a delight watching Henry Fonda play someone timidly trying to woo a lady. Even his dancing is wonderfully awkward.
  • Shoutout to J. Farrell MacDonald as Mac the bartender, who gets the best line in the movie (Wyatt: “Have you ever been in love?” Mac: “No, I’ve been a bartender all me life.”) Side note: MacDonald bears a strong resemblance to Walter, Jeff Dunham’s old man puppet.
  • As with many of the events in this movie, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is accurate in the sense that it happened, and the people in the movie are based on the real people in the gunfight. I’m not going to nitpick every inaccuracy here, but the main one is that the gunfight itself didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral. It actually occurred in an empty lot six doors down from the O.K. Corral. But “Gunfight in a Lot on Fremont Street” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Legacy 

  • The mythology of Wyatt Earp’s gunfight was started by this movie, and solidified with 1957’s “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, as well as the “Wyatt Earp” TV series from the ’50s.
  • Oh, and “Tombstone”, don’t forget “Tombstone”.
  • Among those filmmakers inspired by “Clementine” was Sam Peckinpah, who cited this film as an influence on his “The Wild Bunch”.
  • “My Darling Clementine” gets referenced a lot in conjunction with its appearance on episode of “MASH”. In 1977’s “Movie Night”, it’s revealed that “Clementine” is Col. Potter’s favorite movie, and he arranges a screening to boost morale among the 4077.
  • This is one of the rare studio era films where an alternate cut exists. A print of “My Darling Clementine” in UCLA’s archives turned out to be a preview cut of the film, with several additional scenes and alternate takes. Both versions are available on various video releases. #ReleaseTheFordCut

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