MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, well-loved fiction about Wyatt Earp, has Americana exemplar John Ford return to the western genre seven years and a World War since 1939’s classic Stagecoach. Like that iconic road trip into yesteryear, this 1946 paean to the pioneer past was filmed in Arizona, in Monument Valley. That the location is 365 crow-miles (505 if you drive) from Earp’s immortal Tombstone didn’t faze Ford, as he was after myth rather than history. Plus, the Interstate Highway System was a good decade away from even breaking ground, so for many in the geography-challenged audiences, everything west of the Mississippi might’ve looked like this anyway. “When the legend becomes the fact…”
1882: Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his three brothers stop off in a Arizona desert burg while driving cattle to California. After rustlers steal the herd and murder the youngest brother, the Earps stay on in rowdy Tombstone; Wyatt takes the job as city marshal. He befriends quick-tempered Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who eventually helps the brothers face down the brutal Clanton clan, led by their fierce, whip-wielding patriarch (Walter Brennan). Civilization & savagery, law & the lawless, family, friends & foes, fact & fancy all collide in dust & gunfire at the O.K. Corral.
Apart from character names and that a few of them shot each other, it tosses historical accuracy to the wind, the errors too many to recite. Winston Miller’s script was partially inspired by Stuart N. Lake’s bestselling 1931 biography (mostly fiction) “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal”, and Ford, who met Wyatt during the silent era (Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929), often claimed the old lawman told him how it went down. Yes, they met and talked, but Earp spun tall tales and Ford got a perverse kick out of embroidering things. So? Who needs, let alone wants, a strict, dry history lesson in a movie drama: beneath simple entertainment and escape, we seek meaning, connection, reassurance, truth. In this lovingly arranged morality play, Ford offered the West of emotional memory, linking past to present in a way that might help guide the future.
“Now I don’t pretend to be no preacher! But I’ve read the Good Book from cover to cover and back again! And I nary found one word agin’ dancin’! So we’ll commence by havin’ a dad-blasted good dance!”
Back at his craft at 41, after three years with the Navy in the Pacific, Fonda is ideal as the laconic hero; a little shy, somewhat sardonic, dead serious when called for. At 33, also coming back from four years in the Coast Guard, the underrated Mature has one of his best roles as the dangerous, mercurial Holliday, and cagey pro Brennan brings vivid meanness to bear as Old Man Clanton. Sturdy support is on hand from ever-reliable Ward Bond as Morgan Earp and lanky new blood John Ireland as Billy Clanton. Linda Darnell gets the sympathetic ‘bad girl’ role, while bland 20-year-old newcomer Cathy Down is less interesting as the title gal.
The $2,000,000 budget allowed art directors James Basevi and Lyle Wheeler to build a lavish $250,000 set for Tombstone: Ford gifted it to the Navajos: it stood for five years. Pure creative atmosphere, showcased in Joseph MacDonald’s superb black & white cinematography, framed against timeless desert monoliths, eternity beckoning skies and the hopeful, haunted faces of the frontier’s rascals and tamers. The famous settle-things shootout is excitingly done, if utterly unlike what really happened. The church-raising hoedown is wonderfully realized. Critics approved, and the box office rang up $4,275,000. *
With Alan Mowbray (itinerant Shakespearean ham ‘Granville Thorndyke’), Tim Holt, Roy Roberts, J. Farrell MacDonald (“No, I’ve been a bartender all me life“), Grant Withers, Russell Simpson (“Make way for our new marshal, and his lady fair“), Jane Darwell, Mickey Simpson, Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh. 97/103 minutes.
* There were bigger genre hits that year; the huge Duel In The Sun was a monster success, and Smoky, The Virginian and Canyon Passage (a fave) all drew larger crowds than Ford’s elegiac myth & mood meditation. Yet the timeless artistic quality and enduring critical reputation of My Darling Clementine outdrew them all.