My Darling Clementine

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller (from a story by Sam Hellman; based on a book by Stuart N. Lake)
Stars: Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), Linda Darnell (Chihuahua), Victor Mature (Doc Holliday), Cathy Downs (Clementine Carter), Walter Brennan (Old Man Clanton), Tim Holt (Virgil Earp), Ward Bond (Morgan Earp), Alan Mowbray (Granville Thorndyke), John Ireland (Billy Clanton), Roy Roberts (Mayor), Jane Darwell (Kate Nelson), Grant Withers (Ike Clanton), J. Farrell MacDonald (Mac the Barman), Russell Simpson (John Simpson)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1946
Country: U.S.
My Darling Clementine Criterion Collection Blu-ray
My Darling ClementineIn an interview included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg reminds us, “We remember Wyatt Earp through film because that’s exactly how Wyatt Earp wanted to be remembered.” The silver screen Wyatt Earp—typically a stoic, resourceful marshal who reluctantly agrees to come out of self-imposed retirement to clean up the vice and violence of Tombstone, Arizona—is more myth than fact, fueled by decades of big- and small-screen portrayals by the likes of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Kurt Russell, and Kevin Costner. Ford’s film was not the first cinematic rendition of the mythologized marshal, nor would it be the last. Earp, who carefully constructed and managed his own legend as the ultimate embodiment of peace through violence in the Wild West, had been depicted in films as early Paramount’s Wild Bill Hickock in 1923 and had recently appeared in two films titled Frontier Marshal, one in 1934 and one in 1939.

Yet, it is My Darling Clementine that persists with the greatest force in the popular imaginary and is generally considered the Wyatt Earp film against which all others are judged. This may due to the fact that it was directed by John Ford, who at the time was at the height of his artistic prowess (he had already won three of his eventual four Best Director Oscars). And, despite the breadth of his film work, he was best known as Hollywood’s greatest chronicler of the American West, having made dozens of silent westerns, as well as the masterpieces Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk, both in 1939. My Darling Clementine was a return to the genre for Ford, as he had spent the previous six years making military documentaries for the U.S. government and the naval drama They Were Expendable (1945), which is widely considered one of the best of Hollywood’s war films.

Henry Fonda, in his sixth collaboration with Ford, gives one of his most indelible and iconic performances as Earp, who is here reimagined by screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller (working from a story by Sam Hellman and Stuart N. Lake’s highly fictionalized “biography”) as a retired-marshal-turned-cattleman who stops over in Tombstone, Arizona, during a cattle drive and ends up staying when his cattle are rustled and his youngest brother murdered, most likely by the vile Clanton gang, led by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). In order to make his vengeance against the Clantons legal, Earp takes on the unwanted job of town marshal and deputizes his brothers, Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ward Bond). Thus, the film is essentially built around the simple desire for revenge, albeit one that is packaged as justice and has a simultaneous cleansing effect on the town of Tombstone.

In this regard, My Darling Clementine is a very typical, if not downright archetypal, western. Told in straightforward linear fashion against the majestic backdrop of the famed Monument Valley, it demarcates good and evil with absolute clarity: Wyatt Earp may have a weakness for gambling, but he is overall a moral beacon, a man of great patience and fortitude who is the very definition of restraint (even before the bullets start flying at the infamous OK Corral shootout, he offers the Clantons the opportunity to surrender to the law). He is very much the cousin of Fonda’s Abraham Lincoln from Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and in both films he is often shown in repose, leaning back in a chair as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is almost preternaturally calm, his essentially goodness born out in his refusal to give in to wanton emotions. It purges him of bloodlust and ensures that his actions are seen as true justice. The Clantons, on the other hand, are steeped in the vilest of criminality; Old Man Clanton is the type who will shamelessly shoot someone in the back and not blink, and Walter Brennan is particularly good in a crusty, nefarious kind of way.

At the same time, though, the film resists much of what would be expected of a western at the time, particularly its lengthy, laconic middle section in which the vengeance plot is all but forgotten in favor of a focus on Wyatt Earp’s increasing attraction to Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), the pretty nurse from Boston who arrives in town looking for the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), her former fiancée. Doc, who Mature plays as a brooding, sad-eyed hunk dressed all in black (one could easily imagine Marlon Brando in the role), has taken up with Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a sensual saloon singer (read: prostitute), which creates a complex love triangle of sorts in which he insists that Clementine leave town while only half-heartedly committing himself to Chihuahua.Earp, meanwhile, pines for Clementine from the sidelines, an interesting place for the film’s gun-toting, vengeance-minded hero. In fact, many of the best scenes in My Darling Clementine are the ones in which Earp is at his most vulnerable, evincing a kind of poignant aw-shucks vibe that stands in stark contrast to the authoritative manner in which he slings a six-shooter. Fonda humanizes a character that could all too easily have become a one-note myth, and the shot in which he stands next to Clementine at the church dance, clearly nervous about asking her to join him on the dance floor, is the film’s greatest moment and one of the most heartfelt in all of Ford’s works.

My Darling Clementine Criterion Collection Blu-ray
My Darling Clementine is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride
  • Video interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg
  • Comparison of the two versions by film preservationist Robert Gitt
  • Video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher
  • Bandit’s Wager (1916) silent western short
  • NBC television reports from 1963 and 1975 about the history of Tombstone and Monument Valley
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1947
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic David Jenkins
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 14, 2014

    Criterion’s new Blu-ray of My Darling Clementine includes both the 97-minute theatrical version of the film and a 103-minute pre-release version, which is the closest we have to John Ford’s original cut before 20th Century Fox head honcho Daryl F. Zanuck took over the editing of the film. The theatrical version boasts a new 4K digital restoration that was scanned from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain print held by the Museum of Modern Art (the pre-release version is also presented in a new high-definition transfer, although the source of the transfer is not listed in the liner notes). The theatrical version looks outstanding, with excellent detail and contrast that highlights the beauty of the film’s natural locations and those always-impressive John Ford vistas. There are quite a few nighttime scenes throughout the film, all of which are handled well with solid shadow detail and rich blacks. The pre-release version of the film does not look as good, as there was clearly not as much attention paid to digital restoration, leaving some definite signs of age and wear. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the same nitrate composite fine-grain print and sounds quite good, if understandably limited in terms of dynamic range. Digital restoration has cleaned up any ambient hiss and other aural artifacts, leaving a smooth, clean track.
    While 20th Century Fox has already released My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray, that disc cannot even begin to compare with Criterion’s edition in terms of supplements. First off we have an excellent new screen-specific audio commentary by film scholar and John Ford biographer Joseph McBride, who provides historical context in terms of both the real-life Wyatt Earp and the film’s production, as well as first-rate visual and thematic analysis. Also new to Criterion’s disc is a video interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg, who discusses the historical facts surrounding Wyatt Earp and how his myth was self-consciously created over the years, and a video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher about the film’s various visual motifs and themes. Film preservationist Robert Gitt offers a fascinating 40-minute comparison of the two versions by film, highlighting the differences and the effect they have on the film as a whole. As usual, Criterion has also dug into the archives, rooting out Bandit’s Wager, a 1916 silent western short that co-stars Ford and was directed by his brother, Francis Ford (it features new music composed and performed by Donald Sosin); two brief NBC television reports, one from David Binkley’s Journal in 1963 about the history of Tombstone, which features a rather stuffy British professor who studies the history of the American West visiting the town and the cemetery on Boot Hill, and one from a 1975 episode of the Today show about Monument Valley; the 1947 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs; and an original theatrical trailer.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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