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Friday, July 01, 2016

My Darling Clementine

A few months ago I read a novel about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, called Epitaph, so I thought I'd take a look at the films that have made about the subject. There are many, but there are four major films. All of them I've seen before, but not for a while. Starting chronologically, I watched My Darling Clementine, made in 1946 by the great John Ford.

My Darling Clementine is resolutely unhistorical. Basically, the script takes the names of the Earps and the Clantons and the town of Tombstone and inserts them into a completely fictional story. We know that in the first few minutes, when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), and his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) are driving cattle to California. James Earp (Don Garner) is their kid brother, and he is murdered when the cattle are rustled by the Clantons. Wyatt Earp stays on as marshal to catch his brother's killer.

Problem: the Earps never ran cattle. James Earp was the older brother, and lived to a ripe old age. Wyatt was never a marshal of Tombstone, that job actually was Virgil's, who was an older brother.

The mistakes keep coming with the introduction of Doc Holliday, who is well-played by Victor Mature. The film suggests that he and Wyatt Earp met in Tombstone, when they were good friends long before that.

No matter--My Darling Clementine is right up there as one of the best Westerns ever made. History buffs just have to stow their complaints, because Ford's direction is so immaculate that watching this film is seeing genius in action. I have to give a lot of credit to his cameraman, Joseph McDonald, for the film is full of brilliant shots. I'm normally a story guy, and don't fixate on technical aspects, but as I've seen this film so many times that this time I enjoyed the use of line and perspective. Note the use of diagonal lines, as with the front patio of the hotel, or the bar. They cut the screen in half, with action on one side and blank space on the other, suggesting a line to the horizon. Late in the film, three characters, each one a bit further from the camera then the other, form a perfect diagonal. This may be the most geometric Western ever made.

Fonda makes a great Earp--laconic, slow to violence, but once he decides to strike, is deadly. Holliday was, of course, a drunkard and sufferer of tuberculosis, and the film gets that right (he was a dentist, not a surgeon, though). Mature gives Holliday the kind of gloom of a man who knows he's on borrowed time, and when he listens to Shakespeare his expression is one of great pathos.

The title, which comes from an old mining song, has been ironed on to the Tombstone story. The women in this film are wholly fictional--Chihuahua, the Mexican saloon girl, who is in love with Doc (Linda Darnell) and Clementine, his old flame, who comes all away across the country to find him (Cathy Downs). The truth was more interesting--Holliday had a woman named Big Nose Kate, while Earp came to town with one woman but left with another (it's doubtful he married either of them).

The script was by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller, and based on a popular history of Wyatt Earp by Stuart Lake, which was fantastical. It has some great lines, though, such as Earp saying, "It's a tough town to have a quiet game of poker," or when he asks the bartender, "Mac, you ever been in love?" Mac's reply: "No, I've been a bartender all my life."

The Criterion disc is an excellent print, with a commentary and the real story of the Earps. Also, fans of the TV show M*A*S*H may remember that My Darling Clementine was Colonel Potter's favorite film, and the camp enjoyed a screening before wounded came in, right after the shootout.

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