My Darling Clementine (1946)
Cast: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Director: John Ford
Genre: Drama | Western
Editor’s Notes: My Darling Clementine was released on Criterion Blu-ray on October 14th.
We aren’t informed as to what drove Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) from Dodge City, although his personality quirks permit us inference; important is that he’s no doubt a stubborn man. Imbued with a markedly androgenic obstinacy, the kind that can fairly be genderized even if other factors, a penchant to side morally with social rank and utility over explicit legalities, also inform his persona, he’s a lawman who advertises his presence amidst the cold and anarchic, his boot propped up against a beam and his chair in gentle recline, less to intimidate than to show he’s not to be intimidated, a man who, upon entering Tombstone thrice wonders aloud – and to no avail – “What kind of town is this?” yet finds himself at home, quickly, seamlessly, amongst the votaries and the gamblers, the ruffians and the complicit. Before entering the town proper and accepting his famed juridical position, we witness Earp, then a mulish cattle driver, flatly refuse an offer for his herd made by the family Clanton. During the however brief business discussions Earp appears at once amiable and inflexible, the kind of man who’ll politely entertain a suggestion as his mind goes traipsing around elsewhere, concerning itself only with scenarios of its own design. And so, due to his declining an offer he hadn’t considered sincere, his brother is murdered, his cattle are stolen, and, of arguably chief importance, the control over his life is foisted, this constellation of reasoning eventually steering Earp toward the same chancy vocation, marshaling, that he once took up and forfeited in Dodge City. From the standpoint of careers, it seems he’s come full-circle – but the more interesting point, I’d argue, is what the return to law enforcement says about the man, his impulses.
Indeed, motive seems to be of primary concern in developing the lot of characters in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, with the aforementioned Earp being but only one example of how a protag is shaped and defined by their innermost, oftentimes selfish drives; his equal, if you will, is also a man built of nebulous motivation and desires. While perusing the local saloons, taking in some card games, legitimate and maybe otherwise, and rubbing elbows with the areas more debauched denizens, Wyatt is informed early and often that his hiring as marshal is an ominous sign – turns out the town belongs not to law but to Doc Holiday (Victor Mature) instead. A reputed and reputedly feared gambler, Holliday is oft found away from Tombstone, performing mysterious though no doubt illicit enterprises in one of the other cities that rise from the desert like fata morganas, speckles on the breadth of nature that paint human intervention as little challenge to the grandeur of, for lack of a better word, creation. An early American master of spatial relation, Ford shoots the areas that surround what we’ll liberally call “civilization” in a way that not only conveys our minuscule being but also outlines matters like the temporal toll of travel (given the time period) and the rarity of individual fame and infamy; thus, it’s something of an anomaly that two legendary personages, Earp and Holliday, converged in the same city, both men carrying a reputation of fabled proportion that Ford plays with in honing their relation to the townsfolk and each other. Being big personalities in a small town, not much time passes before their acquaintances are made and the two come to imbibe. “Whiskey!” orders Earp, albeit in a calculated, scouting way, soon countered by Doc’s “Champagne!” meant to contest the principle of someone else ordering as much as the actual choice of spirit. Tenacity would be putting it mildly.
An unlikely duo of lawman and lawbreaker is formed, one that’s symbiotic and mostly concordant – and if not for some liquor-infused confusions it’d be downright jocular – which may be due to their shared affinity for relocation and positions of power, but could ultimately be so because of their love for the deck and bottle. No matter. Truth is, Wyatt and Doc are equally commanding presences amongst the dusty Tombstone streets (or is it street?), their dynamic positing a conflict between procedural governance and vigilante thuggery that seems less to do with personal philosophy than social position; Earp, for example, cites the importance professional duty as a way to justify his own private yearnings (vengeance for his brother’s death) while Holliday prefers to uphold the status quo, legality withstanding, and the prestige it affords him. Such interactions, as numerous and reverberating as they are, are nurtured expertly by Ford throughout the work, as he allows his characters to be receptive and malleable given the various circumstances they encounter. Yet despite their growing closer, a quiet competition remains between them. Earp and Holliday, through their sermonic words and highfalutin actions, both pursue dominion over the Tombstone plebes, wishing to claim the land for themselves while “generously” offering the other a chance to remain in their court – only in a diminished role. In this, the battle for rank within the area’s social hierarchy, the leveraging for and oscillating of power throughout the film’s narrative, becomes a prominent concern, explicated by a cry of “The queen is dead, long live the queen” from the mouth of self-anointed King Holliday. This statement is a telling one, finally vocalizing the true wants of the gambler in regard to the station of his friend-slash-marshal: present but secondary, not subservient but certainly supplementary.
The tacitly competitive relationship of the two men is made all the more dimensional by the presence of two distinct women in Tombstone, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a saloon songstress perpetually conjuring some mocking, absurdly on-the-nose tune meant to discomfort the emotionally disarmed, and the titular Clementine (Cathy Downs), a sweet naiveté who’s followed the drifting Doc, waywardly, from Boston to the desert recesses. These women each act as a nexus, linking their male counterparts to identities that span across time. Just as Clementine forces Doc to recall his old life in Boston, his work as a surgeon, and an optimism he once felt, surely, for working within a altruistic system, Chihuahua anchors him to the present, to his current high-esteem out West, his freedom to make a living on his own terms. If his two thousand mile transplantation speaks to anything, it’s not that you can’t outrun your problems – although tuberculosis, from which he suffers, knows no borders – but that America is far from the meritocracy some think it as; motivations aside, why do good when crime actually does pay? In this, the personalities and drives of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, as multifarious and richly organic as they are, come to be eclipsed by the bigger picture, for their working together becomes emblematic of human interdependence, specifically our need for concord and symbiosis. (Not to mention the notion that established and enforced regulations tend to behoove the masses and especially the abiding.) My Darling Clementine may unrepentantly diverge into and divulge in personal dramas more so than, say, Ford’s own masterful Stagecoach, but the same utilitarian gestures are palpable throughout, with their message being made evermore essential by the compulsory sprawl of civilization.
In My Darling Clementine we see raucous Saturday nights concede to tranquil Sunday mornings, a cycling of underhandedness and communal harmony that changes with the rise and fall of our neighborhood star; as such, the excellent contrast levels present in this Criterion 4K restoration read as evocative and apropos, even if the image does relinquish some consistency, due wholly to source limitations, during darker scenes. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention that two versions of the film are available with this release, the 97-minute theatrical release as well as a 103-minute prerelease version. While both are worth your viewing time – as is the featurette delineating the changes and incongruities between the two – it should be noted that the theatrical rendition fares crisper from a visual perspective, at least in terms of high-def rendering. Fine details such as the knotty wooden facades of Tombstone’s “business” district and the aggressively mustachioed visage of Fonda present well, and his emphasis on corporeal positioning – especially in relation to doors, windows, and the like – add a touch of depth to the proceedings, even if the overall experience, optically, tends to be a bit flat. Nonetheless, My Darling Clementine is given an overall deserving treatment on Blu-ray, even if its visual and aural clarity seem to suffer, however slightly, from something akin to the blunting sensorial effects of Wyatt’s whiskery – or maybe Doc’s champagne.
My Darling Clementine is given an overall deserving treatment on Blu-ray, even if its visual and aural clarity seem to suffer, however slightly, from something akin to the blunting sensorial effects of Wyatt’s whiskery – or maybe Doc’s champagne.