I recently reviewed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of many versions Hollywood has done of Wyatt Earp, the Cowboys and Tombstone’s infamous history in the 1880s. Not drifting too far here today with another version of one of the west’s most iconic moments, 1946’s My Darling Clementine.
As they drive a herd of cattle west to California, former lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his 3 brothers stop outside the time of Tombstone. While visiting the town, rustlers steal the herd and kill the youngest Earp brother, James. In hopes of finding his brother’s murderer, Wyatt takes a job in Tombstone as the town marshal. It’s there he tangles with several key people in town, including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and cattle rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). Now, all Wyatt has to do is get proof of who killed his brother and stole the herd of cattle.
Notice anything? This 1946 western has basically little to no connection the real-life historical incidents. Yes, there was a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone…and…well, that’s about it. The story takes place in 1882 (a year after the actual incidents), Holliday is a surgeon and not a dentist, Old Man Clanton was dead and never actually met Wyatt, and James Earp lived into the 1920s. So if you’re looking for a history lesson, this isn’t it.
What’s the end result then? Like many John Ford westerns, ‘Darling’ is more interested in the legend, the mythology and the romance of the old west. Based on a true story, this is as close to an arthouse western as there ever was. Filmed in black and white, it is episodic, romantic, idyllic, hauntingly pretty and has touches of a film noir in its use of shadow and light. Other than the song My Darling Clementine, the soundtrack is minimal. We’re transported to a little down in the Arizona desert with no sense of the rest of the world. There’s a sense we’re somewhere different, somewhere far-off. Little to no gunplay, style over substance, this western is one of a kind…mostly for the good.
Henry Fonda is an all-time great for a reason. He has countless roles that I could identify as his most famous, best, most iconic, whatever description you want to say. His performance as Wyatt Earp belongs in that conversation, but I struggle with a specific reason. It’s his easy-going, laconic manner…until he’s not. It’s the smile that pops up. It’s the gentle physicality, like the iconic shot of him in a chair, leg propped up on a post as he surveys Tombstone. He moves so gracefully too, especially as he leisurely walks up the street to the O.K. Corral. I don’t know if this is what the real Wyatt Earp was like — history and revisions say it was not — but there’s something straightforward, charming and immensely likable about Fonda’s Wyatt.
Reading about ‘Darling,’ Victor Mature seemed to be Ford’s whipping boy during production. His Doc Holliday is interesting, but whether it’s the script (where I lean) or something else, Mature isn’t given a great chance to shine. His Holliday is too moody, too intense for his own good. There’s some good chemistry between Fonda and Mature — especially a scene early as they wait for a play — but the not so accurate history does them no favors. All records indicate they were at least partially friends in real life (Wyatt and Doc that is), but here, they’re barely on speaking terms. Some good potential for the character, but it falls short.
Who else to look for? Brennan as Old Man Clanton is an out and out villain, a sneering, intimidating murderer. John Ireland plays his youngest son, Billy, while Grant Withers mostly looks mean with a beard as Ike. The Earp brothers include the always welcome Ward Bond, Tim Holt and Don Garner. Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl who loves Doc (and sings a couple songs), while Cathy Downs plays Clementine, a past love interest of Doc’s who Wyatt takes a shine to. Also look for Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick and Ford’s brother, Francis Ford, in small supporting parts.
It had been years since I watched this western, but something struck me on the most recent viewing. I found myself bored with this first hour. There is little to no story with the pacing at an almost glacial pace as we meet Wyatt, Doc and Tombstone. An episodic story is one thing, but ‘Darling’ just sorta drifts along. I found myself drifting more than I remembered. Things definitely pick up over the last 40 minutes, but I had to at least bring up the pacing issue.
That said, definitely give this John Ford western a shot. Shot on location in Monument Valley (as a background to Tombstone), ‘Darling’ is a visual treat. Ford’s movies have a reputation for their style, look and visual appeal, but this may be him at his best, right up there with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An iconic western with plenty of memorable scenes, it’s an excellent film and well worth checking out.
My Darling Clementine (1946): ***/****