Today in classic Hollywood, I’m writing about My Darling Clementine, one of John Ford’s finest westerns and a stellar example of the postwar iteration of America’s favourite genre.
Directed by John Ford (the western director par excellence), the film details the events leading up to the famous showdown at the OK Corral. It stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, Linda Darnell as the singer Chihuahua, Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, and Walter Brennan as the cruel Newman Clanton.
If anyone was suited to play a stalwart, noble, yet reluctant lawman, it would be Henry Fonda. There is something at once both soft and hard about Fonda, his voice conveying both a certain softness and a harsh grittiness in equal measure. His face also bears this out, with its oscillation between somber gravitas and almost-waifish innocence. It’s not just that Fonda plays the role of Earp; he really does seem to embody it (and, if I’m being honest, he also seems to embody a bit of the American spirit).
If you want my personal opinion, however, it’s not really Fonda who owns the screen, but his co-stars Victor Mature and Walter Brennan. Though Brennan excelled at playing either solemn and pious men (as in Sergeant York) or slightly batty old man (as in Rio Bravo), he plays a brutal villain in this film with equal ease. Clanton is the self-serving, tribalist whose ethos is emblematic of the rot that has settled into Tombstone. Though loyal to his sons, he has no sense of civic duty, which makes him a perfect foil for Fonda’s Earp, who is loyal to both family and the state.
Doc Holliday is something else altogether. There is something deliciously dissolute about Mature’s Doc Holliday. Part of that stems from Mature’s physical persona, which always have something voluptuous about it. His face has a certain softness to it, a propensity to what Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans refer to as voluptuous enslavement. It’s fitting, then that he would play a consumptive who seems to have a weakness for women and an unwillingness to commit to the one woman who seems to truly love him in a selfless way. It is also fitting that the body politic that the film attempts to construct has no room for this sort of dissolute masculinity, so that his death at the shootout (which is unhistorical by the way), redeems him from his own dissolution.
My Darling Clementine creates a western world that is brutal and unforgiving, seemingly yearning for the domesticating hand that can only rest in the moral rectitude of a man like Fonda’s Earp. Of course, the reality is also that he cannot stay, and so he resigns from his position as the marshal. The restoration of the social order has no place for the type of violence that Earp represents (which is a common trope in the western genre as a whole).
The ending is fittingly bittersweet. Though one would certainly hope that the Earp and Clementine would find romantic fulfillment, the world that the film has created has no space for that sort of fulfillment. One senses in this inability to bring this romance to a satisfactory conclusion a residue from the recently-ended War, which had left so many men and women scarred both physically and psychologically. Many films of the postwar period struggled with the question of how to reintegrate men back into the fabric of society, and Clementine shows what happens when those attempts fail.
In my estimation, My Darling Clementine well deserves the reputation it has accrued as one of the most significant western films to come out of Hollywood’s golden age. It reflects an American culture attempting to restore the order that had been disrupted by both the Depression and World War II and never quite succeeding. Like all great films, it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.