DVD RELEASE Classic Western tells mythic American tale
'My Darling Clementine' carries some film-noir tones.
By JOHN BEIFUSS
Director John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" is not just a great Western but one of the great American films: a romance about the tug between savagery and civilization that continues to define this country, set against the backdrop of the hard dirt streets of Tombstone and the majesty of Ford's beloved Monument Valley.
The film, which stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as the consumptive gunfighter Doc Holliday, is at once mythic and intimate, with larger-than-life characters who spend more time lolling on porches than drawing weapons.
If the movie's climactic depiction of the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral is not the sordid, 30-second street fight that historians tell us about, neither is it the prolonged actionfest one would find in a typical Western. The shootout here is economical and ruthless, and it's telling that heroes Earp and Holliday are joined -- in the planning if not the shooting -- by the establishment pillars of their community, the mayor and the preacher.
"My Darling Clementine" (1946) was just released on DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, as part of the company's ongoing "Fox Studio Classics" collection. The series now numbers a dozen films, including "All About Eve," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "The Mark of Zorro."
Photographed in beautiful and sometimes sinister black and white by Joseph MacDonald, whose noirish sensibility would later serve Elia Kazan and Samuel Fuller, "Clementine" delineates a struggle over the future of Tombstone -- i.e., America -- between rival families: the good-natured, hard-working Earp brothers and the evil, lawless Clantons.
Walter Brennan plays "Old Man Clanton," an unshaven fiend who beats his grown sons with a bullwhip. "When you pull a gun, kill a man!" he scolds one incompetent scion, who moans "Yes, Pa!" as the whip comes down.
In contrast, the lanky, undemonstrative town marshal, Wyatt Earp, is a rough man who realizes the necessity of order and domesticity, which is why the movie devotes so much screen time to the problem of his shaves and haircuts. Earp also is contrasted with his contentious ally, Doc Holliday, a Boston-educated, Shakespeare-quoting surgeon-turned-gambler and gunfighter who represents a sort of Earp in reverse: the civilized man gone feral. It's no wonder Doc must be sacrificed to the new order, becoming the only good guy killed during the final gunfight.
The conflicting female characters aren't as complex. Pretty Clementine (Cathy Downs) is a blandly wholesome teacher, while the bad-girl Mexican prostitute (Linda Darnell) is about as subtle as her name, Chihuahua. Still, Chihuahua's plenty entertaining: In one great scene, she wipes her tears with the hem of her skirt, to give everyone a good look at her gams.
As that moment indicates, "Clementine" is filled with humor as well as sorrow. In one scene, the smitten Earp asks the saloon keeper: "Mack, you ever been in love?" Replies Mack: "No, I've been a bartender all my life."