Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Darling Clementine (1946)

There is a certain old-fashioned sensibility about John Ford's My Darling Clementine that is charming in this day and age. The few modern Westerns that do exist tend to be grim and serious and violent, but My Darling Clementine is an entirely different beast. It is an almost genteel film, where the characters and comedic moments take precedence over the violence. I mean this only as a compliment; John Ford wrote the book on how to make Westerns, and by all accounts this is one of his finest. While not as serious or artful a work as The Searchers, the movie is a near-perfect example of studio film-making by one of the great American directors.

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, who along with his three brothers is hustling cattle to California. They decide to stop at a small town named Tombstone for the night, leaving behind the youngest brother, James, to watch the cattle. Upon their return, the Earp brothers find James dead and the cattle stolen. Wyatt decides to take the job of marshall in Tombstone, in an attempt to bring law to the untamed town and to avenge his brother's death. Soon enough, though, he runs into trouble with the local powers, like Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), both of whom Wyatt suspects might have been involved in James' death.

Intercut with all of this is the love story between Wyatt and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), a schoolteacher from Boston who arrives in Tombstone chasing her old flame Doc Holliday. Clementine, though, has deceptively little screen time in the film that is named after her. She arrives almost 40 minutes into the film, and shares very few scenes with Fonda. Still, her presence is key. Her shy, sweet character is contrasted with the saucy yet disloyal Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a saloon singer and Holliday's current plaything. Clementine also gives the film its emotional center, and despite little screen time, provides the film with one of its most memorable scenes. At a community dance, Wyatt seems unsure whether to ask Clementine to dance, but eventually sums up the courage, tossing aside his hat in resolve and bringing her to the floor. What is at first a stiff and awkward dance turns into a dance of joy as the town's residents cheer on the marshall and his "lady fair." It is a simple and joyous scene, the kind that would never be found in today's Westerns.

My Darling Clementine tells an essentially violent story of revenge and corruption, though, and there are many of the typical Western conventions - bar fights, shootouts, riots, and wonderfully politically incorrect dialogue ("What kind of town is this anyway, selling liquor to Indians?"). But still, Ford is more interested in the characters than in any conventions or setpieces. The climatic gunfight at the OK Corral is over quickly, and rather forgettable. Rather, the most memorable moments in My Darling Clementine are the simplest ones - like the dance scene, or the scene where an actor drunkenly recites from Hamlet in a bar, or Wyatt's farewell to Clementine at the end of the film. The beautiful vistas of Monument Valley, as photographed by Joseph MacDonald, are also impressive.

The story of Wyatt Earp has been retold numerous times in various films. Ford's was not even the first one - that distinction goes to 1939's Frontier Marshall. Since then, films like Gunfight at the OK Corral, Tombstone, Doc, and Wyatt Earp have all been versions of the same tale. From what I gather, these films are more historically accurate than Ford's version. But I would be surprised if any is as effective and enjoyable a piece of cinema as My Darling Clementine. The movie is lush, gorgeously photographed, joyful, and entertaining from beginning to end. Is it a fictionalized, inaccurate, sentimental piece of romanticism? Absolutely. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Verdict: A

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