The way to dusty death: “My Darling Clementine” (Preview and Release versions, 1946)

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By Scott Ross

It’s no secret that the industrial nature of the American movie business — and never forget that it is a business — militates against personal expression. (Not art, necessarily; as long as it took a popular form, made a huge profit and, preferably, left an opening at the end for a sequel, the studios would doubtless approve the filming of the Guernica, with a cast of thousands.) And it becomes exponentially difficult, in the absence of found footage, to know what a figure such as John Ford put into a picture that someone else subsequently took out. Darryl F. Zanuck removed as much as 30 minutes from Ford’s first cut of My Darling Clementine, enough so that, while he regarded Zanuck as the best editor in the business, Ford felt the resulting movie was no longer his. This strongly suggests that what we have of the picture now, what 20th Century-Fox released in 1946, is not merely substantially different from what Ford put his name to, but substantively so. Can we, then, truly call My Darling Clementine one of Ford’s best pictures? Or is it not instead a mutilated masterpiece?

But mutilated how, exactly? There are certainly differences even between Zanuck’s 103-minute preview version and his 97-minute release print, both available on the Criterion edition, and what is Ford’s is vastly superior to the work of the studio hack Lloyd Bacon, who shot the re-takes at Zanuck’s direction. Especially damaging is the loss of the farewell Ford shot between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs); in his version, retained for the preview, the handshake which, despite his romantic impulse, is all Earp allows himself is, in its almost pious restraint, deeply moving. The kiss on the cheek demanded by Zanuck for the release print is, by contrast, not merely conventional but a kind of violation. Fonda’s Earp is so thunderstruck by his first sight of Clementine that, even if he didn’t feel she was, however estranged from him, Doc Holliday’s woman, to touch her skin with his lips might seem to him a sacrilege. You may think this is carrying infatuation or courtly love to an absurd extreme, but it’s who Earp is. Being a great editor sometimes means knowing what not to cut. And since picture cost $2 million — some of that due to editorial overhauling, and the cost of re-shoots — and only took in $2,750,000, it can scarcely be said that Zanuck was right even on the grounds that his tampering helped. (Not that he’d have been right even if the movie had earned twice that amount.) Even a little thing, like the use of the old folk song “My Darling Clementine” as underscore, is confused. It should be used exclusively for Wyatt and Clementine, and indeed Fonda whistles it in the release print when he doesn’t know she’s in the room. But Zanuck placed it under the scene where she examines Doc’s room, which makes it seem to be a theme for Clementine and Doc as well.

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Zanuck, as head of the studio, had of course every right to balk at releasing a movie he was less than satisfied with. Still, Ford’s track record, not only with 20th Century-Fox, where he’d worked for a quarter century, but generally, was of so high an order, and the movie as it stands — even with Zanuck’s cuts — is so good, it seems impossible he could have delivered a bad cut of Clementine, even if it was long. Something else seems to have been at play here. Perhaps it was Ford’s antagonism towards his boss, which was not without justification. Certainly Zanuck’s intransigence cost him Ford’s further services; a man hardly turns down a guaranteed $600,000 a year, in 1946 or even now, if he’s happy.

But then, God knows Ford could be perverse. And one wonders if he was as naïve as some of his statements seem to indicate. Take, for example, his claim that the climactic shootout at the O.K. Corral was staged exactly as it happened. According to whom? Why, Wyatt Earp, of course. Well, just because Wyatt Earp tells you something doesn’t make it true, and I doubt Ford was that gullible. He may have been closer to revealing himself when he claimed the picture was “essentially a film for children,” yet even that doesn’t get at the truth. There is innocence in My Darling Clementine, and a sense of rigid morality, that probably appeals to children, but the movie itself is an elegy. It’s dark, not only thematically, but pictorially. (It might have been even darker had Zanuck given the director his head on the casting; Ford wanted James Stewart for Earp, but the studio chief didn’t think Stewart would be “believable.” As this was before the actor’s Western collaborations with Anthony Mann, and even before the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, we might be sympathetic to Zanuck’s point of view. But we have the advantage of hindsight; we know, as Zanuck couldn’t, how often, and how fully, Stewart tapped into the darker sides of his nature. And anyway, hadn’t Zanuck seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?) Ford’s vision of Tombstone — situated, by virtue of the movie’s being shot in Monument Valley, the neverland of Ford Country, otherwise known as Utah, rather than in Arizona, where it was actually located — is one of shadow, where even open space can feel cramped by the intrusion of a single person.

I don’t know that I agree with Tag Gallagher, in his video essay on the Criterion set, that this is Ford’s darkest picture — The Searchers is grimmer, and both The Informer and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and even the little-seen 7 Women are experiences of nearly unrelieved darkness — but it’s decidedly fatalistic. In a way it’s entirely concerned with death: It begins with the murder of Earp’s youngest brother James (although in fact James was Wyatt’s elder, and lived to the age of 84), ends with the gunfight in which all the Clantons as well as Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) die, and in between sees the violent death of Doc’s Mexican paramour (Linda Darnell) while the shadow of an early demise haunts Doc throughout. Had Ford made the movie before the war it might have been more conventional, and less Stygian. Coming after, it seems exactly as stark as it ought to be. All of which make the additions, by Zanuck and Bacon, almost obscene; the re-shoot of Wyatt at James’ grave is full of sanctimonious piety and the sort of rank sentimentality Ford and his screenwriter, Winston Miller, eschewed throughout, especially with Earp, whom they depict as taciturn and laconic to an almost pathological degree.*

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There’s a certain dispassion to Earp that verges on the sort of personal coldness Fonda himself was known for. Only when he is stirred by anger (James’ murder, the discovery of a necklace he bought for his girl on Darnell’s neck) or struck dumb (by the beauty of Clementine) does he seem fully human. The cool Fonda exhibits makes this Earp spiritual cousin to James Garner’s Wyatt in The Hour of the Gun (1967), and it doesn’t really matter much whether Fonda’s Earp is an accurate historical portrayal because it’s such a good one. Ford wanted either Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or Vincent Price for Doc (and if thoughts of the latter doesn’t whet your appetite, you haven’t got one) but got from Victor Mature an almost shockingly right performance. It’s scaled perfectly, the sensitive physician (Holliday was actually a dentist) who can recite Shakespeare battling the brooding, dissipated, tubercular and depressive brute seemingly determined to drink his way to death and to alienate himself from any and all meaningful human contact along the way. Of the leads only Darnell is out of her depth, but then Darnell always was. “Out of her shallow” might be closer to the mark.

As usual with Ford, the support is excellent: Downs, pretty and spirited as Clementine; Walter Brennan as the merciless patriarch of the Clantons, as ready to whip his sons’ faces with a quirt as to kill a defenseless boy alone on the prairie with a herd of undernourished cattle; Tim Holt and Ward Bond as the other Earps; John Ireland as one of the nastier of the Clantons; Alan Mowbray as a fustian actor more at home now with the bottle than the Bard; Jane Darwell in a too-brief role as a madame (although as so often in Production Code-era movies you’d need a score-card to figure out that’s what she is); Francis Ford as a former soldier turned dogsbody; Russell Simpson as a garrulous old man; and, shockingly, Mae Marsh as his withered sister when a mere twenty years earlier she was Buster Keaton’s beloved in The General.

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Ford was urged to shoot the picture in color, but he knew what he could have gotten would have been less than half of what he achieved. Joseph MacDonald’s glorious, fine-grained black-and-white cinematography is among the finest Ford ever got, and that’s saying something. It has both a sheen and a quality of loss and soft, plangent longing, somewhat unspecified and all the more moving for it. Its quality of light holds little comfort and its deep shadows offer the allure only of death, just as its luxuriant, glistening rain is a harbinger of the news of cruel slaughter.

There are occasional jokes in My Darling Clementine — the best involves Darnell soaking Bond with a pitcher of milk — but only one line is really funny… and gallows-humorous at that. Observing how Doc reacts to Clementine, and she to him, Wyatt asks the bartender Mac (J. Farrell MacDonald) if he’s ever been in love.

Mac instantly responds: “No, I’ve been a bartender all m’ life.”

No wonder Ford’s Earp only shakes Clementine’s hand.

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*The movie’s producer, Samuel G. Engel, did some re-writes on location and managed to get himself an arbitrated co-author credit for them, almost certainly undeserved.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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