Ah, My Darling Clementine. I have a couple of prior associations with this film, despite not ever having seen it before; we’ll get to that in a minute.
This is John Ford’s highly fictionalized account of the legendary shootout between Wyatt Earp and a team of cattle rustlers holed up at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Henry Fonda is Wyatt Earp, who’s merely passing through with his brothers at the beginning of the film; he’s given up marshaling and is driving cattle with the family business now. They camp out near Tombstone one night, but when the scheming Clanton brothers steal their cattle, killing youngest Earp brother James in the process, Wyatt resolves to get his revenge – legally. He marches into Tombstone and declares his interest in becoming the town marshal, with his brothers as deputies.
Before he can go after the Clantons, Earp has to win over Doc Holiday (Victure Mature), a hard-drinking gambler with a lot of influence in town. He does come by the nickname “Doc” honestly, though – Earp spots a medical diploma in Holiday’s room at the saloon. But Holiday seems strangely reluctant to do much other than drink, play poker, and canoodle with “Chihuahua”, a local saloon singer (Linda Darnell). Holiday’s hard living has earned him an unofficial mayorship in Tombstone (as well as a case of tuberculosis), so he’s initially gruff towards Earp; but when Holiday realizes that Earp’s more focused on the Clantons, the two men gradually make peace.
…And then Clementine (Cathy Downs), Holiday’s old girlfriend from Boston, comes to town. She’s been searching for him for months, she says; will he come home? Holiday’s not interested – he wants to spare her the worst of his illness. Earp, meanwhile, is pretty interested in Clementine. And the jealous Chihuahua is also invested in Clementine leaving Holiday alone. And meanwhile, while that drama is playing out, the Earps are coming closer and closer to making their case against the Clantons…
Everyone thinks of the shootout part of the O.K. Corral story as its main event, but that’s interestingly diminished here. It happens, sure, but that love triangle with Holiday, Clementine and Chihuahua seems to be the real story, with Earp on hand to nudge Holiday back towards a better life path, even if it means Holiday and Clementine rekindle their relationship. Still Earp isn’t above dressing a little smarter than usual when he knows Clementine is going to be around, or getting himself freshly shaved before accompanying her to the first open-air service at Tombstone’s new church; they don’t have a preacher yet, so they decide to have a chaste afternoon of square dancing instead.
My own relative ignorance of the events at the O.K. Corral may have worked to the film’s advantage. I have always known that there was an O.K. Corral, and that there was a shootout there; I also had heard the names “Wyatt Earp” and “Doc Holiday” before. But beyond that I was in the dark; who was fighting whom, and over what and why? Couldn’t have told you. So when Holiday threatens Earp with a gun in the saloon early in the film, that set me up for expecting Earp and Holiday to be opponents, rather than the collaborators they actually were. So Holiday’s story throughout was all the more interesting, since his fighting alongside Earp was not a foregone conclusion for me at all.
Especially since one thing I did know was that this film was almost 100% false. Ford based his script largely on a 1931 biography of Earp, which was itself a heavily sanitized version of events; author Stuart Lake worked closely with Earp’s widow, Josephine, who was intent on keeping some of the less-savory parts of Earp’s life out of the public eye, particularly those involving Earp’s previous girlfriend (a prostitute) and Josephine’s own past (as a prostitute). Ford also actually met the real Earp, who once turned up on the sets of the silent films where Ford was cutting his teeth as a prop boy. He would eagerly listen to the tales Earp would tell of his Western Frontier days; some of these tales were used to flesh out this script. No doubt, those tales were a little…embellished already. Earp had indeed been a marshal in Tombstone, but had lost the job during a routine election a few years prior. And the famous shootout wasn’t any kind of “you killed my brother and stole my cattle” revenge, but was instead the culmination of a long-simmering grudge match. (Not to mention that James Earp, the brother killed in the film, was alive and well for years after the events in Tombstone.)
But Ford may not have been as naïve as I make him sound. Shortly after the film’s release, a historian who was more familiar with the actual facts was chatting with Ford, and pointed out that you know, it wasn’t all that accurate. “Well, did you like the film?” Ford retorted, and when the historian admitted he did, Ford snapped, “So what’s the problem?” Ford hadn’t even been all that keen on making the film to begin with, anyway; he was one movie away from being done with a contract with Fox studios, and decided to throw this together since he could work with some of his regular actors (Fonda among them) and film in his old Monument Valley stomping grounds. It’s Ford at his Ford-iest – stunning scenery leading to gorgeously-composed shots, a mini-morality play set in a fairytale version of the Old West. And it works well enough that even when you do realize that things didn’t happen quite like that, it seems unsporting to nitpick.
….This is probably what lead to My Darling Clementine playing a pivotal role in the lives of my film student friends in college. At New York University – at least when I was there – all the first year film students had a mandatory class called “The Language of Film,” with a professor who was reportedly very strict. And one of their big final assignments for the class was a term paper on this film. ….I was a drama student, but counted several film students among my friends in my dorm; and the night before this paper was due, I sat out in the hallway on my floor and watched as my film student friends all went slowly mad over the course of the night. One would stalk out of his room for snacks every forty-five minutes like clockwork. Another would periodically just throw open her door, scream, and then slam her door shot. Still another decided to turn cartwheels up and down the hallway at midnight to wake himself up; he paused long enough to tell us that he’d just noticed he’d typed the phrase “your mother is in the kitchen” into his paper for reasons he was completely unable to ascertain. And finally, another friend said that she hit a massive case of writers’ block at 2 a.m., and called her parents in a panic. When they answered, all she said was “I’m going to flunk out of college, and I thought it would be better if you heard the news from me,” before hanging up.
They all lived, they all finished their papers, and I believe they all had passing grades. Wherever they are, I wish them all well, and hope that their opinions of this film weren’t too spoiled in the process.