“Mac, you ever been in love?”– Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda)
“No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”– Mac the Barman (J. Farrell MacDonald)
I’ve come late to the party, but I finally got my formal introduction to legendary director John Ford by good friend and notable blogger Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. While I’ve always felt that The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to be a cinematic triumph with memorable performances– one such is the ubiquitous John Carradine as Jim Casy who also appeared in Ford’s Stagecoach is one of my favorites– I didn’t really focus my attentions to the director himself. My first real exposure to John Ford was through his immensely beautiful film of pure visual poetry How Green Was My Valley (1941), the poignant story by way of voice-over reflected upon through the eyes of young Huw played by Roddy McDowall. The narration is told by a now grown-up Huw, recounted using the voice of actor/director Irving Pichel, who tells of the lives of a resilient and decent family in a Welsh mining town, who struggle to get by in the midst of often brutal hardships. It is truly one of the most aesthetically moving films I’ve ever seen.
Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall, and Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Ford on the set of My Darling Clementine (1946).
Recently we celebrated Ford’s work by watching an exciting western-themed double feature, Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Both are striking in their composition as I’m learning how Ford frames everything we see with explicit detail and thoughtful determination. What strikes me as another essential style of Ford is how the peripheral characters –particularly notable in Stagecoach (1939)– fill out the visual narrative with their presence and their valuable expressions as akin to the material faces found in a classical painting. Character actor Jane Darwell who plays Ma Joad in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) makes an appearance in My Darling Clementine.
Jane Darwell plays dance hall owner Kate Nelson, which was her second appearance in a John Ford film. Before Clementine, she previously worked with the director who used her as a voice-over actor alongside Henry Fonda in the war documentary The Battle of Midway (1942). Darwell worked with Ford in 3 Godfathers (1948) as Miss Florie and was cast in several other of his films. Her last appearance as a Ford regular was in The Last Hurrah (1958).
My Darling Clementine deserves a more thoughtful eye and I can see why it is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. I read that this was his last collaboration with Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, who unfortunately chopped off a half hour of the film. It is included in the AFI’s list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Ford paints each scene of his poetic, folkloric romanticism with vast open spaces and fantastical clouds for miles, that are in contrast and simultaneous to intervals of intimacy in shots that appear like still life. If we are not bathed in the bright sky, we witness carefully orchestrated motion or transfixed images through frames within frames lit by glowing sources of light, like fireflies it enhances figures silhouetted in the darker spaces.
each frame, a photograph…
Ford and MacDonald bring about a fairytale-like realism that is meticulously designed to draw your eyes to each frame, capturing a sense of thoughtful contemplation.
While both Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine are considered his masterpieces, the unhurried pacing of Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp leads My Darling Clementine through an astonishingly blithe journey, for such a dark story. Fonda’s quietly measured self-assurance and nonchalant humor work as a buoy to ensure that the film is never bogged down by a gloomy spirit.
Ford took liberties with the re-telling of the legend of Wyatt Earp -Doc Holliday partnership and the infamous feud between Marshal Wyatt Earp and the ornery Clanton clan (a young John Ireland as Billy Clanton, Grant Withers as Ike) led by monstrous and malicious patriarch Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) whose expressions and mean as spit sparse commentary are as potent as a snake bite.
The boundless, dusty panorama of My Darling Clementine is striking with its haunting skies, incomparable rocky buttes and the vast open isolation of the Old West filmed in Monument Valley, Utah. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (Panic in the Streets 1950, Pickup on South Street 1952, The Young Lions 1958, Walk on the Wild Side 1962, The Carpetbaggers 1964, The Sand Pebbles 1966) paints a melancholy landscape depicting the American wilderness of the late 1800s.
Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) head into the unruly fatalism of Tombstone, leaving their younger brother James to watch over their herd of cattle. When they get back to the site, the cattle have been stolen and they find James murdered, shot in the back. Wyatt winds up accepting the job of Marshal, with his brothers as deputies. He is determined to hunt down the men who killed his brother. Shortly after taking over as Marshal he meets the bad-tempered Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) who drowns himself in booze, has an unrelenting cough, and spreads his brooding disposition around Tombstone. Regardless of Doc Holliday’s heavy-hearted yet sympathetic personality, the two become allies.
each frame, a picture…
From the beginning Wyatt strongly suspects the ruthless Clanton gang of killing his brother, especially after he finds James’ medallion on Doc’s current lover, the sensuous saloon gal Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).
Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) Doc’s former fiancé comes all the way to see her beau but sadly discovers he has moved on. Wyatt falls in love with the sweet-mannered girl while he sets out to quietly avenge his youngest brother’s murder, culminating in the iconic shoot-out with the Clantons at the O.K. Corral.
John Ford, who in his youth had known the real Wyatt Earp, claimed the way the OK Corral gunfight was staged in this film was the way it was explained to him by Earp himself, with a few exceptions. Ford met Earp through Harry Carey.
Walter Brennan disliked John Ford so much that he never worked with him again. One time when Brennan was having a little trouble getting into the saddle, Ford yelled, “Can’t you even mount a horse?” Brennan shot back, “No, but I got three Oscars for acting!”
John Ford wanted to shoot in Monument Valley, UT, which had proven to be the perfect site for Stagecoach (1939) and would quickly become his favorite location and the landscape most closely associated with his vision of the Old West. The real town of Tombstone, AZ, however, lies at the southern end of the state, closer to the Arizona-Mexico border. So he had a set for the complete town built at a cost of $250,000. Ford also chose Monument Valley because he wanted to bring some business to the economically depressed Navajo community there
Jeanne Crain was scheduled to play Clementine. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck ruled against her, writing in a memo that the part was so small that Crain fans might be disappointed by not seeing her in more scenes. That’s how contract player Cathy Downs got the part instead.
Walter Brennan, John Ireland, and Grant Withers were required to do their own riding and shooting in the scene where the clan rides into town during a dust storm. John Ford used a powerful wind machine and told the actors to fire their guns close to the horses’ ears to make them ride wild.
Vincent Price was considered for the role of Doc Holliday.
The movie was featured in the TV series M*A*S*H episode M*A*S*H: Movie Tonight (1977). It was said to have been the favorite movie of Col. Sherman Potter.
Henry Fonda was John Ford’s first and only choice to play Wyatt Earp.
Tyrone Power was an early possibility for Doc Holliday, but for some unknown reason his name was dropped from consideration early in the pre-casting stage. John Ford was enthusiastic about Douglas Fairbanks Jr., telling Darryl F. Zanuck in a memo, “He might be terribly good in it. He would look about the same age as Henry and as it’s a flamboyant role it is quite possible he could kick hell out of it. Think it over well.” He was not happy with Zanuck’s choice, Victor Mature, and he began pressing for Vincent Price instead. However, after meeting with Mature, Ford told Zanuck he was not at all worried about the actor’s performance. He was never very happy, however, with Linda Darnell as Doc’s Mexican spitfire lover.
Sam Peckinpah considered this his favorite Western and paid homage to it in several of his Westerns, including Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969).
Two actresses considered for the part of Clementine were Fox contract players Anne Baxter and Jeanne Crain. Instead, John Ford was given Cathy Downs, who was an unknown at the time.