Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tonight's Movie: My Darling Clementine (1946) at UCLA

Last night was a particularly special evening in UCLA's Archive Treasures 50th Anniversary Celebration, a double bill of two beloved John Ford classics, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949).

I've ranked SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON in my Top 10 Favorite Films for many years now, and I'll have more to say on it later. (Update: Here is my review of SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.) It took me longer to warm up to MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), as I found it slower going when I first got to know the film as a child, but over the years I've also come to love it deeply. I'm not sure what I found more beautiful tonight, Monument Valley in black and white or color! I guess it's a tie.

Prior to this year I had never seen MY DARLING CLEMENTINE on a big screen, and what makes 2015 even better is that I had the opportunity to see not one but two different versions of CLEMENTINE in a theater. I definitely made up for lost time.

Last spring I saw a digital restoration of the film's theatrical release at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. I've planned to write about CLEMENTINE since that occasion, but seeing 16 films in a short time span makes it a challenge to set aside time to devote individual attention to each title! (Incidentally, I did write about CLEMENTINE briefly here nine and a half years ago.) It couldn't have worked out more beautifully, though, as tonight I saw a 35mm restoration of the 102-minute pre-release version of CLEMENTINE.

And as a postscript, it seems serendipitous that just a week ago I also saw FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939) at the Lone Pine Film Festival. I reviewed that 20th Century-Fox film, starring Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp, nine years ago; in some ways the Scott version of the story is very different, but certain incidents seem to have inspired the Ford version. In a documentary I watched today, it was said that Ford watched FRONTIER MARSHAL as part of his preparation.

A major American classic such as MY DARLING CLEMENTINE probably needs no introduction to the majority of this blog's readers, but for anyone who may be discovering it for the first time, it's the story of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), who accepts a job as marshal of the wild desert town of Tombstone after his young brother (Don Garner) is killed by Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his sons (including John Ireland and Grant Withers). Wyatt's surviving brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt) serve as his deputies. Eventually Wyatt and his new friend Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) face down the Clantons at the OK Corral.

In a parallel story, a lovely woman from Doc's past, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), arrives in Tombstone. She tries to persuade Doc to return to his past life in the East as a doctor; meanwhile Wyatt is tentatively attracted to her.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is one of those great American movies which simply gets better on each successive viewing. Each screening takes on added resonance, as the memories of past viewings and experiences -- such as visiting the film's location in Monument Valley two years ago -- and even other movies combine to give it added weight. For instance, anyone who loves Ford films and hears "Shall We Gather at the River?" will automatically think of THE SEARCHERS (1956) and other Ford movies, which adds even deeper emotion to the film at hand.

Like other great Westerns such as WINCHESTER '73 (1950) or any number of Ford films, most of the shots seem to be works of art in and of themselves. The clouds in the sky over Monument Valley, as filmed in black and white by Joe McDonald, are stunning, and there are so many similarly remarkable moments of visual poetry.

The famous sequence where Wyatt escorts Clementine to the unfinished church, followed by the dance, is surely one of the great scenes of the American cinema. It's exquisitely beautiful, in and of itself, and at the same time it somehow reaches further back into real American history, seeming to capture the spirit and optimism of the true American pioneers; one almost feels, for a fleeting moment, that one is actually looking backward in time. It's layers such as that which make the film so lovely; that scene in particular never fails to move me to tears, just as I will always cry at "Lest we forget" in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.

Fonda and Brennan are perfection as Earp and Clanton, but the cast is filled with marvelous performances. Has there even been a better Doc Holliday than Victor Mature, with his deep, sorrowful eyes? That moment where he quotes Shakespeare...unforgettable.

This was one more outstanding film for Linda Darnell, who plays the tempestuous saloon gal Chihuahua; Darnell deserves greater credit for what she brought to a series of excellent movies throughout her career at Fox.

Having become a fan of Tim Holt in recent years, on this viewing I noted what an assured and charismatic performer he was here, his first postwar film. Holt may have had a supporting role, but my eye would often settle on him among a crowd of actors. Virgil taking on the Clantons singlehandedly, a foolhardy moment despite Wyatt urging him to go after Billy, might have been the only weak spot in the screenplay by Winston Miller and Samuel Engel; going in the Clanton house without backup was a boneheaded move, leading to the only moment in the film I can't watch.

Ward Bond, of course, is right there as Morgan Earp, with his own moments to shine, whether it's ordering an enormous breakfast of "blood rare" steak, bacon, and "a big pot of coffee," mindlessly spooning sugar into his coffee as he stares at the lovely newcomer Clementine, or gunning down Old Man Clanton in the final moments.

The supporting cast also includes Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell, J. Farrell MacDonald, Roy Roberts, Russell Simpson, Francis Ford, Mae Marsh, Fred Libby, Jack Pennick, and Harry Woods.

I have to mention how nice it was to see that UCLA's restoration credits card included a thank you to Blake Lucas, a great friend of this blog who helped to call UCLA's attention to the differences between the pre-release and theatrical versions, inspiring the preservation of the pre-release edition.

Having watched both versions this year, and also having today re-watched a documentary with UCLA's Bob Gitt about the changes, I'm of the opinion that there are individual moments in the prerelease version which I prefer, but overall I understand the reasons behind and prefer producer Darryl Zanuck's ultimate theatrical version. I believe this differs from Blake's point of view, and perhaps he'll share his thoughts on that in the comments.

There are moments in the prerelease version which serve to deepen characters, most notably in the scene where Doc performs surgery on Chihuahua, summoning his nurse Clementine, who refers to him as "Dr. Holliday." The brief dialogue and visuals are excellent here, and I wish they were in the final version.

There's also a scene which was done originally with just natural sounds rather than music, which I preferred. For the most part, though, I think the music which was put in for the final version, such as when Clementine arrives on the stage, was spot-on. Zanuck also cut out some extraneous crowd scenes which added little to the narrative or the setting.

The most notable change is the final scene; in the original, Wyatt simply shakes hands with Clementine, but as that stark farewell disappointed a large preview audience, a scene where Wyatt kisses her cheek was shot and edited in. While the background for the close-up insert looks awkward, I agree with the scene's sentiment. As I watched the prerelease version, I felt it was very uncertain -- even unlikely -- that Wyatt would ever return to Tombstone or see Clementine again. I prefer the slightly more optimistic version which I've enjoyed for most of my life.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE has been issued for the home viewing market in many editions. In 2004 it was released on DVD as No. 14 in the Fox Studio Classics series; both the prerelease and theatrical versions were included. It was also included in the giant Ford at Fox set.

More recently it was released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Again, both versions of the film were included.

It's also had a release on VHS, and it can be rented for streaming from Amazon.

Most highly recommended.


Blogger Jerry E said...

An absolutely superb and heartfelt review of a true American film classic (and one of my own personal favourite movies). I've only seen the theatrical release version but it would be great to have the chance to have seen the pre-release version.

I always find it hard to watch Tim Holt's backshooting scene too, Laura, a similar feeling to the death of Randolph Scott in 'WESTERN UNION'.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for writing so eloquently about "My Darling Clementine". I shall be using this in a continuing effort to get one of my sisters to realize what a glorious film it is. It is been a few years since she last borrowed my copy and returned it with a shake of her head. Sigh.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Beautiful commentary on a beautiful film. John Ford may have been a difficult and troubled man, but nobody made better, or more quintessentially American movies.

Your essay reminded me of something Lindsay Anderson wrote about Ford.

Ford told him, 'I want to be a tugboat captain.' and Anderson wrote, "But God made him a poet and he must make the best of that."

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,

I can't seem to find a better way to contact you. I'm quite often hosting blogathons of my own, and I've just announced one for late January, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details


11:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your comments! I love having other fans share their love of the movie here and hope all the feedback might encourage anyone who's not yet tried CLEMENTINE to watch it...and then watch it again!

Thank you also for the very kind words about my post, this is one of those movies which means a lot to me and I hope I succeeded in capturing a little of how I feel in words.

Jerry, if you can obtain one of the DVDs with both versions I think you would find it very interesting. There is also an excellent documentary with Robert Gitt of UCLA comparing the two versions, which if I remember correctly is on the Fox Studio Classics DVD as well as the Criterion version.

Caftan Woman, how interesting one of your sisters didn't respond to CLEMENTINE. I guess I can understand it, since I once wondered what the fuss was about, though I chalked that up to youth, LOL.

And thanks for the blogathon details, I'll check it out! FYI for all, there is a "Contact Me" button on the left margin of the main blog page for anyone who'd like to email me.

Best wishes,

7:53 PM  

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