There are classic actors who’s names you know, regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually seen a single one of their movies. They could be long dead, but their legacy means their names are inescapable. Until a few years ago, Henry Fonda was one of those dudes for me. Then I saw 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, and started to understand why his name was so iconic. But now, I realise that as great as those movies are, I still hadn’t really appreciated Henry Fonda, because I hadn’t seen a Henry Fonda western. He helped define the genre, and with My Darling Clementine, you can see how important and how influential his contributions were.
Even if you’ve never seen My Darling Clementine, you’re probably familiar with the story. It’s the tale of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, the lawless town of Tombstone and the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. This time around, Henry Fonda takes up the role of the most famous Earp, with Victor Mature as Doc Holiday.
Driving cattle through the wild west, Wyatt Earp and his brothers leave their camp and head into Tombstone. When they arrive, the brothers Earp find a town so resigned to its violent nature, bullets randomly flying through windows cause more frustration than fear. When the town’s lawmen refuse to apprehend a drunken gunman, Earp takes matters into his own hands.
With a reputation as a solid peacemaker from Dodge City, the people of Tombstone beg him to take the local gig. Begs Earp ignores until he gets back to camp to find his cattle rustled and his youngest brother dead. So it’s back to Tombstone with his surviving brothers, Virgil and Morgan, to pin on Marshall’s badges and take care of business.
On the job, they meet the town’s unofficial leader, Doc Holiday, a dentist and gunfighter with tuberculosis out the wazoo. Along for the ride are Holiday’s current mistress Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) and his newly arrived to town ex, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs).
The Earps and Holiday become friends and allies just in time to unite against a gang of outlaw cowboys and for Holiday to sort his women shit out. That’s a lot of balls in the air and also the biggest downside of My Darling Clementine. It half tells several stories instead of completely telling one.
In real life, the Earps and Holiday were already friends before their time in Tombstone. Because Clementine decides it needs to tell the origins of their friendship, it’s one more hurdle to contend with before getting to any sort of real conflict. It also means the titular Clementine doesn’t even appear until almost half way through the movie. So then we have to get her exposition out of the way before it leads to a hinted love triangle between her, Wyatt and Doc.
Once this is all spelled out for the audience, we finally get some sort of conflict between the Earps and the outlaw cowboys. But by this stage, we’re more than half way through the movie and it’s time to get to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Which means the feud between the two factions has barley been established and is kind of hard to accept.
The story is clunky and obvious, the direction is a little awkward compared to what John Ford would do in years to come and the plot is overstuffed. But none of that really matters. This is a John Ford western, starring Henry Fonda. The black and white cinematography looks great when given room to breathe and Fonda’s charisma sells even the most hackneyed cliché. Plenty of westerns after this might have been better in a lot of ways, but they all learned from, and built on, movies like My Darling Clementine.