All You'll Find Out There Is Your Tombstone
Sixteen years afterwards, John Ford would confirm that you print the legend, thus giving the lie to his earlier claim for authenticity in My Darling Clementine. “Harry Carey knew about the OK Corral, and he had asked Wyatt and Wyatt had described it fully. So we did it exactly the way it had been.”
As much as anyone else, the Mainer director forged our myth of the heroic West, as in the then-patronized but now eulogized 1946 film from an inaccurate Stuart N. Lake alleged “Autobiography” of Earp. But Ford was following in the footsteps of William S. Hart and Allan Dwan and anticipating John Sturges (who took forty-four hours to film his five-minute shootout), plus others.
Like them, MDC pays scant attention to chronology, location or fact, although the less-than-two-minute-long event going on a hundred thirty-five years ago now, is impossible to pin down. No one much cares, anyway. If less than its outsized reputation, the ninety-seven minutes is still a fun view, particularly in Joe MacDonald’s austere camerawork in Monument Valley on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art.
Randolph Scott as Earp and Caesar Romero as Doc Holliday in Dwan’s Frontier Marshal are eclipsed by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in Ford’s appropriation of sections of that 1939 version but to which he also added events and deepened character.
It is useless to assess the permutations of interactions and persons who participate in the celebrated climactic shootout. Followed by a decision to stay on as schoolmarm, a brief parting to seek more cattle and thus go full circle back to the opening, and an invitation and promise to return for future romance, the Tombstone gunfight resolves the issue that initiated the conflict that moves the tale. Boston tenderfoot Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) occupies major story space as an addition but really is no more than an insipid ornament as the sole connection with the folk-song title.
Driving their herd to sale in California, the four Earp brothers are grungy cowpokes who turn down a $5-per-head buy offer from Pa Clanton (Walter Brennan) backed by his four bearded sons Billy, Ike, Phin and Sam (John Ireland, Grant Withers, Fred Libby, Mickey Simpson).. Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan (Fonda, Tim Holt and Ward Bond, the latter of whom had played the marshal in the Dwan version) mosey into nearby five-year-old boomtown Tombstone for fun at the Oriental, where unarmed Wyatt calmly overcomes stereotype drunk Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens). Back at their rain-soaked camp the three find youngest brother James (Don Garner), 1864-1882, shot dead in the back, his silver pendant gone and the cattle rustled. Previously Dodge City marshal, Wyatt now accepts the same offered job so that they can stick around to solve and avenge the murder. There is comic relief in their getting dandied up and perfumed at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor & Dentist’s (Ben Hall), in the wall-less church dance, and in itinerant Shakespearean actor Granville Thorndyke (Alan Mobray), who also serves the serious purpose of establishing the intellectual bona fides of Doc Holliday (Mature). In truth an obstetrician back East, the hard-drinking dying tubercular is the reason Clementine has ventured so far and so wide, only to find that he has a relationship with possessive bargirl Chihuahua (Linda Darnell, overdoing it in her channeling of Madeleine LeBeau as Yvonne in Casablanca).
The blonde from Boston tames Wyatt, Wyatt tames the town, and the brunette Mexican firebrand proves the redemption of Doctor Holliday’s medical skill and self-esteem. Not everyone survives, but enough do. Straight up the middle of the screen Wyatt rides the road towards Shiprock volcanic pinnacle, but once new cattle have been bought and sold he surely will gallop back to Clementine and the town he has made suitable for women and children. “Someday this country will be a good place where boys like you can grow up safe.” The legend does not fall or fail.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; not rated by MPAA.)