Before "Wyatt Earp" (1994) and "Tombstone" (1993), there was "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957). And before "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," there was "My Darling Clementine" (1946). You're right, there have been many other Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday movies, like "Frontier Marshall," (1939), "Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die" (1942), "The Hour of the Gun" (1967), and "Doc" (1971), before and after John Ford's quintessential version, but I'm only counting the best of the breed.
Ford had already reinvented the American Western a few years earlier with "Stagecoach" (1939), and he was anxious to return to the genre in which he would continue to excel with pictures like "Fort Apache" (1948), "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949), and "Rio Grande" (1950), before reaching his zenith with "The Searchers" (1956). For a lot of folks, these movies still represent the best Westerns ever made, with "My Darling Clementine" often heading the list. You'll get no argument from me.
For fans of the O.K. Corral saga, "Clementine" will hold few surprises. It doesn't follow the events of the real-life story any better than any of the other movie versions, but, then, the actual events have always been in dispute. This is a mythologized O.K. Corral to match Ford's mythologized Earp and mythologized West. The movie, for instance, has the Earp's driving cattle, Wyatt's younger brother being murdered by the Clanton gang (the date on his grave marker is 1882), Wyatt and his brothers Virgil and Morgan moving into Tombstone, Wyatt meeting Doc Holliday for the first time, and the eventual shoot-out with the Clantons. Well, the Earps never drove cattle, a younger brother was never killed in 1882, Doc and Wyatt knew each other from Dodge City, and the gunfight at O.K. Corral actually occurred on October 26, 1881. But it's close enough for Hollywood, I suppose.
Wyatt Earp always was his own best PR man. After leaving Tombstone, some say against his will, he traveled extensively throughout the West pursuing land deals, breeding race horses, gambling, and refereeing boxing matches, finally settling in California, where by the end of his days he was working as a film consultant for silent cowboy movies. Much of what's been written about him was self promotion, but "My Darling Clementine" has the advantage of having been made just seventeen years after the man's death in 1929; so there may be some accuracy, at least in terms of Wyatt's personality, in Stuart Lake's book, the story by Sam Hellman taken from it, and the screenplay by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller.
Wyatt is played by Henry Fonda as anything but a tough guy. He reluctantly takes the job of marshall of Tombstone after having left a similar position in Dodge City several years before. Fonda's Earp is an easygoing fellow more interested in sitting on the porch with his feet up than gunning down miscreants. But he is brave, no question about it, and he never shirks his duty when he sees it. Nevertheless, there is very little violence in the film, mostly realistic characterizations, with Fonda a model of understated charm. His Earp is the strong, silent, gentle, but firm type, a typical Fonda character.
Victor Mature plays the gunfighter and gambler Doc Holliday, who, as I said, in this picture does not know Earp before Earp shows up in Tombstone. Mature proves with his portrayal of Doc that he could do more than serve up the Hollywood beefcake he was so often called upon to do. Doc is not only consumptive, come West for his health, he is well educated, cultured, and tortured. Mature plays him as a sullen, brooding, lonely figure, tragic and desperate.
Tim Holt is brother Virgil; Ward Bond is Morgan; and old Walter Brennan is Old Man Clanton. I say "old" Walter Brennan because he always seemed to play old men, even in his younger days. It was unusual to see him play so evil an old character as this, though. "When you pull a gun," Clanton instructs his sons, "kill a man!"
The movie concerns three major events: Wyatt's marshalling of Tombstone; Wyatt's getting soft on a girl, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs); and Wyatt's famous gunfight, which is well handled with plenty of suspense. But mainly it's about interrelationships: Wyatt and Doc; Doc and his old flame, Clementine; Doc and his new flame, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell); Wyatt and Clementine.
What may surprise a lot of viewers is that "My Darling Clementine" is more a sweet romance than a typical Western adventure; and at ninety-seven minutes it's short enough not to overstay its welcome. Shot largely in Utah's Monument Valley, Ford's favorite location for Westerns, the scenery is appropriately grand, the vistas sweeping, and the desert vast, making the people and their problems seem almost insignificant by comparison.
Fans of the movie "Tombstone," and they are legion, may find "My Darling Clementine" a pleasant change of pace, just as fans of "My Darling Clementine" may find the newer film a more traditional action yarn. In other words, the two films complement one another nicely. Now, if only we could have had Henry Fonda's Wyatt and Val Kilmer's Doc in the same picture. Wouldn't that have been a kick?
The major extra on the disc is having a complete second version of the film, a prerelease edition, which was copied from a 1946 nitrate preview print. The preview copy was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with 20th Century Fox and the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film.
Neither version, however, shows up particularly well compared to the best black-and-white films of the day, but when they're good, they're very, very good. I watched both versions and noticed little difference between them visually. The regular-release edition appears to be a very good archival print with virtually no age marks, transferred very cleanly to disc; and the prerelease edition comes out looking about the same. The picture quality of both versions, though, is quite dark, often making the characters look like they're in silhouette even in broad daylight shots. I'm not sure if this was intentional with Ford or not, since the only other times I've watched the film have been on broadcast TV where the image was always more than a little faded and fuzzy. Anyway, object delineation is average, inner detail is obscured by darker areas of the screen, blacks are vividly black, and grain is notably absent.
On the regular edition the viewer has the choice of the film's original monaural soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 or a new stereo remix, also in DD 2.0. In stereo the sonic image is spread out further between the two front speakers, and the frequency spectrum has been clarified slightly, producing a clear but bright and somewhat edgy sound. In mono, the image is confined to the center channel as long as you're sitting directly in front of the television or as long as you play it back in Dolby Pro Logic, which collapses the two channels into the center. In any case, the mono is softer, more recessed, and smoother than the stereo remix. In both instances you'll find a small degree of background noise. On the prerelease edition the viewer gets an altered soundtrack but only in 2.0 mono playback.
As usual with one of Fox's "Studio Classics," the extra materials are intelligently selected. As I've already mentioned, the main bonus item is the alternative, preview edition of the film, which at 103 minutes is about six minutes longer than the regular-release edition, and which contains differences in the soundtrack, mainly the addition of background music to certain scenes in the final cut. It seems that neither studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck nor the film's preview audience completely liked Ford's initial treatment of the story, and Zanuck insisted on a number of changes. The two versions of the film are found on flip sides of a single DVD.
The extras also include a forty-one minute, behind-the-scenes featurette about the preview edition called "What Is the Pre-Release Version?" It is narrated by Robert Gitt, a preservation officer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, who supervised the DVD transfer of the preview edition and compares the two versions in detail. Then on the regular edition of the film there is an audio commentary by Wyatt Earp III, and on both editions there are a very generous thirty-two scene selections. Concluding the extras are a still gallery; a theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
Unlike the action-packed "Tombstone" with its fast pace and charismatic heroes, "My Darling Clementine" is a relatively laid-back, almost poetic vision of the Old West, its characters and characterizations outshining its well-worn plot. John Ford created a genuine Western classic in this motion picture, which even he was hard pressed to top. Besides, "Clementine" was Col. Potter's favorite film in "M.A.S.H," so what more could you ask for?