Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Josef Von Sternberg always seemed preoccupied with telling stories involving places that he indubitably knew little about but therein lies the allure. He could develop the Moroccos, the Shanghais, the Macaos into places imbued with far more meaning than they probably ever could have in real life.

Because he is hardly working in reality but with the inventions of his own mind and he was a master when it came to setting the scene and texturing atmospherics. He was a world maker and one of the finest craftsmen in Hollywood exoticism.

The opening prologue juxtaposes the seedy underworld that we are about to witness to the last remnants of the Tower of Babel where Man coalesced in his indiscretions before being scattered over the ends of the earth. It proves to be a rather odd analogy as the film revolves around a velodrome of gambling — a pit of worldly devices that the camera slowly descends on.

Visually it’s the inverse of babel as our eye is led to sink into this world of Mother Gin Sling’s establishment, joining the ranks of Rick’s Cafe, the Cantina, and countless others in the pantheon of dubious melting pots of humanity captured on the screen.

We meet a fair many of the individuals who play a small part in her operation including Dr. Omar (Victor Mature) and Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), a young provocative beauty looking for a good time and a glimpse of the notorious proprietor.  Then our friendly neighborhood dragon lady (Ona Munson) makes an appearance and things are in full swing.

The kind Doctor easily distracted by an attractive young woman, lets himself get wrapped up with Poppy while still sharing drinks with Ms. Dixie Pomeroy. But this is only a minor spat.

The main problem is Mother Gin Sling’s who has been ordered to relinquish her property and move her establishment to the Chinese sector which is far less profitable. But being the conniving magnate that she is, she’s not about to go down without a fight before the New Year.

She will host a little dinner party inviting many prominent guests including Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). All of this feels fairly straightforward and mundane though there is an obvious sense that dark secrets are being veiled in shadows to be revealed at the most advantageous moment.

Though it never truly grips us with a substantial climax, the film’s laurels rest mostly on its setting and the breadth of its character reservoir. It always makes me sad to see Marcel Dalio relegated to a roulette man following the work he commanded in the films of Jean Renoir. Meanwhile, Eric Blore always delights me even in his smallest, most insignificant appearances. In this picture, he plays the Bookkeeper. There’s not much to be said about his cruciality to the plot but he’s delightful all the same.

The feisty Phyllis Brooks delivers an acerbic and spirited performance as the chorus girl that comes with a lot of panache even if it feels so at odds with the world she has fallen into. Perhaps that’s the point.

But rather remarkably her screen presence is only surpassed by Gene Tierney in a seemingly uncharacteristic role — though I admit that the assertion is made with a certain degree of foresight glancing over the extent of her career.

In Laura (1944),  Tierney played a character who was a femme fatale without ever trying to be — men simply got drawn under her spell but in Shanghai Gesture, there’s a markedly different glint in her eye. It’s probably the same glint that would make her so deliciously evil in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). But no matter, she’s a conceited and ungrateful woman with a compulsive nature for the roulette wheel. Thus, her main companion is not Dr. Omar but gambler’s fallacy.

While there are some enjoyable performances, the aforementioned providing perfect specimens, the holes or inadequacies of the cast in certain areas is also an obvious weak point. Yellowface and other types of whitewashing are not just a matter of bad taste they simply take the world of the film and make it feel a little bit hokey when you think of the alternatives.

It really is a shame that at the very least Anna May Wong couldn’t have donned the role of Mother Gin Sling, especially because she appeared prominently in Shanghai Express (1932). Some might consider this as a spiritual sequel to von Sternberg’s earlier film barring the absence of two of its finest assets, namely Marlene Dietrich and Wong.

True, once again even if she was cast, there could be another digression on perpetuating negative stereotypes but if you don’t even have a part, to begin with, that’s a whole different problem. No disrespect to Ona Munson whatsoever but she seems woefully miscast. Anna May Wong would have at least been a step in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of the Hays Code which called for a markedly different script and numerous rewrites. Much of the content changes were for its earthier more debauched aspects, but another crucial change was Dr. Omar replacing a character named Prince Oshima.

Instead of the plastic piece of eye candy Victor Mature, we could have had someone maybe a little more authentic like a Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo. And I’m not being very discriminating about acting styles just the fact that these men are actually Asian (not even Japanese) and they had some prominence in Hollywood. Just not enough to wind up in a film such as this — set in Asia — though completely enveloped in Hollywood’s own distillation of reality. Not even von Sternberg could save the film in that capacity with his production values. Still, fezzes are cool. It’s an undisputed fact. But if I had to make a personal preference I would take Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) to Victor Mature here.

3.5/5 Stars

Cry of the City (1947)

cryofthe1Cry of the City is a lesser noir from director Robert Siodmak with an often arbitrary plot, but since he is a mainstay of the genre it’s still an interesting foray on a number of fronts. It’s visually striking and features a number of interesting characters, especially female characters of all sorts of ranges.

The film opens with thug Martin Rome (Conte) laid up in the hospital after shooting a policeman dead and receiving some crossfire. The police, including Lt. Candella (Mature), wait around uneasily wanting to make sure that the perpetrator will make it out alive, so he can pay for his crimes. He gets a visit from a specter of a woman (Debra Paget), who disappears as quickly as she arrived. Then a crooked lawyer tries to get him to take the rap for a robbery he didn’t commit. It would take the heat off one of his other clients.

The cops begin to canvas the streets for the mysterious girl since Rome will give them nothing. And then he escapes the prison ward, fearful that he and his girlfriend will be framed. But he’s still feverish and weak from his wounds so he calls upon the assistance of his family and an old girlfriend (Shelley Winters).

He then leads the coppers to the crooked masseuse (played by the imposing Rose Givens), but time is running out for Rome, and he is finally receiving retribution for the killings he committed and all the people he has used. It’s a chilling ending worthy of the noir world.

There’s something about Victor Mature that I don’t really care for. Maybe he just feels a tad plastic as an actor. However, it is a great deal of fun watching Richard Conte, because he can play meek fellows and baddies. In Cry of the City he plays someone in between who is wholly corrupt, but his family gives him a sliver of humanity.

The film has a Godfather-like Italian culture, and it draws a fine line between the good and bad guys since in many cases they come from the same background. In this case, Rome chose the road of excess and corruption while Candella took the so-called straight path that’s a lot less glamorous. The plot, on the whole, has uneven patches, unexplained jumps, and unanswered questions. Shelley Winters felt like a rather random addition to the storyline. And Debra Paget mysteriously shows up, disappears, and comes back again. Although the film doesn’t have much of a score, Alfred Newman’s music sounds vaguely familiar — could it be from another film? I think so.

3.5/5 Stars

I Wake up Screaming (1941)

iwakeup1So the title doesn’t have a bearing on much of anything, but who cares? It sets the tone brilliantly for this wickedly twisted noir. The film opens like other films, after the death of a beautiful young woman. Two people are getting grilled in adjoining rooms. Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a promoter and the former love interest of the girl, so he also happens to be high on the suspect list. He lays out how he first met the pretty young waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With the help of two conniving friends, he made her into the next big thing. The has-been actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) helps her reach the higher echelon of society. Mustachioed gossip columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn) plasters her name and picture all over his paper until the world is bound to notice. They make quite the trifecta, all too happy to give this unassuming girl a break.

In the next room, Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) tells her side of the story: She saw how Vicky was beginning to change. She stopped working as a waitress, became entitled, and began to look down at all those around her. Now a real prima donna, she ditches her benefactors ready to head off to Hollywood for a screen test, and Christophers is understandably ticked. It doesn’t help that both Ray and Evans fell in love with Vicky. There’s also something going on between Jill and Frankie, because in the wake of the murder they turn to each other.

iwakeup2For a time the murder gets pinned on the switchboard operator — the always wide-eyed and nervous Elisha Cook Jr. But the menacing police officer Cornell (Laird Cregar), has an almost obsessive drive to find Frankie guilty of the murder. There’s something else going on here. Like so many films of this period, this story is full of men desiring women. Some of it is understandable, some of it is casual, and some of it is downright twisted.

Although she is out of the film early on, Carole Landis has the key role as the rising starlet and she is the closest thing to a femme fatale in this film. But there are a lot of characters of interest aside from our main couple of Betty Grable and Victor Mature. His two opportunistic friends are no-goods but thoroughly entertaining, and Laird Cregar is downright spooky. The film takes on another level of significance due to the tragic suicide of Carole Landis which occurred in 1948. There is most definitely an allure to her just like the women in prominent film-noir like The Woman in the Window or Laura (1944). Throughout some haunting refrains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can be heard, helping to make I Wake up Screaming disconcerting from beginning to end.

3.5/5 Stars

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissof1Film-Noir gets interesting when the stylized, more formalistic world of this dark genre begins to seep into the familiar human drama that we as an audience are more used to. Many of us have families. We have jobs so we can provide for our families.  Or maybe some of us don’t and that makes for some tough decisions.

In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has been out of work for a long time now, so on Christmas Eve, in order to get presents for his two little girls, he robs a jewelry store with a few other accomplices. What sets him apart is he’s not your stereotypical ruthless criminal. He’s a family man, but he’s also bought into the idea that you don’t squeal. So inevitably after he gets caught and booked, Nick will not talk and he gets sent to the clink. The assistant D.A. (Brian Dunleavy) tried to help him, but Bianco took the three years in Sing Sing instead.  After all, his wife is doing fine and so are his daughters.

While he’s in the clink, however, he gets tragic news that his wife committed suicide and his two girls were sent to an orphanage and that changes his entire outlook. He needs to get out of there, and he’s ready to sing if that means getting to see his girls. He begins communication with D.A. Louis D’Angelo again, and he also begins to receive visits from a pretty young woman named Nettie (Colleen Gray), who used to babysit his girls back when his wife was still alive. As his relationship and gratefulness in Nettie grow, Nick also comes in contact with Tommy Udo who is also serving time. He’s a thug with a maniacal laugh and psychopathic personality if there ever was one. He’s not a good guy to cross.

The dkissof2ay finally comes when Nick gets out and he has Nettie waiting for him with his two girls. They are a beautiful happy family and Bianco has remade his life possibly better than it ever was before. However, he’s still beholden to the D.A. and they want him to get dirt on Tommy Udo. They don’t know what they’re asking, but still, Nick goes through it reassured that depending on what he can get, Udo will be put away for good. But of course, the slimeball beats the rap and Nick’s now a sitting duck. He sends his family away and waits for a confrontation with Udo.

His home life has all of a sudden been shattered, and he’s a wreck. Udo’s sadistic laugh undoubtedly ringing in his ears. In a different era, this film could have spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness after the final confrontation. Supposedly there was one cut of the film where Widmark’s character actually got away and Mature was left for dead. The ending that was decided upon is still harrowing but holds a Hollywood silver lining as Coleen Gray’s narration ties up the story in a nice bow.

There potentially was also a scene in Kiss of Death with Mrs. Bianco where Udo took advantage of her and drove her to commit suicide, but it was deemed too graphic at the time. Although I would admit that such a scene would have made Udo even more despicable, he really did not need much help. Widmark plays him to a tee with a chilling laugh that would make the Joker proud. Mature is certainly not the standout, but he’s a necessary every man who we can empathize with. The demure Colleen Gray (who unfortunately just left us) is also fun to watch as the girl who stands by him. She also serves to narrate our story informally. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do not grasp the importance of this title. It gave me major misconceptions going in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

4/5 Stars

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Directed by John Ford and starring a cast including Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, and Ward Bond, the film retells the story of the gunfight at the O.K. Coral. Wyatt Earp (Fonda) is herding cattle with his brothers near the town of Tombstone. However, his youngest brother is killed and the cattle are stolen. From that point on Earp becomes Marshall and encounters a gruff old man with his sons, a fiery song girl, the complex Doc Holiday, and Doc’s former lover Clementine. As Marshall, Earp has his share of conflicts but the town slowly begins to improve under his supervision. However, the Clanton’s lash out and thus starts the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Coral. This is a classic western, with a host of good characters, memorable scenery, and Henry Fonda in a solid leading performance as the larger-than-life Earp. Although this may not one of my favorites in the genre, John Ford proved once again that he knew how to make a classic western.

4/5 Stars