Monday, February 2, 2009
This week we’ll discuss a couple of movies that, while both of wildly different subjects and settings, are similar in the poetic way they tell their stories. The poetic quality in the first, “My Darling Clementine” (1946) is blatant and on purpose. Director John Ford, however hard-nosed he preferred to appear in real life, had a romantic view of the West. He does not trouble to conceal the rhapsody of his storytelling. He exploits it.
In the second film that we’ll save for Thursday, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), novice director Elia Kazan tells a gritty, unsentimental story in a manner that is both beautiful and memorable. Curiously and ironically, he later expressed disappointment in what he felt was a lack of realism.
Beginning with the weathered signpost style credits in “My Darling Clementine”, and the song played as part of a medley of American folk music and hymns we will hear in the background of this film, Ford launches a tale of the Old West that uses familiar themes and settings, but is never cliché.
The true story of Wyatt Earp, his brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton gang facing off in a gunfight at the OK Corral is gussied up with a lot of incidents and subplots that are not true. Ford is a storyteller, not an historian. We might note here with tongue in cheek on behalf of Mr. Ford’s Irish roots that a word for both storyteller and historian in Irish (and Scots) Gaelic is Shanachie, an economy of language which might intimate the ability to get the facts right is not necessarily held higher than the ability to tell a story.
Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, a famous lawman who for the moment has given up being a sheriff for driving cattle with his three brothers on their way to California. We are shown a large herd of cattle crossing the favorite Ford setting of Monument Valley, a harsh and barren country Fonda remarks is “like no country I ever seen.” We have the chuck wagon, the guitar plucking in the background, the sage brush, and the raucous town of Tombstone, Arizona, where three of the Earp brothers head for a shave.
We get a first glimpse of the fastidious barber at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor who will return later in the film for a funny bit with Fonda. While they are gone, their cattle are rustled and their brother who remained guard is murdered. Now Wyatt Earp takes for himself the job of sheriff of Tombstone to get some justice.
Gunslinger Doc Holliday haunts a local gambling parlor. He is played very well by Victor Mature, whose performance as the doomed man is understated, brooding, and emotional despite the mask of fatalistic acceptance. He and Fonda have a relationship that is adversarial and also one of comradeship, a terrific balance of male bonding and suspicion of each other. When Mature and Fonda share their first drink together at the saloon, Mature erupts into a coughing fit, whipping out a white handkerchief and hacking ferociously into it. This is our signal that he is a dying man.
Whenever somebody coughs into a hanky in the movies, they’re going to die. It happened to Greta Garbo in “Camille”, it happened to Victor Mature in “My Darling Clementine.” Just make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
Mr. Ford treats us to long slow shots of the wide open spaces, the clear sky, and a western town with growing pains. The town actually looks authentic, without that movie set look that a lot of towns have in western films. We are also treated to a lot of wonderful close-ups, studies of grizzled beards in the rain, of the complex emotions of Victor Mature and Henry Fonda, and of the simmering Linda Darnell, who plays a feisty saloon singer with the irresistibly funny name of Chihuahua.
Miss Darnell, who is Doc Holliday’s lover, gets some competition when his former love arrives, a respectable lady from Boston, whose name is Clementine. Mr. Mature, knowing his ultimate fate from coughing into his hanky, tries to save Clementine, played by Kathy Downs, by driving her away. Mr. Fonda, meanwhile, is smitten with her.
In between all the justice seeking and whiskey drinking and poker playing and wooing of females, there is the subliminal message that the West is changing. Towns like Tombstone are becoming civilized. As much as the inhabitants of these towns long for the same stability they had Back East, there is a mournful note as well. The irony is that the West represents individualism and freedom, but without laws and rules, it is also seen as a cesspool of anarchy.
Fonda sits at the grave of his murdered younger brother and says to the name carved on the wooden grave marker, “Maybe when we leave this country young kids like you will be able to grow up and live safe.” This could be a cheesy scene, but Ford handles it beautifully, with the help of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. In their hands, this is not a saccharine sentiment. Intentionally poetic perhaps, but also realistic. How many of us have spoken aloud our thoughts to headstones in moments of grief? It’s a cheesy thing to do, but we do it.
There are many moments of humor interspersed as well, when Mr. Fonda dumps his poker chips into his hat, and then puts the hat on, and then proceeds to his first encounter with Doc Holliday. The scene where the barber, played by Ben Hall, sprays a startled Fonda with cologne, and when anyone thereafter remarks about the scent of honeysuckle in the springtime air, Fonda must abashedly confess that the lovely smell is him.
Later, when walking with Clementine on his arm, Fonda passes the barber who gives him a brief but very funny “I told you so” look of satisfied superiority, as if the cologne is responsible for Fonda’s success with females.
One comic moment turns in to a powerful scene of longing, and sadness, and pondering the meaning of life. A traveling actor drinks a bit too much, and then stands upon a poker table in the saloon while the wonderful Walter Brennan, father of the Clanton thugs, and his mean spirited boys, who all seem to resemble Bluto, threaten the actor into entertaining them. The drunken tragedian proudly launches into Hamlet's soliloquy.
Mature and Fonda come to rescue him, and watch. We see that Mature is fascinated by the actor’s performance. When the tired old Hamlet cannot remember the rest of his lines, Mr. Mature takes over, delivering Shakespeare’s words with simple dignity. Since we have already seen him cough into his hanky, we know that the lines about whether it is nobler to take arms against of sea of troubles, about dying and sleeping, has a deeper and more profound meaning for the doomed Doc Holliday. Fonda sees it, too.
More reminders that the West is changing occur when a flurry of activity assembles at the new church in town. Just the floor is completed, and a dance is held to raise money for the rest. After a bit of square dancing, Fonda leads Clementine in a spirited Texas two-step, while a couple of American flags flutter in the breeze. It is pure American tableau, and Mr. Ford knows that, that’s why he does it.
“Church bells in Tombstone!” is exclaimed with disbelief, another sign of the encroaching civilization.
Mac the bartender, played by J. Farrell MacDonald, who we’ve seen in a number of films, is one of those stalwart character actors without whom no film of Hollywood’s heyday could have been made. There are a number of them in the Ford gang, including Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, and former silent star Mae Marsh in a brief scene. We will see Mr. MacDonald in another bit part on Thursday in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” where he played Carney the junkman.
“You ever been in love, Mac?” lovelorn Fonda asks the bartender.
“No, I been a bartender all me life.” Not quite. Mr. MacDonald’s been a lot people, in a lot of movies but only for bits of screen time in each one. Still, he is noticeable and we remember him when we see him.
Judgment day at last arrives, and a showdown between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and their men against mean old Walter Brennan and his boys. When Victor Mature is shot down, his hanky, which he always carries in his right hand, gets snagged on the rail fence, and hangs there, fluttering in the breeze like a flag of truce.
When peace is restored, Fonda bids goodbye to Clementine with a chaste kiss on the cheek and the hope of returning someday. She will remain here, this transplanted Bostonian who was told earlier that her kind did not belong here. She is to be the new schoolma'arm. Another sign of encroaching civilization. Clementine brings an end to the roughness of Tombstone not with a pair of six shooters, but with perfumed toilet water and soft spoken manners.
It is not an historically accurate film, but it is a tidy story, well told, and at times, quite beautiful.
We will see on Thursday that though the veteran director Ford seems to embrace poetry; the novice Kazan, whose films will launch a new style of movies in the coming decade, eschews it, yet manages to create a most beautiful film himself.