John Ford is often called a great American filmmaker, but rarely a national poet. He filled space with silence and introspective breaks as well as any Frost or Stevens could, though, even when his subject was as dynamic as the settling of the West.
My Darling Clementine (presented in a new restoration on DCP) tells the tale of Wyatt Earp’s time as marshal of the town of Tombstone, Arizona, following a brother’s death and culminating in his and his family’s gunfight with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral.
Yet the film is really about a death-soaked man falling deeply in love with life. Henry Fonda, cloaked in shadow, plays Earp as firm, responsible, and fundamentally shy; he differs from Fonda’s naïve young men of promise in earlier Fords like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by carrying a weight of unspoken sadness from losses past.
Earp holds himself apart from the town, patrolling it without feeling like a member, until the arrival of sweet nurse Clementine (played by Cathy Downs), who has come to reclaim her former partner, the gentleman-turned-outlaw Dr. John Holliday (Victor Mature).
Holliday rejects Clem outright, and the smitten Earp does his best to accommodate her during what they both know will be a brief stay. They step out together one Sunday morning and dance with the other townspeople on a wooden platform where a church will someday be built.
At that instant, light floods over them, and for a moment, the couple fits into the group.