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My Darling Clementine
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that My Darling Clementine is a 1946 classic that features the lawlessness, vengeance, and gunplay typical of movies about the Old West. Considered to be one of director John Ford's masterpieces, the story mythologizes Marshall Wyatt Earp and the infamous shootout at the OK Corral. The movie helped promote many of the visual and narrative ploys now thought of as clichés of the genre, and young students of film may appreciate seeing their roots. Native Americans are viewed by the white town folk as dangerous and irresponsible. Language is tame by today's standards, but men here engage in violent, antisocial behavior, gambling, drinking, and consorting with prostitutes. (The last activity will probably go over the heads of younger children.) Kids used to quick-paced, computer-enhanced visuals may find the black-and-white photography and lyrical pace unattractively retro.
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What's the story?
In MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, four brothers are driving cattle through desolate Arizona country in 1881 when they are hijacked by murderous rustlers. The eldest cattleman, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), is a former federal marshal renowned across the West for cleaning up lawlessness and imposing civilized behavior on rowdy Western towns. After discovering his brother's death, he takes the job as marshal of the rough and tumble Tombstone, Arizona as a way of exacting revenge against the killer. The infamous Doc Holliday (Victor Mature at his most likable) is a renegade from his Eastern education and now ruthlessly runs the local gambling operation. As a professional criminal, his erudite lawlessness is posed in deliberate contradiction to Earp's Aw Shucks moral rectitude and sets up the basis of a deep mutual admiration. Linda Darnell plays the floozy saloon singer, Chihuahua, who sets her sites on Wyatt in the absence of her on-again-off-again lover, Doc. Her moral "looseness" is also given a counterpart, the virtuous Clementine (Cathy Downs), a remnant of Doc's decent Back East past, now looking for her disappeared sweetheart. When Wyatt finds proof that Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) killed his brothers, the action culminates in the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Is it any good?
This movie is director John Ford's lyrical love poem to the Old West. He manages to convey both simplicity and complexity at once, showing empathy and admiration for the courage of the Western pioneers, but also standing back and watching, from an almost god-like, uninvolved distance, as bad things happen, sometimes to good people. My Darling Clementine is willing to portray the gray areas of human nature, but still promotes a sense that despite those inherent complexities and ambiguities, right and wrong are distinct and knowable. The challenge for first-time viewers is setting aside experiences with the movie's many imitators and trying to watch it as if it were new. Ford's Old West is dusty and dirty, a place where everyone drops their final g's and the big sky shrinks men down to small, indefensible creatures who are no match for nature's power and harshness. He makes the connection between the West's cruel terrain and what it did to the men and women who survived in that world. Those survivors whoop it up in saloons wild with drunks, prostitutes, and cheap tunes. In mythologizing the heroic Earp, and casting a tough yet boyish Fonda, Ford urges that such men are the only hope for establishing civility and decency, as men like Doc, who have gone bad under the Western influence, need to be shown the way back toward righteousness.
Setting aside its many historical inaccuracies, the movie has its weaknesses. "What kinda town is this?" Wyatt keeps asking when he arrives in the disreputable Tombstone. But Ford is being cutesy and dishonest here because Wyatt has already cleared out other outposts just as demoralized -- surely he knows exactly what kind of town he's in. The sweeping visuals approve of the West's stark beauty but do so with a tinge of sentimentality and nostalgia for a simpler time that wasn't really that simple. Clementine's timely arrival is a creaky and obvious device designed to reiterate what we already know, that Doc was once the kind of educated and cultivated man such a lady would fall for. Clementine's presence also sets up an unnecessary rivalry between the fallen Doc and the romantically timid Wyatt. That the movie is named after her feels at once like overkill and also a distraction from the movie's central story. But it also speaks to Ford's romanticization of the period famous for its villains and heroes, especially in light of the fact that it's the director's first film after he served four years fighting fascist villains overseas during World War II. In a courtly manner, Wyatt tells Clementine, "I sure like that name." Ford certainly knew that names are representations of things. What's important is that Wyatt liked the kind of "good," marriageable woman Clementine represented.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how families are presented in My Darling Clementine. Wyatt is peaceably working cattle with his three brothers. The Earps are compared to the Clantons, a father and three sons who live by violence and menace. How are the family units different and how the same? The Clanton father values violence. What do you think the Earp brothers value?
The movie is not as fast-paced as current movies. Do you think the director deliberately told the story slowly, perhaps to mimic the slower, un-electronic era depicted in the story? Do you think the movie would work as well if the pace were faster?
How do you think the black-and-white photography affects the viewing experience? Since life is in color, does the lack of color remind viewers that what they are watching is not reality? Do you think movies should try to seem real?
For kids who love westerns and adventure
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